You’ve probably heard about the distracted seaman in California who was secretly caught on camera. Sitting on a boat floating near Redondo Beach, the seaman was staring blankly at his cell phone when he failed to see or hear a giant humpback whale rising up dramatically from the sea just a few feet away from his boat.
Pundits joined eyewitnesses and other observers to poke fun at the clueless man who was in fact left entirely alone by the surprise beauty -- too dull a person, it would seem, too boring a catch for the huntress craving more than a voracious textual appetite.
Sadly, the case of the distracted seaman is merely the tip of the texting iceberg. Nationwide something far more costly and dangerous is happening to civilization (I mean something besides Brian Williams’s lie and 50 Shades of Grey) -- that is, the whale of a problem surfacing daily in today’s college classrooms: texting during class.
From New York to California -- and with a frequency of up to 11 or more times per class period, researchers find -- today’s college student is texting off with wild -- and sometimes wildly erotic -- abandon. And thus they are missing out on -- and blatantly reducing the quality of -- their own classroom education and opportunity to learn and contribute.
These are not the students of Howard Becker’s Outsiders, just a few eccentric misfits dressed in black and stretching the boundaries of social deviance. No. Texter-offers are all the way in, vanilla as can be, and that’s the problem.
Texting off in class means just as it sounds. It begins when a texter-offer has the urge to text off or when he feels in his pants the vibration of incoming text or data, which might, in fact, have been delivered by a classmate seated close by to him. Even in courses strictly prohibiting texting during class, today’s texter-offer can hardly resist, and many give in to the temptation.
Texting off begins when he or she surreptitiously leans back a little in his or her seat, and removes from her or his pants the urgent object of desire. Next thing you know the head drops down low, the chin heads for the chest and hands are held close, facing inward on the lap. Breathing is sometimes halted or hesitant at this stage, as the new text is read and replied to.
There then emerge two at first very wide and then increasingly narrow and squinting eyeballs staring fixedly at the little glowing object (or the big one, so to speak: iPhone 6 Plus).
The student with long experience texting off is frequently touching and stroking with their fingers so quickly -- and with such determined concentration -- it looks from the outside as if they can’t tell that their classmates, and especially their irritated professor, are staring back at them, interrupting class for everyone.
Theirs is a practiced and deliberate lack of cognition. The texter-offer only pretends to be invisible. He uses game face, strategically, to unsee what is seen. In this she is sort of like the celebrity on Main Street who stares mainly into the far middle distance, a technique she uses to avoid speaking or making actual eye contact. Post-Facebook, the pretense of hiding while being watched is probably a big part of getting off on texting off.
Sometimes the head of a texter-offer pops up immediately, a text-off quickie, before tucking the thing back inside his pants. You can always tell when the texter-offer has completed a nice session because seconds later a little blush arises in the cheeks, a wry smile, a frown or a faraway look might ensue.
Other times, the texting-off activity can last for many minutes in a row. Intense texting off produces many strong feelings causing such symptoms as more blushing, rapidly blinking eyes, those “I can’t believe it”-type head shakes (well, that’s what they get for texting Mom and Dad during class, or the toxic boyfriend or girlfriend), and those audible grunts of frustration or relief.
Put simply, if you’re texting off in class you can’t contribute to the conversation of learning. You’re not even trying to learn. Imagine the dialogues of Galileo or Plato in today’s texting-off culture:
Gorgias: Click click. Click click click. Arg! [Types into phone]: OMG u r kidding. [Sighs to himself, but audibly. Says aloud]: Huh? What?
Socrates: I said, “Gorgias, I wonder if your rhetoric is a science, such as medicine is a science?”
Gorgias: Sorry, dude, didn’t hear ya. LOL. Click click. Click click
And texting off is a social problem in other regards. For example, if you text off in class, that tempts others sitting nearby to text off, reducing further everyone’s understanding of the invisible hand, statistical significance or another topic of the day.
I’ve noticed that even the tiniest sidewise glance at someone else texting off can cause other students to text off. Texting off is contagious. One observes rows and rows of students texting off together, like a team of synchronized swimmers going furiously nowhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t agree with those hypocritical moralists who waltz around like drunk monks claiming that texting off is a shameful act in and of itself, a sin to be managed and limited by church and state. As the old saying goes, there’s a time and a place for everything, and texting off can be a perfectly healthy supplement to actual human intercourse. I myself have texted off with great abandon. But I wouldn’t dream of doing it in a church or classroom, God forbid.
Recent research is consistent with another fact I observe: today’s college student does not want to be caught texting off. Texting off is a private activity, surveys and common observation suggest, or anyway it is something that is reserved for a special friend and time and place (at home on a Saturday).
In fact, a study of the in-class texting behavior of more than 1,000 students at the University of New Hampshire showed that about one-half of the students (49 percent) confess feeling guilty for texting in a class with a strict no-texting policy.
It’s helpful to recall what Adam Smith observed long ago in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790): that perfect knowledge of the “awful” and “amiable” virtues is not sufficient for virtue. To be great, to be virtuous, one must marry the knowledge of virtue with what Smith called after the Stoics “perfect self-command.”
“The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But the most perfect knowledge of those rules will not alone enable him to act in this manner: his own passions are very apt to mislead him; sometimes to drive him and sometimes to seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself, in all his sober and cool hours, approves of. The most perfect knowledge, if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command, will not always enable him to do his duty.”
“Easier said than done,” today’s texter-offer replies (via text message). True.
In the same 2011 University of New Hampshire survey, two of every three students (65 percent) surveyed admitted to texting during class -- a figure that, while disturbing enough, might turn out to be below average. A similar survey was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Their data suggest that about 9 of every 10 students (86 percent) are texting during class.
Until recently my own students showed enough self-command to abstain from texting in class. I’ve been teaching device-free or what I call hands-free classes for 19 years -- ever since my first job as an assistant professor of economics. For 19 years the moral economy has sufficed. No longer. A new cohort of students is texting off to the point of finger blisters, and moral shaming in front of others is not powerful enough to stop them. The damaging digital indulgence is dumbing them down, they need to know.
They’re silently asking now to learn it the hard way, the decadent way. In a prescient book, The Culture We Deserve, Jacques Barzun offered an essay titled “Look it Up! Check it Out!” Barzun lamented the postmodern decline to “decadence” he saw in what passes for education today. He called the newly educated person Alexandrian, in mock homage to the Alexandrian decline of dialectics and replacement with idealization of reference books and handbooks, knowledge as factoids to be looked up and checked as necessary.
Barzun was understandably worried about a culture educated in the idea that knowledge could be acquired by looking up facts or names or book titles in “handbooks” and “reference works” that Barzun, a Columbia University professor and polyglot scholar, found crowding bookstores and library stacks. Strange thing is, Barzun’s lament was issued in 1989 -- at least 5 years before Google and the Internet first appeared in the computer laboratories of major university campuses, and around 15 years before the birth of texting in mainstream America. Barzun would have an Alexandrian cow if he could see the look-it-up-check-it-out culture of the Smartphonean Era.
If a professor is a mere conveyor of information, a talking head at the pulpit (and yes, some professors we know are) one could have more sympathy for students who text off in class.
I’m a professor of economics who also teaches history, statistics, rhetoric and theories of justice to economics and social justice studies majors. My teaching style is dialogical, Socratic, pluralistic and rhetorical. A simple social rule follows: each student enrolled in the course has an equal right to speak, and each in turn has an equal duty to listen and reply. The professor plays the role of Socrates and any other characters -- from Shakespeare to Rihanna -- he deems necessary to fill in the blanks, reveal a truth or falsehood, or otherwise advance the conversation. Texting, I find in the classroom, not shyness; texting, not sloth or ignorance, is the main obstacle to advancement.
When I was in graduate school in 1994 at the University of Iowa, I was made an unusual offer from the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) that ought, I realize now, to be copied elsewhere: I could work 24-7 on my research in a quiet, monastic-like environment -- a private, big and beautiful office located in one of the old academic halls -- so long as I agreed to two restrictions: no Internet, no telephone. In other words, no outside distractions.
I did it, I accepted the offer. And it paid dividends. During the next three years I earned a Ph.D. in economics and a Ph.D. certificate in rhetoric, I published two papers (one of them is now a seminal paper of econometrics), and meantime raised two children under the age of eight. The discipline I started in grad school is now strong enough to beat today’s biggest distractions -- cracking out on e-mail, Internet searching and, yes, mindless texting off.
We need to recover again the value of concentrated thought. Rilke took a house in Rome to create the best environment he could imagine for the flowering of his own creativity and innovation: writing poetry and criticism. Rilke’s Letters shine with the illumination of one who’s logged some time concentrating on the words and thoughts and feelings of others, and especially on the conditions for the full flowering of his own creative genius. The result of his experiments in concentrated thought? Rilke’s poetry.
Think of National Football League player Marshawn Lynch, who recently grabbed national headlines when at the close of a pre-Super Bowl press conference, and with all cameras pointed at him, he grabbed his crotch. Even with the ball in play, Lynch has acted like a comfort-loving baby, or the compulsive texter-offer.
It wasn’t Lynch’s first time testing the mainstream limit of tolerance for public fondling or whatever you’re comfortable calling it. For previous crotch grabs, the NFL had already tagged Lynch twice with a fine (most recently, a $20,000 fine) and the professional football organization threatened further to levy a 15-yard penalty against Lynch’s own team (the Seattle Seahawks) during Super Bowl XLIX should Lynch feel himself up even once.
Texting during class and crotch grabbing are not the same thing, true. Texting off is worse, much, much worse: its losses are large and widely distributed to others, including innocent classmates.
The larger economic fines seem to be working for the impulsive crotch grabbers. For example, during Super Bowl XLIX not one player grabbed his crotch in the big game.
That’s why I’ve decided to join the NFL and make useful my own science, economics, to get the incentives right in the classroom.
From now on I will fine any student who texts off in class. I don’t care if you’re texting the pope or Janet Yellen. No free pass, no exception to the rule. From now on if students text off in class they’re going to pay for it on a sliding scale of taxes. First violation: lose 10 percent from your final exam or project grade. Second violation: lose 20 percent. Third violation: lose everything, that is, 100 percent of your final exam or project grade. Consider this first, and then do the right thing and turn off your phone. Vibrators included.
Stephen T. Ziliak is professor of economics at Roosevelt University.
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