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Brian K. Pinaire, Ph.D. Headshot

The Attraction of Distraction

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I can't compete with their gadgets. I can't beat out even the most mundane email coming in from an ambiguously named university office the students haven't even heard of. I can't top the text message from the girl they met last night but whose name they cannot remember. (And of course no one "signs" a text message. Duh.) I can't even win against the free games that come pre-installed on a Blackberry, so it should go without saying that I am easily bested by even the worst tablets on the market. And please don't get me started on how embarrassing it is to match-up against a laptop with wireless Internet access. The closer I get to them, the more they surf away.

But of course I am not alone in the battle for the ever-diminishing attention of today's college students. This semester, in fact, I saw something that surprised even me. Walking by a classroom one day I saw a student sitting in the back row of the room, simultaneously wearing iPod ear buds and texting on her iPhone -- which was sitting on top of and thus "hidden" by her Macbook (with the browser opened to her Facebook page). I am sure the Apple corporation and its shareholders are delighted at the thought of this, but I am not.

I watched the student for a bit, wondering what Mr. Holland and his opus would do in this situation. I looked for the professor -- and, yes, there he was, standing at the front of the room progressing a Powerpoint slide presentation with lots of bullets followed by perhaps three or four words. And he would use the laser pointer to indicate the specific word(s) he was reading aloud (which was odd, since presumably each of the students was technically literate) and he would then move on to the next slide. Tenured around the time of the Crimean War, he had definitely seen his share of students come through the university. But still, I wondered: Don't you know? Don't you care? Aren't you, in theory, supposed to be teaching them -- instead of just playing with your techno-toys while they parallel play with their own?

Don't get me wrong -- we have all been there. I once had a student -- a large member of the football team -- who started out the semester wearing enormous headphones during class. Not discreet Secret Service-style earpieces; but rather the big whopper ones -- like those that Dr. Dre is now marketing, or the Bose models that business executives use on airplanes so they can tune out the little people. At first I was flummoxed; this was not the sort of violation of my "gadgets" policy that I usually see. Typically, students try to peek at their phones while they are pretending to tie their shoes or when they are putting something in the trashcan, for the seventh time in 10 minutes. But this guy was brazen; not sneaking a listen to a few beats, just essentially saying "I have these on. Do you have a problem with that?" I wondered whether he was planning on just reading my lips throughout the semester. If so, what about when I talk while writing things on the board? What about when I do hilarious impressions of politicians? Eventually I just asked him to put them away during class. He said he could still pay attention while wearing them. I said he was distracting others. He complied and that battle was won, albeit not the war.

When elected officials, policy wonks, actuaries, scholars and others talk about the increasing prevalence of texting while driving, they typically construe the problem as an instance of "distracted driving." Driving while "distracted," in a technical sense, refers to engaging in an activity (texting, eating, changing the radio station) that distracts the driver from the primary task of driving. Whether or not restrictive legislation is advisable and whether or not application is really possible are good questions, but not my concern here. My issue is "distracted learning": that is, when the activity of a student distracts that student -- and other students in the vicinity -- from the primary task of learning.

It wasn't always like this. In the old days -- when? I don't know; maybe the 1990s or so -- this was not the case. I recall being a college student smack dab in the middle of that decade and we didn't have smart phones. Or even dumb phones. We didn't have any phones. We barely had email accounts, although people didn't know too much about them and one certainly couldn't access them anywhere other than in front of a computer. And laptops were uncommon back then, to say nothing of wireless Internet connections flowing through college buildings. So there wasn't much of an issue. What's more, while there were certainly video games (exciting ones called Pac-Man and Donkey Kong), I don't recall anyone wheeling one of those gargantuan arcade-style machines into the room at the start of class. Nor did anyone arrive and plug in their rotary telephones from home. And it would have been untoward to pull a record player out of your backpack and set up shop spinning vinyl while the professor was talking.

But nowadays, as an older and curmudgeonly professor, when I walk into virtually any classroom I see at least half the students fussing with their phones, be it messaging, gaming, or just pressing random buttons. Another quarter or so are on tablets or laptops, going wherever the Internet takes them; and the remainder are either talking to one another, which seems almost quaint, or looking over notes and diligently reviewing the assigned readings. (Okay, fine, I made up that last group.)

So, what is to be done? I could shrug my shoulders, hang up the badge, camp out in the front of the room, pretend I am not aware that I have the attention of perhaps 7 percent of the students, and adopt the mantra "If they don't want to pay attention then I can't make them." I have colleagues who have done that. Their attitude is, "they -- or their parents -- are paying all this money to be here and they are adults." Except that they aren't. Well, in some sense they are; they can vote, buy tobacco, and even go to R-rated movies, but in my book the majority of them are not "adults" in the sense that they are prepared to be mature, engaged, and responsible college students. Their SAT scores go up every year, but their collective ability to think through problems, to write clearly, to read deeply, and most importantly to pay attention has declined over the past decade.

In this sense, I would say that Nicholas Carr got it right in his book The Shallows: Students today, particularly those in their first year who have not learned how to adapt to the demands of college life, appear to have been "rewired" by their proximity to and predilection for various sorts of gadgetry. Formal essays reflect the syntax and cadence of email messages or, worse, texts and tweets. And whereas students of old would have had to look through actual books to find the answers to assignments, students today are more apt to go straight to Google and deliver a response drawn principally from Wikipedia entries or something from the social media-verse. And it is oftentimes verbatim, because they also understand less and less about plagiarism, copyrights, and so on.

While I realize this makes me seem like something of a cranky gizmo-luddite (I have been called worse), my policy is this: all gadgets need to be put away and kept away during class. Period. Oddly, one needs to officially include the second part -- and kept away -- because apparently telling them to put them away does not imply that they should stay put away. I realize that at some level what I am doing is like taking all the needles away from the addict for 75 minutes twice a week -- without even offering methadone -- but in my experience an outright ban is necessary; complete and total prohibition is the only way to have a chance in this fight. In the spirit of the opening paragraph above, if you can't beat 'em, ban 'em.

Verily, enforcement is difficult. A semester usually opens with several incidents of public shaming ("Excuse me, Brittany, could you please stop 'LOL'-ing and put your phone away?"; and as we go along, they start testing security by pulling out phones during group exercises or as we watch a video. (I always find this especially beguiling: we are in a dark room -- and your phone has a glowing backlight. And it is making noises as the other students sit quietly watching the movie. You don't think you will be noticed? Really?)

But I stand by my approach. I am familiar with the position of those faculty members who are less or not at all affected by that of which I speak and I am aware of the arguments of professors who, for example, invite students to use devices in order to utilize the Internet during lectures or exercises. We will have to agree to disagree. For me -- for the subject matter I teach and more importantly how I aspire to teach it -- gadgets are distractions. Attractive distractions, I concede; but still distractions. Which is why I don't allow them: because I need all the help I can get.

Brian K. Pinaire, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He has won three teaching awards, but is still not sure if he is doing it right.