It's Not Programmed Into Our Cells

Like many professors, I have a policy about cell phones in my classroom. I struggle with this policy every semester, trying to prevent their usage from disrupting my class (trying to prevent their usage at all, in fact), but also recognizing that draconian measures might not have the best effect on classroom atmosphere.


September 9, 2008

Like many professors, I have a policy about cell phones in my classroom. I struggle with this policy every semester, trying to prevent their usage from disrupting my class (trying to prevent their usage at all, in fact), but also recognizing that draconian measures might not have the best effect on classroom atmosphere. While I understand the thinking behind a professor’s policy I read about that penalizes the entire class if five cell phones ring during the semester or one that creates an instant pop quiz for the entire class upon one person’s cell phone ringing, I am unwilling to punish the innocent for the sins of the few.

My students discuss cell phones with me more than most professors, though, because I do not own one, nor do I plan on buying one. Ever. According to what poll one looks at, somewhere between 82 and 85 percent of Americans own cell phones, so I realize that the hyper-connected professors will see me as the professor I knew in graduate school in the 1990s who refused to use a computer, insisting that a typewriter would work just fine, and the students’ image of my life is even more extreme.

Some of them actually wonder how I function on a daily basis, especially as far as my relationships go. In fact, whenever I discuss cell phones with my students, an event that happens even more frequently than I would like, they provide me with a list of reasons why they must have them. Of course, the list is rather predictable, centering on making their life more convenient, especially when it comes to relationships, both with friends and families.

I understand their argument to a point, but, as an educator, I feel that my choice not to have a cell phone is just as important for my students as it is for me. My choice can teach them in ways that the assigned readings and writings cannot. Thus, I endure their incessant questioning of the way I live my life in an effort to teach them three simple lessons.

First, education and life is not about instant gratification. I understand why professors, especially those who teach at the graduate level or at smaller institutions where the focus is on building relationships with students, would have a cell phone and give that number to their students. They truly want to create real, meaningful interactions with their students, so they are on call whenever the student needs to get in touch with them.

However, students need to learn to solve matters on their own, and our providing a way to constantly keep in touch will not help them learn this. In my first semester of teaching at an institution that encourages close relationships between faculty and students, I put my home phone number on my syllabus. I have never done so since. I had one student who called me multiple times a week to find out what we were doing the next class meeting. I explained the point of the syllabus and how to use it, but this information did not dissuade him from calling.

There is a movement in higher education right now toward instant gratification, largely due to the influence of the business model, seeing students and parents as customers who must be satisfied, lest their take their money elsewhere. It has influenced library service, where many reference desks have instant messaging capabilities, and the administrative interactions with students and parents, from admissions offices with 24-hour staffing to student life officers who can be reached at any hour, via their cell phones, of course.

Students will not learn to learn on their own, though, as long as we give them this constant access. I have received numerous e-mails from students asking me basic questions, only to receive a follow-up e-mail ten to twenty minutes later, telling me that they have figured it out on their own. If they had my cell phone number, they would have never solved whatever issue they were struggling with by themselves. Instead, they would have called me and expected me to simply give them the answer or at least point them towards it.

The second reason I refuse to have a cell phone, as an educator, is related to the examples above: I have a personal life, and they are not a part of it. A few years ago, I was in a bookstore with a friend of mine, who also teaches at a smaller institution where close relationships between faculty and staff are encouraged. His cell phone went off, and he told me after he had finished talking that it was from a student in a small group that he led. I have another friend who is in such close contact with a few students that I have never gone somewhere with her and made it through even a dinner without at least one of those students calling her.

I love my students, and I enjoy spending time with them. In fact, I volunteer to lead student groups and take them on trips, and, at various times, I have had groups over to my house for dinner and a movie. Like many professors, I have developed friendships with students that have lasted for years after the students’ graduation.

However, they are not my personal life; they are my professional life. For my well-being and for their developing independence, I keep the two separate. Students must learn that we are whole human beings who have lives outside of them and that we value those lives and nurture them, which requires time away from the students, both literally and virtually.

Last, students need to see that there is a different way to live than what culture presents as the norm. My liberal-arts bias is clearly showing here, but a true education should expose students to a wide variety of views on the world; thus, we must show them lives that are different than the ones we see around them every day.

This exposure goes beyond reading Walden and discussing simplicity and solitude to actually modeling a life that is different. Many of us already do this when it comes to showing them the life of the mind that is vastly at odds with our superficial culture, but we can show them so much more. They need to see that there are professors who can exist in the world without cell phones or television or iPods or video games or whatever the latest technological craze is.

One of my undergraduate English professors illustrated this point very subtly, never drawing attention to it, but always using it. He did not keep up with the latest music, so all of his popular musical references were at least twenty years old, but he would reference classical music in such a way that we saw that it was a part of his life. When I needed answers to questions about classical pieces, I did not go to a music professor; I went to him, and he always answered them. It was his example that led me to enjoy classical music, not as much as he did, but at least somewhat; it was not a music appreciation course that did it.

We can show students a world that is much different than the one they currently inhabit and give them a choice in the way which they will live. They may see our lives as hopelessly outdated or even untenable, which is fine, as long as they see the choice. It is not our job to convince students to live like we do, but it is our job to show them that life can be lived as we live it. They may not take up residence in the woods by a pond or even give up their cell phones, but they will think about doing so, which is all we can ask.


Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University. His forthcoming book, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels (Kennesaw State University Press), will be published this year.


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