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Is there texting in this class?

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When I read articles like the one Margaret Soltan linked to about texting in class, I can’t help but be thankful that I once took—and took to heart what I learned in—a course on feminist pedagogy. I’m not going to address whether I consider circling up my students a challenge to patriarchal devaluations of “space” and “emptiness” as indicative of the “lack” and “void” of femaleness, because there’s too much psychoanalytic clutter in both the theories of how repression works and how it can be resisted; instead, I’ll focus on the simple fact that a modified circle presents more opportunities to hold students accountable for their classroom behavior. I write “modified” because the visual nature of my material requires regular use of a projection system, meaning my students arrange themselves in a horseshoe and I move between the lectern at the left heel and an adjacent desk.

Point being, there are very few moments when everyone, myself included, can’t see what everyone else in the class is doing. Of course, I teach a small writing class in which such mutual surveillance of the sort is possible, whereas the classes in which texting has become a problem are more likely to be like those of

Laurence Thomas, a popular philosophy professor whose courses have waiting lists, [who] walked out on his class of nearly 400 students last week when he caught a couple of students fiddling with their phones instead of paying attention to him.

It’s impossible to police 400 students, and I admire the fact that Dr. Thomas is not only paying attention, but that he cares enough to walk out of his class. I have a feeling the same can’t be said of those who teach, for example, similarly large “lectures” consisting of canned PowerPoints from textbook companies. The students have no incentive not to text, because the material on the screen is identical to the material in their outrageously expensive textbooks. No synergy happens in that room—the material is not re-purposed by an expert in ways that illuminate confusing passages in the book—it is simply repeated in a bullet format that oversimplifies the material’s complexity. But I’m here to talk about how to discourage students from texting in class, not complain about the cookie-cutter education so many students are receiving.

I’m not sure it works in larger classes, but in my horseshoe of a classroom, all it takes to discourage texting is to ask them to do a little visualization:

Imagine that you are in a room full of people, each and every one of whom can see you. Picture yourself slipping your hands beneath your desk and placing them between your legs. Now, as your hands start to dance and your arms and shoulders gently flex, I want you to look at your face, the way your eyes shift from your crotch and then up, to your left and your right, then back to your crotch. I want you to focus on that shifty look, that look that says, “I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing, in a place where doing so is inappropriate.” Look around the room, now, and ask yourself: “What exactly do you think your classmates thought you were doing there?”

Everyone giggles without needing to hear the punchline, but here’s the best part of it: the first time someone in the room tries to text, their classmates giggle again; and again; and again; and again. The punchline becomes a good-natured, self-policing policy—so much so that I once had a student come up to me before class and ask to be allowed to keep his self-phone on, as he was expecting an important text from a family member. As with cheating, I can’t be 100 percent positive that no texting occurs during my class, but at the very least I’ve created an environment that’s hostile to the practice.

By walking out, Dr. Thomas did the same, which is why I’m tipping my hat to him here.

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