Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

You’re Fooling Yourselves

Dear Students,
You may think we don’t see you texting during class. You may think you’re being slick with your hand(s) below the edge of your desk, or with one arm dropped down by your side, your occasional furtive glances up to see if we’re staring your down yet. You may even have the touch-texting thing down so well that you can stare at us, glassy-eyed, jaw slightly slack, while your brain processes whatever urgent message you’re sending to your friends in the world outside (or even to those in the same class). But we do. Or more of us do than you think.

I couldn’t help but giggle to myself as I read this story, especially when I saw “that nine in 10 admit to sending text messages during class — and nearly half say it’s easy to do so undetected,” because you only think you’re getting away with it. I see you when you do it, and I mark it down every time, and when it comes to the end of the term when you need that half-point to go from a C+ to a B-, you’re probably not going to get the benefit of the doubt. And when you complain to me about it, I’ll let you know that you lost points on your participation grade because you were constantly on your phone in class–especially since my syllabus specifically says that you will, and since I reminded you about it all during the semester.

But you can text and pay attention at the same time, or you think you can anyway, so that rule can’t possibly apply to you, and I assume you believe that even when you send me an email over the weekend asking me to clarify the assignment that’s due the coming Tuesday, asking me questions that I answered multiple times in class the Thursday before.

The truth is that you can’t do both–and that’s not a reflection on you. It’s just the way we humans are. I used to be like you. I thought I could read closely with the radio or tv on. I thought I could hold a conversation while reading an article online, or hold two conversations at once, or play a video game and talk to someone, or write with the radio on, and I suppose it’s technically true that I’m able to go through the motions of both activities at the same time, but the reality is that I’m not doing either one of them well. I’m not paying attention to the person I’m talking to, or I’m not paying attention to the game I’m playing, or I’m not getting anything out of what I’m reading or writing. And neither are you, no matter how much you think you are.

The problem is that we really have no sense of how competent we are while we’re multi-tasking. We need someone to call us out on our distractedness–like you do to your friends when you tell them to pay attention to you for a second, or like I do when I tell you to put your phone away in class.

Some of my colleagues have banned electronic devices from their classes, and I don’t blame them for doing it. I haven’t, because I think it’s just as valuable for you to learn how to control your impulses as it is to listen to what I have to say, and when you don’t control them, your grades suffer as a result. That’s the case whether we’re talking about texting in class or partying the night before a paper is due.

i should clarify something here. You probably are getting away with it in some of your classes–those massive lecture classes where you don’t have any real contact with the professor, for example. And I’ll be frank here–I didn’t like those classes when I was an undergrad, and I don’t think they’re very sound pedagogically speaking on the whole. But those are the kinds of classes where you really need to be paying attention (unless you’re teaching yourself out of the book, in which case, good job) because you’re not going to get one-on-one instruction from a professor who actually knows your name and what your weaknesses are.

But if you’re in a class of 25 in a small room, your teacher knows you’re texting. We’re not blind. We’re just not going to hold your hand and make sure you succeed. You’re in college now. Time to handle your own business.


November 27, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I would add that I feel it is beneath me to actually tell adults to put their phones away in my class, and that, while I do occasionally do it, I am much more likely to just go to my attendance sheet at the end of class and put “phone 😦 ” next to their names and let it kick their asses when I add it up at the end of the semester, because while telling people to not be idiots is beneath me, punishing them for being idiots is certainly not.

    Comment by amy | November 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. I was an older student, and I can tell you it is nearly as distracting to some of the students around the person texting as it is for the one doing it. I learned that even though it wasn’t my preference, I had to sit in one of the front rows in my classes because I had a better chance of avoiding the constant clicking away at the next desk. I agree people should be taught to learn how control their impulses, but when they don’t it isn’t fair to the other students around them. And I can tell you I shot my fair share of mean mother looks when it went on too long.

    Comment by Lou | November 27, 2010 | Reply

  3. Brian: I could not agree more with this commentary. I’ve inserted a statement in my syllabus, and while it hasn’t prevented texting, I feel more comfortable not having to stop the class to discourage it anymore: “Texting, checking email, studying notes from another course, and/or working a crossword puzzle during class, etc., are all unacceptable behaviors, and my having to ask you to refrain in class is a distraction as well, so consider yourself politely forewarned. It’s not my responsibility to ask you to refrain from these activities as I note the lack of engagement with the class.”

    Comment by Amy Newman | November 27, 2010 | Reply

    • Amy (seen above) and I have a policy where we can mark a student as absent if they’re texting or otherwise online during class, and given that our classes tend to have hard limits on allowable absences (department policy), it’s a pretty heavy stick we’re able to wield.

      Comment by Brian | November 27, 2010 | Reply

      • Actually, I don’t feel like I can fail a student for texting. The worst I can do is take that attendance/participation grade way way down to somewhere between 50% and zero, and the zero only happens with the really offensive ones who persist in the face of all my warnings (who are therefore of course the ones who think I can’t see them at all) and then expect me to repeat the entire lecture to them via email before the essay’s due because they “don’t understand” (yes, dear, you don’t understand because you were texting furiously during the part of life where helpful me was, how boring, explaining it to you), but you reap what you sow, and that’s what you get for disrespecting people who have power over you. It is just.

        Comment by amy | November 27, 2010

      • Perhaps they ought be marked ‘absent-minded?’

        Comment by BenjaminTheAss | November 27, 2010

  4. It is equally as distracting for us, the other students when this occurs. However, my BIGGEST pet peeve…is folks pretending to be taking notes on their computers who are actually surfing the net or on Facebook. I currently have two classes where this is a problem and it is very disrespectful and disruptive to me (a person who is there because I WANT to be there and am paying with hard earned money rather than loans or mommy and daddy) and the Professor.

    Comment by Suanja | November 27, 2010 | Reply

  5. I have to say that I totally agree. This is turning into a big problem in secondary schools. Not so much in regards to “texting”, but when dealing with academic dishonesty. Most teachers are lax when it comes to students text messaging, but they are finding that students are using their phones to cheat on exams. Some have even taken photos of exams, and sent it to friends that take the class later in the day. Some even have taken photos of their notes, and left the phone on in their lap while taking exams. I agree with your participation approach, but it may be more severe.

    Comment by Seth | November 30, 2010 | Reply

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