Surviving Class minus Your Cell Phone | BU Today
Strange but true: A teacher forced students to lock away their phones, every class, all class long, for an entire semester. And Joelle Renstrom’s students actually liked it.
So-called “digital distraction” is a big issue for professors (and teachers everywhere). Studies show that 80 percent of college students text during class, and most practice “high-tech doodling.”
So during the 2017 spring semester, Renstrom, a College of General Studies lecturer in rhetoric (whose teaching interests include futuristic technology in science fiction, incidentally), required the 30 students in her two classes to place their phones in a locked pouch, openable only by touching the pouch to a magnetic key on her desk.
“I didn’t care if they put the pouches on the desk, in their pockets, or if they clutched them tight,” she writes about the experiment for the digital magazine Aeon. She surveyed students’ reactions to the experiment at the beginning of the term and at the end.
At semester’s start, a large minority of students, 37 percent, were upset or angered by the policy. At the end, that complaining coterie dropped to 14 percent, with 39 percent reporting that they were “pleasantly surprised,” “relieved,” or “fine” with being phone-free for an hour in the day.
“Not only are they less dependent on a phone, it actually might feel good to not have the option to check it,” Renstrom summarizes. BU Today spoke with Renstrom, who also has an appointment in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, about the whys and implications of her experiment.
BU Today: When did you get your first cell phone?
Renstrom: Right after 9/11. I moved to New York on September 8, 2001. Three days later, everything fell apart, but I couldn’t call my parents, who I knew would be freaking out. You couldn’t get through on a landline to anybody. It took a number of hours for me to get ahold of them, and I was like, maybe a cell phone would be a good idea.
I still don’t have a smartphone. I don’t want one. I would be checking student emails from the bar when I was trying to have fun.
Are you going to take away phones in all your classes now?
Not this semester. I have far more students than I have pouches right now. I’m thinking about whether or not I want to roll it out for the spring, where I teach a seminar on robots and AI and advanced technology. We actually talk about the addictive properties of cell phones, so it’s relevant to the class.
The older I get, the more I think you do need to be able to make your own choices about this kind of thing. If you want to look at your cell phone during class, especially if you’re doing it frequently enough, it’s not going to bode well for you. It was definitely one of the takeaways: if there’s a change in your mind-set just from that limited experiment, what would implementing this in your life do?
Why do students mistakenly think they need their cell phone?
Fear of missing out is a massive one. This has become compounded by social media and the expectation of an instant response. When you ask a student, What’s going to happen in the next 50 minutes that you’re going to miss on your phone? they’re never thinking about emergencies; they’re thinking, A friend might text me and then I’m not texting him or her back—what are they going to think about that? And maybe, Someone wants to go to lunch and I’m not going to know.
We’ve raised a generation of neurotics?
Studies show that anxiety levels in teens are higher than they’ve ever been. There’s a term called techno-stress to describe the frenzy of what happens when you are expected to respond immediately. Not just, What fun stuff am I missing? but if I’m new on the job and my boss has emailed me at some ungodly hour and I don’t respond, Am I going to get penalized for that?
If you can get the message at any hour, that means you can respond at any hour, and if you can respond anytime, then you should respond anytime. Students are going to see their parents doing it, they see every single person on the subway doing it, they’re all doing it.
To what degree is this addictive behavior promoted by marketing and consumerism?
I don’t think it can be underestimated, especially social media. There is addiction dopamine-feedback loop stuff going on. Studies show that that’s what happens in the brain in people using social media. I post something on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and people “like” it or they “heart” it or they retweet it, and I feel popular, I feel like people are paying attention to me. And when that buzz wears off a couple hours later, I’ve got to tweet something else.
Your article mentioned that students don’t read anything printed on paper. Do you assign only online texts?
I put everything online. I try to avoid having them buy a coursepack, just ’cause they’re superexpensive. But studies show that it’s definitely better to read on paper, and I have students who say they know they’re better when they read on paper. The tendency to skim online is greater. You read things faster. The lack of annotation is really a problem. If you write notes in the margin, you remember better.
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