Twitter is a great tool for eavesdropping.
While working on my course policies for the coming semester, I flipped over to Twitter – as I am wont to do 15 or 20 times per hour – and was brought short by this tweet from Jesse Stommel, an Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Wisconsin.
I reflexively agreed more with the reply than Prof. Stommel’s initial tweet. In my course policies I had just re-iterated my “no laptops in class, except for specific, designed activities” policy. Cell phones are banned except in case of emergency.
But I am also aware of Jesse Stommel’s role as founder of the digital journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, which explores the intersections of learning and technology in important and thoughtful ways.
I worried that Jesse Stommel knew more than I did about these issues and I should therefore check my assumptions.
I was also worried because the back and forth generated by Prof. Stommel’s initial tweet revealed that his (and others who agreed with him) demonstrated that his teaching philosophies are in line with mine.
In fact, "freedom" is one of three pillars of the course, along with making it challenging and worthwhile, and engaging in transparent practices. It’s right there in my course policies for my students to read:
Freedom: As reflected in my attendance policies, I prefer an atmosphere where each individual is responsible for his or her own behavior in a way that ultimately benefits the group as a whole. This is not an ethic of selfishness, but of self-accountability. I also believe in the absolute right of free expression. I hope we’re going to have disagreement in this class. You should expect to be challenged by me and your classmates. That said, I also expect disagreement to be handled with respect and appreciation for the diversity of views.
My banning of cell phones and laptops, particularly the way I articulate it as a “ban” in my policies suddenly seemed inconsistent with my own philosophies.
And yet, I still don’t want students habitually using their phones or computers in class, unless we are in the midst of an activity – such as database research – that is obviously facilitated by their computers.
I could be persuaded otherwise, but I believe that a networked computer is indeed a greater distraction than a pencil. I’m experiencing it at this very moment as I’ve been alerted to an email arriving in which a reader of a previous column wants to chastise me for my sloppy grammar. I am both chagrined at my casualness with subject/pronoun agreement in the piece and irritated by the emailer’s pedantry.
I am distracted. I assume incoming email/text messages/Instagrams/Snapchats/thing-I’ve-never-even-heard-of-but-is-totally-popular may have the same effect on students.
A computer screen also risks distracting others in a way a pencil does not, even a pencil wielded by a talented doodler.
I also trust the research that indicates that multi-tasking is a myth. Additionally, I’m mostly persuaded by the research that suggests that pen and paper is superior to computers for note taking.
But I also must admit that one of the reasons I am persuaded by these things is because they are true for me, and I therefore believe they should be true for others.
I just checked Twitter again.
I tell myself that I am banning laptops and phones for the students’ own good, which is true, but I can’t deny that the policy is also for me.
When I am at say, a faculty meeting, and I have my laptop open, no one is ordering me to close it. I am trusted to pay attention to what needs paying attention to.
And isn’t there an argument to be made that allowing free use of these technologies, where the students have to choose to give their attention to the class is both good for them and me? Good for students in that they will learn to navigate these distractions and face the consequences of decreased learning and engagement if they fail to do so. Those failures may be important lessons.
And for me, wouldn’t this require me to make my teaching as engaging and relevant as possible, as I’m forced to compete with the temptations of the wider world contained in their devices?
If I deserve to be ignored, my students should be allowed to ignore me.
Or maybe I should work to more thoroughly integrate the devices into the moment-to-moment experience of the class, encouraging students to socially share their thoughts using the technology.
In the end, though, during class, I don’t want my students using these devices, except when they have utility to the task at hand. I want us together, in the moment. It’s the same wish I have for myself, something I frequently fall short of, often to my detriment.
I don’t want to be a dictator, but I do want to be an aid, to help students work well within the boundaries of our human fallibility.
I am no longer going to ban devices, but perhaps we will strike a bargain the students and I, the same way my wife and I agree not to look at our phones when we are eating dinner together and should be – but not always are - attentive to each other.
I should like to convince my students – on a daily basis if necessary – that what’s most important in the 75 minutes we’ll be spending together twice a week, is each other, the people in the room. Those are moments that we will not get back. The online social world will likely wait for us.
And even if we crave distraction, perhaps we will think twice about the potential to distract others because that is rude.
My own lurching towards social media distraction is as much unconscious reflex as conscious desire. Perhaps if I make my students attentive to these choices, they will choose the way I wish them to.
Or not. I might have to learn to get comfortable with that.
When school isn't in session, I spend far too much time on Twitter, but occasionally, good things happen.
 Non-attendance isn’t punished with lowered grades.
 And I learned from a student essay years ago that doodling may not necessarily indicate distraction, that some kinesthetic learners are better able to pay attention when drawing or doodling, than not.
 Though, I think some instructors go too far the opposite direction, assuming that all or most students want this kind of instruction, which just isn’t the case. When I’ve told students that I want them to Tweet or otherwise engage with a class on social media, a non-trivial number say, “Do we have to?”