In my course policies I include the following language:
Q: What are your feelings on cell phones?
A: Deep, intractable loathing. I despise them. They make me antsy and anxious, which is why, when you are in class, yours should be both silenced and out of sight. If you are seen touching your cell phone during class, and I mean merely touching, not just using, you will get one warning. After that warning if you are seen touching it again I will drop your semester grade a full letter. If your cell phone rings or vibrates or plays Taylor Swift, I will never ever ever allow you to forget it because your nickname from that point forward will be “incredibly rude person who loves Taylor Swift more than your instructor’s sanity.” These devices have no utility in a classroom so we should not see them. I’m a very easy going guy about just about everything, but not this.
For me, the key part is this: “These devices have no utility in the classroom.”
What I experienced during a recent visit at the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program  has me rethinking this at least in part.
I am mostly comfortable with using technology, but my relationship to things like my laptop or smartphone or tablet is purely utilitarian. They are tools to be used for specific purposes like writing or taking cute pictures of my dogs. When they are hooked up to the Internet, I often experience them not as objects fulfilling their utility, but as distraction machines keeping me from being productive, their siren call directing me from my work towards distractions like ESPN.com or Facebook or cute pictures of other people’s dogs.
As part of my visit I gave what VCFA calls an “informal talk.” Mine was a bit of a hodgepodge of thoughts about navigating life in the writing world with an emphasis on the role of luck in success, and how we can nurture and take advantage of any luck that does come our way by being good “literary citizens.”
During the talk, Erika Anderson , one of the graduate assistants for the program was live tweeting some of the things I said. There were maybe 40 or 50 people in attendance, and while speaking, I never noticed, and didn’t find out until after the fact when Erika told me so.
One of the things I tell my students is that good note taking is kind of like having a conversation with yourself about whatever you’re experiencing.
Another thing I stress is that all communication is crafted for an audience that has specific needs, attitudes, and knowledge.
I’m sort of ashamed to say that I hadn’t previously realized how these two things can combine using Twitter. It became clear to me that in thinking about how to digest what she was hearing for an outside audience of Twitter followers interested in the subject of the writing life (rather than her own notes), Erika was not necessarily distracted, but instead engaged. As she said to me later, “Live tweeting is how I take notes.”
For Erika there is no fumbling with the technology, no frustration with the interface. While it takes me a good three minutes to accurately type a tweet into my phone, for her, it is as natural as writing in a notebook. I narrowed my perception of the technology to how I relate to it.
For the most part, I do very little lecturing in my classes, instead relying more on discussion, so to encourage my students to live tweet away seems likely to be a distraction. I’d rather have them share what they have to say with the people in the room, rather than those outside.
On the other hand, I’m envisioning the possibility of some limited integration of live tweeting into a creative writing course, where I encourage them to tweet insights they gleaned in the course of our discussion. If I’m afraid of a free-for-all, I could try to limit them to one tweet per customer per class, or just leave aside some time at the end of class for them to take out their phones.
Or, I could open the gates and trust my students to act in ways that they think most benefit themselves. I tell myself that I’m pro-freedom when it comes to student engagement, right up until I’m worried that they’re not going to do the “right” thing.
If I can’t stomach that much freedom, after class I can obviously check the hashtags and see if all that time a particular student spent on her phone was spent actually tweeting.
I’m intrigued by this because the in-class experience is usually so ephemeral. We can leave the room energized by what’s transpired, but once that energy dissipates it’s hard to reclaim. Reading Erika’s tweets brought me back to my own material and caused me to think about it in new ways. I can imagine that a group of 15 or 20 students responding to a discussion, creating a kind of real-time record of what’s happened and what they’re thinking about could have some significant benefit. By live-tweeting, Erika was actually practicing a kind of literary citizenship, sharing elements of a lecture to those who might be interested but weren’t able to be physically present.
But is it worth the payoff of possible distraction? Erika admitted to me that she sometimes loses focus in live-tweeting, “even in the best case scenario, it’s distracting,” she says, something illustrated by her reply to a tweet during my talk.
Additionally, the VCFA students and faculty are a highly interested, extremely motivated audience. If even Erika can be distracted by talk of mayonnaise, what might we expect of undergraduates taking a course required by the curriculum?
I’ve got about five weeks to decide if I want to change those course policies and to what degree I might want to experiment. Any insights and experiences from others are, as always, most welcome.
We can talk about it on Twitter, but I hope people will post thoughts in the comments as well: