Forcing students to part with their phones and laptops and confining them to a classroom to read Nietzsche or Sartre for four hours doesn’t seem the best way to win over students at your new university. However, that’s exactly what David Peña-Guzmán, an assistant professor in humanities at San Francisco State University, has done – and it appears to have been a success.
Every other week, students signed up to the class “The Reading Experiment: The Power of the Book”, are given a short introduction to the day’s work and then asked to put their phones in a bag. They then read for four hours – with short breaks every 55 minutes – before an hour-and-a-half discussion about the reading material.
Dr Peña-Guzmán said that he designed the unique class to counteract the distracting effects of technology and to help students “reignite their love of attentive reading”.
Dr Peña-Guzmán told Times Higher Education that he did so after noticing how technology was increasingly affecting his own reading habits. “It’s now so easy to pick [your phone] up and check for messages or alerts and I realised that would be affecting students too,” he said.
There is one piece of technology in the classroom: a white noise machine to remove outside noise. “It’s about a distraction-free environment; I incorporate technology that is conducive and confiscate what is not conducive,” he said.
Dr Peña-Guzmán said that he had been surprised at how students had taken to the class. “A couple of times after the class introduction I’ve forgotten to collect their phones, and every time they remind me,” he said. Some students have even asked how to recreate the environment at home. He admitted, however, there is some self-selection bias because students who like to read are more likely to choose the class.
The concept is important because students are typically not taught to read any more, according to Dr Peña-Guzmán. “We simply assume that reading is something [students] mastered when they were five or six…they aren’t being asked to reflect upon their reading habits and what it means to read attentively, intentionally, and purposively,” he said.
Dr Peña-Guzmán, a philosopher, explained that the course’s theme, existentialism, fitted well with the self-reflection that the class design forced students into.
Other faculty at San Francisco State have expressed interest in replicating the experiment, Dr Peña-Guzmán said.
“It’s important to be honest about why you are conducting this class in this way from the beginning,” he explained. “It’s not about not trusting them, it’s not arbitrarily taking their phones…the format is motivated by concern [over] the ever-increasing influence of technology in our everyday lives – and I am implicated in that too. I give up my phone as well.”
Academics and university leaders will discuss how universities can encourage innovative teaching and learning practices at Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, which is taking place at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada, from 4-6 June.