There will be no laptops in my classes next fall. Cell phones will be silenced and stowed, too.
This isn’t because I’ve been burned by students claiming to take notes on their iPhones or read from an ebook. I went to grad school with a dude who read books on his Samsung Galaxy and am familiar with what deep screen reading and textual referencing looks like on a pocket-sized OLED. I knew that they were checking sports stats, writing papers for their next classes, or shoe shopping.
It’s not that I didn’t care enough. Rather, I think it’s that I didn’t know how and why to care. I came up as one of those young teachers who scoffed at the oldsters’ out-of-touch technology policies. Laptops were tools for enhancing the learning experience. We had the google at our fingertips: infinite extemporaneous resources bigger than the Library of Congress to thumb through, shed light, auger in. And utterly dilute ourselves, wreck our attention spans, stress ourselves out with our next appointment, fake readings, double fake note taking, all the while never speaking or listening.
It bears repeating: never speaking or listening.
Cognitive psychology and applied linguistics are pretty clear on the relationship between speech and thought. Speaking is thinking. Listening. Scholars from Carl Rogers to Krista Ratcliffe have had brilliant insights on the importance of directing our attention to others to create meaning and understanding. Listening is the missing canon of rhetoric.
I owe it to my students to offer them practice being present with each other. Sure, this is a job skill, and most of their coworkers will be off task most of the time, but that’s not my concern. I want to us capitalize on the collective wisdom in the room. Genuinely listen, seek meaning, and speak the selves we create in the moment. This is learning. I am deeply troubled by the recent attacks that both students and the administration of my current institution have levied against dialogue. As a rhetorician, I’ll believe that dialogue is all that separates us from oblivion. Bad things happen when dialogue stops to say the very least. At minimum, my job is to teach students that discursive exchanges accomplish stuff. Maybe all of us on campus need a refresher on the foundation of the humanities and civilizations everywhere.
Additionally, and this is by no means an exhaustive justification for the policy, I’ve noticed that my students really need to know that someone cares about them. This is likely an effect of the self-isolation and narcissism fueled by screen culture. One student my first semester at my current institution endured two friends attempting suicide in the same week. She disappeared for a while and then told me once the full weight of the semester was hovering over her like a tidal wave. I can’t blame her, either. Who would want to go to classes where there’s no human connection? Half way through the last semester, I started checking in with all of my students at the beginning of class. There were days when I could see the difference it made for some. Commiseration, celebration, fear, a lot of fear of the future, but fear externalized and corroborated by their peers. But there was a sense that we had joined in the collective narrative process of learning. The individual narratives bundled together to make the class narrative.
I want my students to be aware of these benefits and practice acting like they value them. Who knows what will happen next.
So on the syllabus, I’m requiring students to bring a notebook and a pencil or pen to each class. And we’ll use them in each class before, during, and after we talk to each other.
There is an irony to this new policy that I will have to iron out with my students. My fall courses are Digital Writing and Technical Writing. In both courses, we’ll be composing in online spaces for online audiences. We’ll have to negotiate the boundaries of this work: when to communicate IRL, F2F and when to productively stare at our screens. (I think I have this figured out: Mondays are for collective inquiry and Wednesdays are lab days. Done.)