Class without phones

Best in class, part 1

Last September, for the first time, I collected cell phones at the beginning of each class.

I’ve always banned phones, but a phone ban without an enforcement mechanism is like a trade agreement without an enforcement mechanism. It’s not a ban.

When you ban cell phones things start off well enough, but one by one the phones make their appearance, and pretty soon you’re staring at the tops of people’s heads instead of into their eyes. You tell students to put their phones away and they do, but once they’ve broken the ban there’s no turning back. Before you know it, you’re spending your time monitoring cell-phone use while also trying to teach college composition and gin up classroom discussion of the readings. It’s miserable.

It’s so miserable, in fact, that two years ago I considered quitting. Over cell phones.

That may sound crazy. It sounds slightly crazy to me, and I lived it. Why should cell phones bother me enough to make me think of leaving my job? I love my job!

One thing’s for sure: I’m not alone. This fall I was in touch with a new high school teacher who, not too far into her first semester, was also thinking of quitting … over cell phones. (That story has a happy ending, so back to it later.)

Face-to-face beats face-to-phone  

For some reason, cell phones in the classroom are much more distracting and distressing than, say, two students flirting and goofing off in the back row, which is the kind of thing you deal with when students aren’t staring at their phones.

Normal, face-to-face disruption, not face-to-phone. That’s what I want.

A return to regular order.


I think cell-phone use inside the classroom may trigger emotions that are basically impossible to resist because they’re too primal. 

Some years back I came across the claim that shunning is one of the most devastating punishments that can be inflicted on a human.

Does cell-phone use inside a classroom tap into that? Do our unconscious minds see it as punishment?

I also remember reading that people fear public speaking more than death. That factoid (I think it actually is a factoid) used to make the rounds because people thought it was funny.

Why would anyone fear public speaking more than death? 

One theory held that public speaking, which of necessity involves many other humans staring directly at you, triggers an ancestral memory of what it’s like to have a pack of wolves staring directly at you. Modern humans remember what it was like to be  prey.

Maybe cell phones in the classroom are the flip side of public speaking. If it’s terrifying to have a crowd of strangers staring at you, by the same token it’s unnerving to have a crowd of students you like and care about not staring at you.

It’s a possibility.

And see:
Cell phone agonistes

8 thoughts on “Class without phones

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