I have a confession: I am writing this essay while attending a presentation. Normally, I give a speaker my full attention, but there are many people here, so it is easy to miss that I am doing something other than listening. Besides, I am still paying attention (for the most part). The speaker is giving us an update on our university’s shuttle schedule.
As I write this, I think of students in my classes who are obviously on their computers doing something other than, or in addition to, listening to me. Should I be offended? Should I do something to discourage such activity? I have decided, at least for now, to do nothing.
This question of whether to reprimand students for being on their computers or texting in class was brought to the foreground of my thoughts yesterday during a meeting. Four of us professors had gathered to discuss course objectives, but, once we had finished, we got into a venting session about students using technology unnecessarily during class. My colleagues were understandably aggravated with such usage. One professor had caught a student shopping online (for shoes). My colleagues commiserated and exchanged approaches for dealing with these acts of rudeness, such as by scolding the student or closing students’ laptops when walking by them while lecturing.
Because I was not saying anything, one of my colleagues asked, “Dave, do you run into this problem?”
“What do you do about it?”
Frankly, students’ being on their computers or texting does not faze me. This may be because, before I was a professor, I was a parish pastor for 17 years. Sunday after Sunday, I preached while people nodded off or babies screamed (and screamed, and screamed). Who knows how many parishioners were actually paying attention and how many were texting, making grocery lists, or passing notes? I could not monitor all that. I did my best to prepare engaging, relevant sermons. If people chose not to pay attention, I could not help that.
I have the same attitude in the classroom. I am an excellent lecturer. If students opt not to pay attention during my lectures, I am disappointed but not angry. I do my part; it is up to them to do theirs. From what I have heard from my colleagues, the policing of students is more aggravating than worthwhile, and with 173 students in five classes, I simply do not have the time and energy to be disciplining students for not giving me their undivided attention. Besides, just as I was able to start this essay during a meeting and am able to work at home while the TV is on (although it is hard to multitask during The Good Wife), at least some students can probably pay attention to me while doing something else (one student used to knit during class.).
“But Dave, what will happen when these students get into the job market and they are, say, not paying attention during meetings?” Granted, part of our role as educators is to prepare students to be effective in the workplace, including regarding technology etiquette. So I will warn my classes against the dangers of rudely using technology. If a student is using technology in a way that disrupts the class, I will politely but firmly talk to her or him in private (I have found that approach to work, most of the time). As for singling out and scolding students regarding poor technology etiquette, I am going to do that as little as possible.
I worked on this essay for only 10 minutes of a presentation that ran almost an hour. I decided that it was unprofessional of me to engage in another task during a presentation. I hope that my students show me the same courtesy, and most of them will. In any case, I will simply keep on teaching.
Author Bio: David von Schlichten is an assistant professor of religious studies at Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania.