• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


New Cell Phone/Computer Policy Draft Version

I don't want cell phones in class, but I'm seeking agreement, rather than banning by fiat.

August 14, 2014
In the wake of  my previous post about rethinking my policies regarding phones and computers in the classroom, I spent a good chunk of yesterday rewriting them. I include them here in draft format.


Some notes:

1. My old policies simply banned them by fiat. I explained why in the same manner I utilize below, but there was no real “choice” in the matter. The Q&A format is how I do my entire course policies document.

2. My hunch is that these policies will have the same effect as my previous bans in that the students will understand that the instructor doesn’t exactly approve of the use of the devices during class, and in an effort to please the instructor, they will follow the rules. I’m not sure that necessarily accomplishes my goal of students experiencing and practicing freedom, but maybe it’s a step in the right direction. I should also note these are small classes, no more than 20 students and almost exclusively freshmen.

3. I am intrigued by a technique commenter mburke73 added in the comments to yesterday’s posts, where the course policies are the result of a collaborative class discussion. It’s a process I’d like to try someday, but I don’t feel adequately prepared to put it into practice with the semester starting so soon. Another hunch is that a classroom discussion would develop policies considerably similar to what I have below except they would likely make them more punitive.


4. My attendance policy (I do not punish grades over specific numbers of absences) does give me some reassurance that perhaps these changes are a move towards freedom. Students really can opt out of class. They will likely do horribly because they’re so ill-prepared for the assignments, but their grades aren’t torpedoed directly by missing class.

All thoughts are welcome. As I say, they’re a work in progress. School starts Tuesday.



Q: What are your feelings on phones?

A: Like seemingly everyone else, I have a smart phone. It is both a godsend and the worst thing that ever happened to me.

I find myself looking at my phone when I know I “shouldn’t,” almost as an unconscious reflex. It might be when my wife is trying to tell me something, or in a boring faculty meeting when someone’s talking about something that doesn’t seem to pertain to me, but I actually really need to know, after which I look up with panic in my eyes as I’m sure I missed something important, but am too embarrassed to ask what it was.

Sometimes I don’t even know why I look at it, other than it is there and it’s possible someone said something interesting on Twitter, or there might be a new comment on something I’ve published on the Internet. It is an unconscious reflex.

I am one of Pavlov’s dogs, drooling at the ringing of a bell.

What I do know, is that most of my smart phone behavior is not productive or beneficial to me, and yet I do it anyway. Such is my flawed human nature. I also firmly believe that the use of smart phones during class is almost certainly not to your benefit. They have almost no utility and primarily work as a distraction, even when we don’t necessarily want to be distracted.

My hope is that you believe strongly enough in the purposefulness of your own education and the value of the class as part of it that you do not want to look at your phone, even if you experience the occasional Pavlovian urge to check it. If you do hold these beliefs, then my suggestion and request is that you silence your phone and stow it away at the start of each class period.

To help with this, at the start of each period, I will remind you of this choice.

Additionally in the interests of common courtesy and not distracting your colleagues or me, if you find yourself in need of your phone (perhaps in the case of an emergency), you can feel free to excuse yourself from the class and do what you need to do in the hallway.

If I see you using your phone extensively in class, I may briefly interrupt and ask if you “need to take that outside.” I am not kicking you out of class, but reminding you of your choice to either engage in the communal work of the class, or engage with your cell phones.

I feel similarly about something like doing homework for another class or studying for a test during our class period. Both of these things are relatively common. I notice them, other students notice them, and they are often a distraction. If you believe that studying for a test or doing homework for another class is what you need to be doing during our scheduled class period, I encourage you to make the choice is most beneficial to you, but choose you must.

You will be subject to any consequences of that choice, but such is life for all of us.

Q: What about computers?

A: Computers are significantly more likely to have utility in the classroom, but they are drivers of distraction, as I well know, since I spend much of my non-teaching days in front of a screen trying to be productive, but also farting around on the Internet for far too much of the time

In order to combat these tendencies, I make use of “Self-Control” software (irony alert) which blocks me from accessing certain websites for a set period of time. I find this tool necessary to complete my work. I find this admission somewhat shameful, but it’s the truth.

With the exception of some specifically-designed activities, when I will request that you bring your computers to class, I suggest that having your computer open during class is, by and large, not likely to be productive. One reason is that the course has very little lecture and is primarily discussion and activity-based. You will not need to capture vast reams of information in your notes. When there is lots and lots of information that you should have, I will either provide handouts, or share the relevant PowerPoint slides. The notes you will take in class are the thoughts and ideas you’re having about what we’re discussing, your responses to the material, not a transcription of what I’m saying. If you’re trying to get down every last word, odds are you’re not leaving room for your brain to engage with the substance of the discussion and contribute your own ideas.

Research indicates that pen and paper is a superior technology for this kind of activity, so I encourage you to use it.

Plus, most of the desks in our classrooms are so small, there isn’t room for anything other than a computer, and things get awkward when you have to do non-computer-based activities.

Am I banning you having your computer open during class? I guess not. I am asking you to be honest with yourselves as to why you have it open, the same way I must confront my own choices when I turn on my Self-Control software.

If you do have your computer open and you are engaging in behavior that is distracting to others, just as with the phone, I will ask you to make the choice to end the distraction, or take the distraction outside.


I never check Twitter in class. I swear.




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