Young people texting on smartphones using thumbs

Oh, It Smart(phones)s!

If anyone doesn’t know by now that smartphones are as much curse as blessing, they’ve been spelunking without emerging, probably for a decade. Smartphones are shaping our behavior (to speak blandly) in numerous ways, most particularly (for us teachers of composition), they are changing the ways we communicate in writing  (through the ubiquity of texting) and are disrupting how our classrooms are managed.

Though I roll my eyes when anyone uses the term “creative disruption,” I think that the disruption happening in our classrooms right now gives us a chance to improve our teaching, tailoring it to success within an environment expanded, whether we like it or not, into the digital.  Our classrooms are no longer cut off from the world when we close the doors but are in constant interaction, digitally, with the outside. How we react to this will determine our future successes as teachers and will even determine what future classrooms look like.

Young people texting on smartphones using thumbs

Tomwsulcer [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Last semester, I asked my  ENG 1101 students to help me establish groundrules for smartphone use.  We had a number of interesting conversations concluding with a writing assignment on the ethics of smartphone use in the classroom. The students all recognized that smartphone use was having an uneven, to say the least, impact on their education–but they didn’t have any real suggestions about how either they or their teachers could channel it into a positive direction and away from distraction.

This semester, I decided to ask students to keep their smartphones off their desks during class. If they need to respond to something, I told them, step out of the classroom–briefly. The second part of this seems to be working; the first is making me into a police officer, something I don’t care to be. I think I may have to re-use the “ethics” assignment to emphasize that this is something the students need to be taking charge of for themselves.We’ll see.

Problem is, smartphone use has become its own type of addiction. Knowing you shouldn’t and not doing become split from any sort of causal relationship. The itch to “just check, just quickly” becomes too strong to resist. We all do it. Lord knows, I do. So I can’t come down too hard on my students. This is a problem we need to face as a culture, not just in the classroom.

The other side of this, for teachers of composition, is that there are ways we can turn smartphone use (texting, in particular) to our advantage. One of our tasks is to raise student awareness of audience as they write. Texting has already aided us in this, for students have learned that the exact same words in a text can affect different people in different  ways. One may recognize a joke, another seeing it as an insult. Any texter has to stop and think: How will my reader take this? Do I need to add something (an emoji, perhaps) to make sure the meaning received is the meaning sent? In this, and in a number of other areas, we can use student experience with texting to our advantage.

I have been moving my classroom “talk and write” exercises to a model that can slip into a texting mode, doing this deliberately so that discussions begun in class can continue afterward in much the fashion that students in residential colleges take from class to dormitory, something our City Tech students cannot do. I also suggest to them that they discuss their papers through texting, trying things out and then copying them into Word for inclusion in papers. We talk, too, about the dangers of this and move into concerns about academic integrity.

Last week, I asked my students in each class how many texts they sent each day (as I recounted  in my last post) in order to get them to start to consider that writing itself isn’t the task they imagine. They discussed the different contexts of sitting down to a blank screen for an assignment and picking up a conversation with a friend. This, I hope, will make it easier a little  down the road in the course when we start talking about different demands from different types of writing tasks.

While I haven’t yet reached any sort of clarity on how best to approach either the bad or the good of smartphones, I am trying. We all should be. And we should be beginning to pool what we are learning. Eventually, effective approaches will make themselves clear.

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