When I started teaching writing at City College in 2002, I took a poll and every one of my students had a cell phone. I told them that I didn’t have one. It was meant to be a humanizing detail, an icebreaker. I explained how I thought that phones that you carry with you were invasive and distracting and thus dangerous. I should have, but didn’t, ask them to write about the topic.
Instead, I took advantage of the good feelings in the room as an opportunity to outline my cell phone policy, strictly enforced for years: No cell phones in class, ever. If I saw one out or heard a ring, I would ask the student to leave. I wanted to make the point that while students are in class, or doing anything for that matter, they should give the task at hand their undivided attention. It should be noted that there was no equivalent policy against doodling, staring out the window (in the rare instances when there was one), or staring at a classmate’s tight clothes.
In 2006, after my first child was born, I was able to resist getting a cell phone, to the amusement and frustration of my friends and family for another two years. Finally, when my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was commuting twice a week 90 miles upstate to teach, I came home one day to find a pay-by-the-minute phone activated for me. For a year and a half, I used the phone only when necessary (it was amazing how difficult it had become to make plans with someone — "We’ll meet around eight, somewhere downtown; I’ll text you the exact time and place around then. Oh right, you still don’t have a cell phone"). I’d show off my bulky, bare-bones phone to classes, so they could have a laugh at how primitive it was at the beginning of the semester, and then I’d still drop the hammer on my strict cell phone policy.
But then, all of the sudden, something changed in me, I finally wanted a decent cell phone. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted an iPhone. It was just that I wanted a phone that I could do things with, like kill smug pigs with exploding birds or find out where the traffic was in Queens without waiting until the radio’s report on the 8s or 1s of the hour. So I bought a relatively cheap smartphone.
I didn’t tell my students, nor did I dare, for fear of setting a bad example, pull it out in their presence. But within a week, the students must have somehow sensed something different in me. Requests never made before began popping up. During an open-book reading test, a student asked if he could use a downloaded version of the book on his phone. All right, I told him. A few days later, in a different class, as I was putting an assignment’s instructions on the board, a student asked if he could take out a cell phone to snap a photo of the instructions instead of writing them down. Why not?
Now I start every semester teaching the difference between the register of socializing and academic English by having students translate their informal, acronym-filled text communiqués into formal academic prose. They get it instantly. "LMAO" gets changed to "I find that funny." "OMG shes such a skank" becomes "Wow, she is dirty." The longer and more incomprehensible the message, the more I learn. How else would I have known that "whip" can mean car or that "white boys" may refer to rolling papers?
All of these experiences had only suggested to me that cell phones might be useful as educational tools to a very limited extent. For some time, I continued to believe that by and large they still didn’t belong in the classroom. Until recently, that is. A few months back, I was listening to a radio program about Tony Schwartz, a New York field-recording specialist, whose work dates back to the 1950s. I was in the car, stopped at a light, and without a pen to write down information about an upcoming event on Schwartz, I pulled out my phone and, in an instant, recorded a voice memo. Later, after listening to the voice memo, I was reminded that I wanted to record a poem I had been working on. I printed out a draft, and instead of opening my laptop, I took out the phone.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of teaching writing is reading student papers that are filled with myriad, obvious anacoluthons. The mistakes themselves are not what frustrate. Instead, it’s how these mistakes suggest the students didn’t even bother to read their own work even once before handing it in; it’s how the students have ignored the most oft-repeated proofreading advice given by writing instructors of all levels (and one I repeat with each assignment): read it aloud before you hand it in. But now, it all of the sudden occurred to me, as I was sitting there with the printed poem and the cell phone, I can make them do this. I can make them read their work out loud and demonstrate this by having them upload the file online. I can make them do this all before they hand in a final draft of a paper.
Last semester teaching developmental writing at Queensborough Community College, I gave my students explicit instructions on how to record files of themselves reading their papers, both on their phones and in the computer lab. I also demonstrated for them how fast they should read, making a point to demonstrate with a document that had errors. I would interrupt my deliberate cadence on the error, which from the snickers I could tell they’d all heard too, asking for suggestions on correcting the mistake. After correcting the mistakes, I would start my recording again until I did a reading that didn’t have any writing mistakes (as opposed to reading mistakes, which I say are fine as long as they are corrected with a rereading).
The student responses to these assignments have been mostly positive. However, some students struggle with technology already, and they are none too eager to have to use it some more. Others resent having to do more work than they think they are supposed to do for a writing assignment. A fair amount, though, have grown to appreciate how much this technique helps them -- and not only in finding grammatical mistakes. More than one student has reported that they noticed their arguments or narratives don’t make sense when they read them out loud. My own sense is that the student progress made this semester has exceeded the student progress of previous semesters.
I should say the process isn’t a panacea. One student, who has explained in other writing projects that she is at college because her parents are forbidding her to go cosmetology school, uploads files that sound like an LP sped up to 45 rpm. I reply to her postings, asking her to slow down her reading. She has slowed down some, but not completely. Regardless, she has done the work, and while at the beginning of the semester I could barely understand one of her sentences, now she is writing papers in which there are still numbers of run-ons sentences, but clear sentences.
Another student, who is registered with our SSD (Services for Students with Disabilities) office, writes almost exclusively in simple sentences. If I assign a two-page paper, maybe I’ll get two complex sentences from him. When I listen to his readings, his voice is flat and mechanical. There were very few mistakes in his sentences to begin with. My challenge of helping him learn how to subordinate and coordinate thoughts has not been accomplished with these recording assignments. Many students have become competent and confident writers.
I have started grading the papers while listening to the students’ readings of them. When the students read at deliberate pace, I have more than enough time to highlight mistakes and begin my comments in the margins. When the information from the student is clear and cogent, I put a check next to the sentences. Again, my sense is I have never gone through so many papers giving almost nothing but checks. At least three times this semester, I’ve written on a student paper, "this is one of the best papers I have ever read in this class." I can’t remember writing that once before in my two years at Queensborough.
Recently a colleague at Queensborough stopped by my office to chat. He mentioned he had to ask someone to leave his class that day because she was using her cell phone during class. He knows of my strict cell phone policies of the past. “It just drives you crazy,” I sympathized with him.
He then noticed the headphones on my desk. “What are you listening to?” he asked. “Student papers,” I told him. I explained the project and how I was encouraging students to use their cell phones to make the recordings. “I’ve finally surrendered,” I offered, apologizing for abandoning the no-cell-phone-ever hardliners.
The generous interlocutor my colleague is, he mused, “I guess you’re right, we have to find a way to make them useful in class.” That wasn’t what I was thinking or intending, but there you go.
Jed Shahar is assistant professor in the Basic Education Skills Department of Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.