Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.

Teaching and Texting

Starting five or so years ago, the student teachers I work with really started wrestling in earnest with what to do about their students’ cell phones that started bubbling up in secondary school classrooms everywhere.

Despite a range of school-wide “no cell phones in class” policies, the typical secondary student continues to send over 3,000 texts a month from behind textbooks and under desks.

Now, some of my twenty-something student teachers, who’ve come of age during this era of inveterate texting, are doing it in my classes. As a result, we’re at the point where many texting school administrators are asking texting teachers to enforce no cell phone policies. And they wonder why they aren’t making any headway.

A first year writing student of mine told me that he and his football teammates recently volunteered in an elementary classroom near campus. He was amazed at the way the teacher capitalized on their help—by texting away on her cell phone throughout their entire time with her students.

Consider two contrasting texting schools of thought. One is the “embrace change, why fret about new forms of communication” school. These people point out that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube and that interpersonal communication has been forever changed. Within schools the onus is on educators to adapt to this new, permanent reality. Work with not against incessantly wired young people. In fact, figure out how to use texting, cell phones, Facebook, and social networking for academic purposes within the classroom. To do otherwise is to risk becoming even more irrelevant.

While I’m sympathetic to that argument, I embrace a “model for and teach young people how to use cell phones and related personal technologies so that face-to-face interactions aren’t indelibly compromised” school of thought that’s really more about electronic etiquette writ large than just texting in schools. I’m not willing to take a laissez-faire, “texting in classrooms is way too pervasive to do anything about” approach.

When it comes to assessing my graduate student teachers’ class participation and professionalism, I ask them to help me assess themselves on these eight points:

1) I was prompt and attended each session.

2) I communicated as far in advance as possible about any class time missed.

3) My cell-phone never distracted anyone.  It never rang and I never text messaged during class.  I didn’t surf the net or catch up on email on my laptop.

4) I was careful not to dominate discussions.  I listened carefully to others and was attentive during my peers’ presentations and class discussions more generally.

5) My questions and comments often deepened class discussions.

6) I was conscious of others’ learning and purposely contributed to positive group dynamics.

7) [If applicable] I directly and constructively communicated any concerns I had during the course.

8) The course was better than it otherwise would have been as a result of my participation.

The most recent student I asked to stop texting could have argued that despite her texting, she’s excelling at 7.5 of the 8 points, so what’s the big deal. The big deal is this half point, “I listened carefully to others and was attentive during my peers’ presentations and class discussions more generally.”

She did argue that she’s a skilled multitasker and that she has no problem keeping up with everything. She’s unaware of recent neurological research that shows there is a clear multitasking cost in terms of divided attention.

For me there’s two issues, divided attention, and most importantly, eye contact is integral to a successful seminar. I design and teach the seminar to help students realize, for some of them for the first time ever, that they can in fact learn from one another. For that to happen though, they have to continuously and conscientiously track whomever is speaking. No matter how skilled the texter, texting inevitably compromises that.

It’s fascinating to me that each of this semester’s texters had no clue I was aware of their texting. One seminar has ten students, the other sixteen, and we sit around an oval table. As a result, it’s extremely easy to detect because heads dip and eyes go straight down.

I wonder what percentage of my students would say I should just chillax about in-class texting. I’m hopeful it would be a minority and that the majority appreciate my efforts to preserve the classroom as one of the last bastions of direct, eye-to-eye, interpersonal communication.