Millennial Attention Spans

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Nick Marino, our gest blogger for this week, is a first year student in the MA program at Florida Atlantic University, specializing in 20th century British Literature. He lives with his cat in South Florida, a place he finds oddly inspiring.I’m with Nick on this meditation about the use of personal technology in the classroom, even through Richard Restak’s “Attention Deficit: The Brain Syndrome of Our Era” argues rather persuasively that multitasking is a myth.  In the classes I teach, I encourage “responsible” use of technology like smart phones: pull it out to bring up a reading, research the author on the internet, check your calendar, or even log in to Blackboard.  Need to answer that text or call?  No problem.  Discretely step outside.  I’m always a bit amazed that students find even this rather liberal policy challenging, texting in class anyway.  Maybe Nick’s thoughts can offer me some new directions.What do you think? I don’t care if my students use their phones in class. This is apparently a bad attitude for a teacher to have. I’m told that I should care. I’m told that this stance causes my students to think they can use their phones everywhere. I’m told that letting them use their phones in class means that they won’t respect me and teachers do need to be respected. My attitude towards phones in class is a little more complicated than that. Not caring suggests that I would express no preference given the choice between having them stare at their books and my face or their phones. I don’t want my students to use their phones in class but, except in extreme circumstances, I will not stop them from doing so. I should disclose that I haven’t told my students about how I feel about cell phone use in class. I tried to be strict about it on the first day of class, while reading the policy on my syllabus. Since then I’ve barely brought it up, nor have I called a student out for looking at their phone. I haven’t had an extreme circumstance thus far, such as what happened to a colleague of mine. One of her students answered a phone call in class (unapologetically I’m told). My colleague confronted the student in a professional manner and later sent an email to the class stating that answering a phone call in class is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. This was the right thing to do because the disruption that student caused certainly affected the ability of his peers to learn. On the other hand, I don’t think that a student pawing at his Yik Yak feed distracts his neighbor enough to warrant a confrontation. There are two reasons why I don’t stop students from using their phones in class:
  1. I don’t have the disposition or visual dexterity to catch, punish and reform students who use their phones in class.
  2. Even if I did have the above and used it, my students would most likely retaliate by being reticent in class and or by filling out negative course evaluations at the end of term.
My reasoning reeks of self-preservation but the reasoning behind policing phone use in the classroom is not as ironclad as it seems. I feel like teachers don’t want their students to use their phones in class because it is rude and disrespectful and because it impedes their ability to pay attention and learn. Using a phone in class is rude but rudeness is subjective. One of my undergraduate English professors considered it rude and got very offended if a student yawned in class. Yawning is a bodily function though, unlike tweeting. But how much is it our responsibility as teachers to ensure that our students learn proper manners? If one of my students passes my class and later gets in trouble for checking their phone in the presence of an eagle-eyed professor, or perhaps later on after graduation, in front of their boss, do I bear any responsibility for their sorry fate? I guess what this is about is whether a teacher can change the life of an 18 year old who did not choose to take my class and may not have even chosen to enroll in college. Or better yet, can I teach them anything that has utility beyond school in general? I think I can. I’m just not sure that I can teach them how not to be rude. I agree that it’s difficult to pay attention to someone speaking if I’m checking my phone or computer. That’s why I almost never do it. I spent a lot of time and money to get into a graduate program that pays my tuition. I want to get as much as possible out of my dual roles of teacher and student. To me this means giving my undivided attention to whomever I speak to, free from the distraction of social media (if only for a given time). But I don’t know about my students. I get the feeling that what they know about apps, social media, and pop culture greatly surpasses what I know. At any given time, roughly one quarter of my class is engaged with their phones. When we’re watching a video in class or when we’re doing peer review that figure goes down. When I’m lecturing or awkwardly trying to stimulate discussion it can go up. The interesting thing about the students that use their phones in my two class sections is that they cannot be pigeonholed. A student’s gender, ethnicity, personality (that is, talkative or quiet in class) and writing ability does not correlate with their use of cell phones in class. I have students who are strong writers and who listen to my feedback on their papers even though they frequently supplement their class time with checking their phones. I also have polite students who abstain from using their phones in class but struggle with their writing and make the same mistakes that I caution them against both in class and through written feedback. I don’t necessarily agree with the belief that my students cannot pay attention to me, the text, and their phones at the same time. Consider that today’s college student could very well have grown up using the internet as soon as they learned how to walk. It’s important to recall though that internet access is influenced by class and ethnicity, a fact that’s easy to forget on a college campus with abundant Wi-Fi. Nevertheless I think it’s significant that this generation has grown up with the internet. My students probably cannot remember when using snail mail wasn’t a bureaucratic inconvenience but the fastest way to send and receive large amounts of information. They probably cannot remember when gas stations, elevators, and restaurants didn’t have TV monitors informing them of tomorrow’s weather and the latest on the Kardashians. My students are jaded, inured to technology. When Tinder came up in class they told me the idea of it without considering the ramifications of judging someone based only on a picture that may not even be of the person who created the profile. Likewise they probably don’t see how disturbing it is that social media is obsessed with garnering approval. After all, great works and events generally arise out of some form of dissent, but dissent may not get you upvotes. Of course some of my students do express how new technology has sobering effects on society. This usually comes up in their papers but not during class discussions. Naturally I wonder whether they really feel that the effects are sobering or whether whey write what I will agree with so as to get a better grade. My students are skilled at multitasking in an age that demands it. If you’re reading this blog post with other browser tabs or programs open on your computer then you are multitasking. Even if you only have this post on your screen you still have the links and search box on the side panel competing for your attention. The days of watching TV with only the volume and channel graphics as the interface are over. What’s trending, what’s hot, what’s new; these are all part of the 21st century zeitgeist in which distraction is inevitable. Our phones are crammed with apps that we can check at any given moment. If we use computers to take notes in class we’re prone to emails popping up as they come in, pulling our eyes away from a person’s face just for a second to check. If your phone is within eyesight while reading this then you are probably multitasking and not giving my words your undivided attention. I don’t take it personally though, since undivided attention is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. The days of paying attention to a single thing, like the page of a book or a person lecturing without the benefit of PowerPoint (or some other visual stimuli), are gone. Whether this is good or bad for our future is debatable. What’s not debatable is that the Millennial generation knows how to adapt to this reality because it’s not new to them. They aren’t awed by the internet as I sometimes am. My point is that today’s college student is attuned to this reality without consciously knowing it. And I would argue that as rude as it may be, students still can learn in my class even while being distracted by their phones. Policing the restriction on cell phones on my syllabus isn’t worth the effort because my students will find some analog way to distract themselves. One student who sits in the first row alternates between checking his phone and carefully sketching out what looks like tables or spreadsheets in his notebook. There’s no way that doing this helps him learn how to write English papers, but am I to stop him? Should I confiscate his notebook to teach him a lesson, as I’m told more strict instructors do with cell phones? I’m deathly afraid of confiscating a student’s cell phone given how attached they are to them and how litigious our society is. Perhaps there’s another reason why a sizeable number of my students use their phones in class. Maybe they are so excruciatingly bored that they cannot help it. I don’t believe that theory for a second.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.