I have a rule about cellphones in class: if one disrupts us by ringing, vibrating or sounding an alarm, the owner has to sing a song or bust some dance moves in front of the class. At first, this provision in the syllabus elicits snickers, but it’s no laughing matter. You need to be able to turn off your phones and pay attention, I say. On the first day of class, they shut off their phones. But it doesn’t stay that way.
While my students – undergraduates at Boston University who are taking classes on writing and research – agree that there’s a problem if they can’t go 50 minutes without checking their phones, few of them can resist, despite knowing that this is my biggest pet peeve. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln study indicates that 80 per cent of college students send text messages during class. Nearly 100 per cent of them text before and after class. In the minutes before class – the ones I used to spend shooting the breeze with students about TV shows, sports or what they did over the weekend – we now sit in technologically-induced silence. Students rarely even talk to each other anymore. Gone are the days when they gabbed about the impossible chemistry midterm they just took or the quality of the food at the dining halls. Around the 30-minute mark in class, their hands inch toward their backpacks or into their pockets, fingers feeling around for the buttons as though their mere shape offers comfort. When I end class, they whip out their phones with a collective sigh of relief, as though they’ve all just been allowed to go to the bathroom after having to hold it all day.