Lectures and Smartphones Don’t Mix

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September 2, 2011

A long, long time ago, in the dark mists of the 1990s, I’d face my college writing class and be met by a sea of eager faces. But these days, it’s not exactly faces that I see. I’m more likely to catch foreheads tilted deskward toward a new enemy of mine: smartphones.

Much has been made of the way the intrusion of this technology has ramped up the nation’s rate of reckless driving, but little has been said about the shattering effects of these little devices on the self-esteem of teachers.

Gone are the days of the Norman Rockwell-style classroom in which a freckle-faced kid reads a comic book hidden by a propped-up textbook. Today the smartphones lie boldly in sight, ready to whisk my students into a brighter world whenever my song and dance about semicolons fails to grip.

I’ve had to battle technology before. Once, a student asked me if she could tape record my class. Flattered, I told her sure. The next day she appeared in the front row with a big black audio cassette recorder. Ah, I thought. Here is a student modeling the right attitude toward my brilliant words. After speaking a few minutes, I heard a loud click. She had turned it off. Later I heard another click as she turned it back on. Click! … click! … click! … click! … Off and on, off and on. She was editing me, as if to say, He’s making sense now — wait, no, he’s just blathering on.

Now I’m struggling again, but on a much vaster scale. Now it’s a collective, random bobbing of heads up and down as one student after another assesses what I’m saying. A head up means Better listen, this bit might be on the test. A head down means Wait, no. Pretty dull. Time to check my messages.

Despite this strafing of my ego, I don’t really blame them. A student in Norman Rockwell’s day didn’t have anything like the flat-out miracle that a smartphone is. Today a student doing homework in the Amazon Basin can log into the listings of the British Museum (or more likely, watch cat videos) without leaving the comforts of the rainforest. How can any human being resist?

We’re a jittery, curious species. We suspect something somewhere is more interesting than whatever we’re experiencing right now. Anyway, this is how I excuse myself as I neurotically check my email while talking to my wife. “There is a neurosis in the air that the inhabitants mistake for energy,” the curmudgeonly novelist Evelyn Waugh once said about New York. What would he have said about distracted talkers and texters ignoring their teachers or colliding with each other on city streets?

Ah, but poor Mr. Waugh didn’t have a smartphone.

So I’m working on my attitude. I’m trying to help my students regulate the urge to check, check, check by learning skills to control my own impulses. Let’s see, “Impulse control.” Wait a minute. Let me Google that.

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