Text messaging is no help to thinking inside the classroom

One of the things that college teachers do during the apparently luxurious lull between the end of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring is to think about what to do differently when the new faces show up in their classrooms in January.

And I’ve been thinking about … cell phones. They’re a much bigger presence in the college classroom than one might have imagined just a few years ago. Left to their own devices, students would use them in classrooms just as they do elsewhere — that is, incessantly.

A few college teachers, overwhelmed by the inevitable, allow their students to text freely on their cell phones during class. After all, according to one survey, 10 percent of college-age students think it’s okay to text during sex; what chance is there of curbing the urge to connect during, say, a discussion of Beowulf?

Still, I suspect that most college teachers resist, maintaining that some social circumstances — church, funerals, sex acts, college classrooms — still call for the kind of focused attention that excludes outside connections, if only briefly.

This is a hard sell with modern students. Most of them would be justifiably disconcerted if their professor took a call during class, but it’s hard for them to imagine disconnection from their own electronic world for as long as an hour. In fact, many of them can’t tolerate it at all.

My college-age nieces assure me that a good texter can rest her hand inconspicuously within her purse and send one-handed texts to any number of friends without betraying the slightest sign of diverted attention. Most classroom texters aren’t that adept, however, and texting is often obvious.

Stop me if I overstate this, but the struggle to achieve and maintain students’ attention to ideas that will never be as interesting, immediate and seemingly relevant as those that emerge from an electronic device has reached a crisis.

As an old-fashioned liberal, naturally I turn to Washington for help. None is forthcoming. In fact, the new House of Representatives, which convenes this month, recently made rule changes that permit previously forbidden cell phones and personal computers on the House floor. If the representatives that we elect to deal with the weightiest matters of governance are able to consult their iPods and BlackBerrys in the midst of their deliberations, who am I to bar their use in my humble classroom?

Still, I think I’ll try, at least for another semester or two. Despite the systematic shortening of our national attention span, colleges, conservative by nature, continue to ask students to do things — reading and writing, for example — that call for focused attention and concentration.

Not everyone agrees with me on this, but distraction is the mortal enemy of the kind of extended linear thinking that underpins good reading and writing. Modern students are as smart as ever, but many of them aren’t great readers and writers, partly because they haven’t practiced these skills very much.

Our culture is no longer organized along lines that encourage undistracted focus on a single idea for a prolonged period of time. Perhaps a college classroom could be one of those rare venues, where students experience an uncommon encounter with depth and extended time that is nearly unheard of in everything else they do. It couldn’t hurt to try it.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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