Recent articles about university professors telling their students to close their laptops and a few meetings I attended where cellphone etiquette left me feeling vexed got me thinking about teaching, learning, and rudeness.
Some college professors have banned laptops when they teach. Georgetown Law professor David Cole did exactly that and asked students to take notes by hand. Why did he ban laptops?
“This is like putting on every student’s desk, when you walk into class, five television shows, some shopping opportunities, and a phone, and saying, ‘Look if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it.”
I have no idea how widespread the growing hostility toward laptops and “smart” phones are among the professoriate since media stories and the blogosphere inflate estimates. I do know from direct experience in standing at the rear of various lecture halls in my university, however, that most (but not all) of the undergraduates in courses are checking sports, doing email, and flitting to different websites. Few seem to be taking notes.
Also in the 1:1 high school where I have spent two years interviewing teachers, students, and observing classes, some teachers tell students to close “the lids” of their laptops, stow them away, or not bring them to class on particular days.
I hear rebuttals to this no-laptop rule I hear from advocates of both laptops and “smart” phones. Students today, unlike their elders, can multi-task, they say. Furthermore, high-tech boosters say, professors and teachers who restrict use of these powerful devices do not know how to integrate these learning tools into the content and skills they teach; they lack the know-how of engaging students’ attention through these powerful devices. These professors who nail bans to their classroom doors are letting traditional pedagogy (while rationalizing that taking notes by hand means that students learn better) trump the innovative use of knowledge tools in teaching and learning. What drives the current debate today over whether or not to ban laptops, cellphones, and other devices in classrooms is how seductive machines distract students from listening to teachers.
And it is this competition for attention that is at the heart of this mini-tempest over students distracted during lessons and the incivility that characterizes many workplace meetings.
ITEM: At a meeting of a superintendent’s cabinet to describe some findings from a study that I and a team of researchers had completed, ten of us were sitting around a table. As we presented our findings, all but one of those staff present were checking email and tapping out text messages off-and-on for the entire 45-minute meeting—including the superintendent. After the meeting, I asked the superintendent why the “multi-tasking” during the presentation. She said staff had to check email to see if any emergencies had erupted. The thought that occurred to me was that if there was an emergency, a staff member would have interrupted the meeting. I thought the multi-taskers were inconsiderate but kept my mouth shut.
ITEM: A study of 9,000 managers gathered data on workplace incivility—“behavior, seemingly inconsequential to the doer, that others perceive as inconsiderate”—and found rudeness rampant. Even though multi-taskers whine that they are more efficient than single-tasking colleagues, neurologists say that splitting our attention between competing stimuli—listening to a professor and incoming email beeping—actually leads to inefficiency in completing jobs.
The illusion of being always wanted—email, social media and access to new information–is addictive. In an increasingly technological world that both insulates and isolates each of us, the sense of being acknowledged in nanoseconds by others is powerful in workplace meetings, a lecture hall, and reporting a study to the superintendent’s cabinet.
For those who agree about growing incivility, what to do? It seems to me that the first step is to make covert rudeness, overt. When researchers have asked groups how many think that sending text messages or email during a class and meeting is rude behavior, the answer was unanimously yes. Then they asked how many did email and text, two-thirds said yes. Admitting that splitting one’s attention between under-the-table secret clicks on a device and the business at hand is inconsiderate, even rude, is only a first step to recognizing that workplace and classroom etiquette is a genuine issue of machine and human competing for an individual’s attention. Inconsiderateness will not dissolve magically until they are explicitly addressed and new norms of civil behavior are negotiated and agreed upon. Who ever said that new technologies are only tools and neutral in their effects?