I am unexpectedly guesting in another professor’s classroom for a couple of weeks, teaching Macbeth. On my second day, we’re talking setting, and I ask students what a heath looks like. They stare at me and say nothing. Not sure if they’re quiet because they don’t know what a heath looks like or if it’s because it’s 9 a.m. and nobody is quite awake enough to analyze literature or summon mental images of Scottish landscapes.
I start to ask the class to Google an image. And then I notice that no one has a computer in front of them. No one has a device. There are no tablets in evidence. No phones. Every student’s place at the table looks exactly the same: giant Shakespeare textbook, pen or pencil, spiral notebook open to take notes. This is an old-school classroom. This is teaching unplugged.
I don’t do unplugged. I bring two, sometimes three devices to class with me. Every student has one, sometimes two devices in front of them. I ask students to Google answers to our questions, to check the course hashtag on Twitter, to live tweet class, to look at a classmate’s blog post. We’re all online, off and on, throughout class.
I’ve always thought that our online presence enhances our in-class experiences. But there is an attention and presence in this unplugged classroom that stops me short every morning that I teach the class and makes me reconsider.
Could I go device-free in my classroom? Would I want to?
Everyone in this classroom is fully present. Totally attentive. All of them. Every morning. For every minute of every class. I’m not used to this. All eyes on me for fifty minutes. What I’m used to in the classroom, I realize, is competing for my students’ attention with their devices—devices I invite and even require them to use in class. Of course the idea is that they’re using their devices and the connections and information at their fingertips for good, to further their knowledge about the course, to ask questions and get answers from experts, to share their thinking. But the quality of our attention is certainly compromised by the presence of devices. We are not fully present with each other. There is nothing special or sacred about this time. We are in the room together, and we are learning, but we are also in virtual rooms with many other people, and that fractures and dissipates the energy available to bring to this room, this learning.
I haven’t yet been able to leave my devices in my office. They’re my security blanket. What if I need them? I’m trying to imagine the Shakespeare emergency where class would come to an absolute standstill and no further progress could be made until some essential piece of information is checked online. But it’s hard to envision a scenario where I would absolutely have to have my phone to be able to teach. One student did ask me when Ben Jonson published a Folio of his work, and I was pleased to look it up and tell him. 1616. But it was hardly a crisis.
Leaving the devices in the bag, in the car, in the office might mean that I can’t access that photo of a Scottish heath or check a publication date. But in exchange for information, I have fifty minutes of my students’ undivided attention—just as they have fifty minutes of mine. I never before considered how valuable, scarce, or special that attention really is.
Photo CC-By English106 @ Flickr