Stickers and Trapper Keepers

What to do with the laptops and the phones during class? I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with my summer students about what happens when we’ve got all our amazing little boxes running in class: when turning attention to something more enticing, or less resistant, than the problem at hand is a touchpad scoot away.

I have opted not to “lock down” the classroom, forbidding anyone to do anything besides talk with me and each other. I figure this is the world we live in, and they, like me, will need to figure out how their always-on access to everything will strengthen or weaken the experience they came to school for. Plus that never works: the first hacker-native generation knows well that a broad wall just offers that many more places to get over (see Princess Leia, star systems slipping through fingers etc, supra). Besides, I reason, my “problem” will be theirs next year when many of them have their own students. They need to be thinking about what they’ll do when it’s their policy to set. Thus is it always when teaching education: at the root, students and professor are always colleagues at different points in our career’s journey, nothing more.

I do maintain that what we do in class – the face-to-face stuff – should not be another content feed, to be minimized until something “interesting” happens there. And that if it is only that, then the class itself needs to be re-examined, because then we are not doing “what can only be done here,” as goes a great teaching rule-of-thumb I picked up somewhere. They also need to trust me a little to know which hard things are worth sticking out. That’s something I bring that they can’t know, and they need to take my word for it until the purpose of the hard stuff becomes clear.

I also stand by the fact that being online is useful for the work at hand. I have had students email me more resources about something I mentioned five minutes ago – stuff I can bring up ten minutes later. It is amazing to have everyone working on the same question: a hive mind sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, all applied in the same direction. (And I get those emails because yes, I am checking it during class too – just like they are, around the edges of our interactions, not because I am waiting for something important, but because I can. I am in this world too.)

The other part of this, though, is that their blazing screens give me a glimpse into their lives. Without even looking, a glance across the room at the start of class reveals a still life of an impossible lily on someone’s Flickr account; another has a dense page of text, writing for himself or editing for a friend? Someone else scrolls through a Spotify playlist. Someone is on ESPN, as predictable as gravity. And invariably, half the screens have the tiny blue squares and cuneiform of Facebook, our constant alternate reality that reminds how feverishly our out-of-class lives are buzzing, buzzing, waiting for us to get back to them, or to drop in just for a second to see what’s shifted since class started. How different than what I imagine my teachers saw looking across our desks and faces. Maybe a sticker on a Trapper Keeper or a scribbled Van Halen logo suggested other allegiances and preferences, but beyond that we were locked down, responding perfectly to school’s perfect demand that we show up with only our school-ness showing.

I know many professors feel disrespected and ignored when a student sneaks a peek at a screen in class. I also remember distinguished faculty at the med school being asked by first-year students if they would please podcast their lectures, “because then I can listen to them at home 10% faster.” Their outrage was a mix of umbrage and fear – umbrage at the disrespect for the wisdom and experience that had come to teach that day, and fear that somehow their crucial, life-saving knowledge was going to be successfully ignored by the next generation because it wasn’t being shared fast enough.

It seems to me that the big question (“what can only be done here”) still holds. What we faculty can only do in class is show how our experience is brought to bear on real problems in vital, compelling ways. We can help them know which hard things are worth the work. And of course, we can share the pleasure which a true acolyte of a discipline brings to a new challenge, in hopes that the next generation will want the same satisfaction of long association with familiar, rewarding work that we enjoy. We could do better at that. They, perhaps, could do better at listening when we do.

What do you think?

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