• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Device Etiquette

Norms are evolving.

November 13, 2019
 
 

I’m old enough to remember when “left to their own devices” simply meant “ignored.” Now the meaning is much more literal.

Students bring devices with them to class in ways that weren’t possible a decade or two ago. The etiquette around devices is still catching up.

In some ways, device ubiquity is great. For students with various disabilities, for instance, certain applications can be liberating. In-class polling has become infinitely easier. Students can photograph complicated diagrams rather than trying lamely to copy them down. And those of us with catastrophically bad handwriting -- not that I know anybody like that -- can attest that the opportunity to take legible notes is a game changer.

Some of the negatives are well-known. The most basic is distraction. If I’m struggling to follow a difficult concept anyway, it’s that much harder when the student next to me is playing Fortnite. And even students who are honestly trying can find themselves falling down electronic rabbit holes before they know what happened.

I’m more intrigued, though, by the ways that the omnipresence of devices has shifted some long-standing cultural norms.

For example, most colleges have long had rules against recording classes without the instructor’s consent. Recordings made for disability accommodation purposes were allowed, but they had some pretty restrictive strings attached. And in olden times, distributing a recording was difficult. Anyone who remembers dual cassette decks will know what I mean.

Now, it’s easy for students to record classes without anyone knowing and to distribute those recordings to the world in seconds. That makes the old prohibitions much harder to enforce and raises the possibility of brief snippets being taken out of context to make someone look terrible. I used to teach political philosophy, so I can only imagine what could have happened if someone had posted, say, 10 key seconds of explaining Marxism. (“Pinko Prof Says ‘Smash State’ at State U, Still Cashes Paycheck”) Someone with an agenda could do tremendous damage to someone else just for doing their job.

Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that people bring devices into work meetings all the time. Sometimes they’re for note taking or looking things up, but most folks multitask to one degree or another. The sort of purity that some professors try to recreate with mandatory Faraday cages doesn’t even exist in many professional workplaces anymore. If anything, I’d argue that device etiquette is becoming a new workplace skill.

Part of the historic role of higher education was to impart the cultural norms of the professional class. That may sound -- and be -- sort of creepy, but it’s part of enabling upward mobility. The catch is that those norms are evolving, especially where device etiquette is concerned. People acting in the best of faith, trying to recreate the classroom of 1995, aren’t preparing their students for the world they’ll encounter.

Whether the evolution of those norms is good or bad is sort of beside the point; change happens. As much as I cringe when I see people sitting in groups staring at phones at tables in restaurants, they do. And I want the graduates of my college to be successful in the world that actually exists.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found effective ways to teach students device etiquette? Even better, have you found ways to get them to think critically about device etiquette?

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