Friday, October 30, 2015

'It's Not You, It's Them', I Told Myself

When I was lecturing in China back in 2005, I was surprised at how many students had cell phones in class. I shouldn’t have been. Cell phones, even in that pre-iPhone era, were a good way for the Chinese to stay in touch when their landlines were far from adequate. A lot of those phones were out in people’s laps while I was lecturing. I was a guest in China so I said nothing. Then in 2006, when I was teaching on a Fulbright in Romania, I had an interesting intercultural moment when one of my students wanted to take a call in the middle of a midterm exam. Of course, it was only a few years later that those situations started popping up in my own classes stateside. Attention spans wandered. Phones came out. I got upset. I changed the way I lectured in order to make sure that I was looking out at the classroom the whole time I was talking. I figured that would make it less likely for students to reach for their phones since they knew I would see them. It didn’t. At first, I thought the problem must be me. I’d gotten old and boring. Then I heard the same complaints from all over my university and all over academia: Student attention spans have disappeared! Ban cell phones now! Like everyone else, I did precisely that. Heck, I still do precisely that (and I’ll explain why in a moment), but ultimately that kind of syllabus language was just a bluff. I wasn’t going to throw anyone out of my classroom for something that petty, so rather than invoke a feeble threat, I started explaining to students how distracting their phones were when I was trying to talk and then hoped for the best. Read the article

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