It's a vxd question: why your lecture isn't as important as an SMS

Academics' insecurity about their lecturing skills has hit new lows in an age of unrepentantly rude mobile phone users, says Frank Furedi

April 17, 2008

Lecturers have always felt a bit uneasy and at times insecure about their ability to gain and keep the attention of their otherwise distracted undergraduate students. None of us likes to see students nodding off or looking bored. It is always difficult to work out the most effective way to respond to students giggling or whispering to one another.

Such rude behaviour is difficult to ignore and if uncontained can easily have a corrosive impact on the learning environment. Some of us try to ignore it and others respond with sarcasm - and on a bad day, it is possible to overreact and expose our own insecurity to the entire lecture hall. But that was then. Now we are confronted not only with the old-fashioned chit-chat but digitally assisted inattentiveness.

At first there was the mildly irritating problem of mobile phones going off. We could all have a good laugh and continue with the lecture. However, the problem is now no longer confined to ringtones. Increasingly, texting has become a normal feature of life during lectures and sometimes even during seminars. And it appears that many lecturers are having a difficult time trying to work out the correct etiquette for dealing with distracted students who are texting their friends.

Recently, I have been taken aback by the strength of emotion that colleagues display when the subject of students fidgeting with their mobiles and texting one another during lecture or seminar comes up in conversation. One colleague acknowledged that she felt both humiliated and powerless when faced with students who don't even pretend to hide what they are doing. Another lecturer told me that even after repeatedly warning his students not to text, the practice continues. "Do I tell them to leave?" he asked.

I was particularly saddened by the sense of resignation of one seasoned academic, who has opted for ignoring the intrusion of text messaging into his classroom. He has decided that it is bad enough that students are so much more interested in texting than engaging with his teaching. But he believes that it would be humiliating to make an issue out of this disruption.

One reason why academics find it difficult to deal with the digital challenge is the fact that many of the students involved in texting take the view that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. Students regard texting one another during class as only mildly bad mannered. And if academics object to this practice, students see it as an unnecessary intrusion into their private affairs.

According to students, texting is a very useful medium of communication precisely because it can be conducted anywhere and at any time. A group of first-year undergraduates explained to me that texting provides you with the freedom to communicate without being noticed by the lecturer. It can be done silently and involves only the covert or not-so-covert activity of the thumb.

Some claim that texting has become so embedded in their lives that they are not even aware when they unthinkingly check their mobile and send text messages. Others regard my concern about their cavalier attitude towards text communication during teaching as a symptom of a generation gap. It is as if I belong to a different media culture that runs according to a very different set of norms. They all assure me that texting cannot be stopped.

Perhaps they are right. But we will never know unless academics stop grumbling privately about digital rudeness and make an issue out of this problem. In the US this practice is already widespread and texting is regarded as the norm. You can read the worries and complaints of numerous academics who are at a loss about what to do. "I have encountered the mobile phone problem, which seems to have reached unbelievable proportions," writes one teacher in an online exchange between female science academics.

Some course guides pointedly issue warnings about the usage of mobile phones. For example, one academic warns: "No text messaging during lectures. It is rude and distracting to me and your fellow classmates."

It is likely that fairly soon more and more of us will be put on the defensive and forced down the path of issuing ineffectual warnings unless we seize the initiative.

It is always best to turn a problem into an opportunity. In this instance, we should have a conversation with our students about the kind of relationship that we seek to forge with one another. It is precisely because we expect the active engagement of everyone in the classroom that we insist that mobiles should be turned off.

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