Monday, March 22, 2010

What a brilliant idea

One of the great benefits of being an English professor is that I get carte blanche to be as much of a luddite as I want. There is very little about this job that forces technology on you. I use it, of course—I love my laptop and all of the benefits of online databases for research, to say nothing of doing library searches from my office so I know whether I even need to walk the few hundred feet to enter the stacks. And I find email the easiest way to communicate with students outside of class and office hours.

On the other hand, I resisted getting a cell phone until the first time I drove from St. John's to Ontario, largely as a contingency against breaking down on a desolate stretch of the TCH. I got the cheapest phone with the most minimal plan however, for the simple reason that I never use it. In fact, its principal function is to serve as my timepiece, as my watch was stolen out of the gym change room a year ago, and I haven't bothered to buy a new one.

This sort of aberrant behaviour puts me firmly in the minority these days, I know—and I am never more aware of that fact than on the numerous times a week (sometimes a day) when someone to whom I'm speaking suddenly retrieves their phone from their pocket to read an incoming text.

While I have adopted Facebook and instant messaging on my computer, texting and tweeting remains beyond me. I suspect that this might be one of those things that would change entirely were I to get a Blackberry or iPhone, but for the moment I remain a cheerful and resolute non-texter. And like all selective luddites, I tend toward high levels of irritation when someone interrupts a conversation with me to text someone or, even worse, answer their phone and proceed to have a lengthy conversation. But then, I've always been someone who gets similarly irritated when I am over at someone's house and they do the same thing with their home phone. When I have people over, I either get off the phone quickly or let it go to message.

Seriously. I've never understood why phone conversations trump actual people's presence.

A friend of mine conducted an experiment one Christmas. He was buying someone some perfume as a gift, and the lineup at the cash was huge. So he called the store, got put through to the fragrances department, and asked to purchase the perfume in question over the phone with his credit card. The cashier who answered him interrupted her dealings with her current customer, and rang in his sale. My friend then went and did some more shopping, and fifteen minutes later walked up to the cash, ignoring the line, and said "Hi—I called about the perfume?" He got his package and walked out of the store, noting that the person who was at the end of the line when he made the call still had not been served.

Now, to be fair, I don't know how the cashier might have acted differently, though if it had been me I think I would have at least put my friend on hold until I could finish with the person I was dealing with.

At any rate, my luddite hackles get raised most frequently these days when I see students texting in class. Some are able to be discreet, but most don't really seem to care one way or another—and it is common enough that calling every student out for doing it becomes a little disruptive, and I start to feel shrill.

Which is why this article in Slate magazine seems to me to be an excellent compromise. One of the problems with snowballing technology is that social conventions and etiquette takes time to catch up. What is proper etiquette for texting? The Slate article seems to me to be eminently reasonable in suggesting that "If you're in a situation where you'd excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you should also excuse yourself before reaching for your phone. Otherwise, go ahead without asking. Either way, don't play with your phone longer than you'd stay in the bathroom." Similarly, if you find yourself in a movie theatre or a classroom and you absolutely need to send or receive a text, leave the room. I have what I think is a pretty reasonable standard for classroom behaviour, which is that I consider my students adults (which, of course, they are); you can come and go from my classroom as you please if you need to use the washroom. In the same vein, if students are whispering to each other, I encourage them to go find somewhere in the hallway to have their conversation; if they are yawning hugely or falling asleep, I suggest that they might go buy a coffee. In the end, my students are paying for the privilege to be there, so I don't begrudge them the freedom to walk out. I do however get upset if their behaviour potentially distracts or bothers other tuition-paying students … and from what I've gleaned from a surprising number of students, texting in-class pisses off more people in the classroom than me.


Some Student said...

I recall walking in on a class late--habit that makes me feel terrible, but the buses seem to dislike me--to hear the end of a bit about cell phones and their use. I may, or may not, have just read a part of what I missed.

That's a little strange, and a little cool. Also, I feel obliged to point this out as I've read parts of this blog with more enthusiasm than is probably normal: the blog's a really fun read.

Chris in NF said...

Yup, you pretty much did. I do have a tendency to repeat myself, as you've probably noticed.

And thanks for your kind words on the blog ... I never know if anyone's reading it, but I post away anyway ...

Some other student said...

You're definitely not alone on this one. I feel the same way about people and their lack of cell phone etiquette. I worked at a coffee shop in MUN for a semester and I have taken a few orders from people while they've been having a conversation on their phone. People have tapped on the glass pointing to banana bread and have taken coffee cups, tapping them on the counter to show me what they wanted. And I don't mean that they talked to me and the person on the phone at the same time. I mean they would expect me to figure out somehow what it was that they wanted from their pointing and tapping. It wasn't common but it also wasn't unusual. I think it should be unusual. The texting in class problem is very rude, but the person doing it makes up for it by looking like a complete idiot. While sending text messages to their friends, they also send a message to their classmates saying "hey, I made the effort to come here and I'm not even listening." I wonder why they don't just sit in bed watch the Office and eat peanut butter. Whether someone is an A student or an F student, they might as well listen if they're going to go to class. As for people answering texts and/or phone calls during the middle of your sentences? I wonder do people do this because of lack of awareness, or lack of concern for the comfort of others? I actually get so uncomfortable when people answer texts when I'm talking that I just completely stop what I'm saying. By doing this, they give me the indication that they find what I'm saying very boring and they need to talk to someone else. Even if this is not the intention of the person I'm talking to, it really shows how disconnected people are from the feelings of others. However, I don't think I can blame the technology. Technology is just a catalyst for rude behaviour.

some other student said...

p.s. people are reading.

Some Student the First said...

Call me a wimp, but I like to believe the best in people. When I see someone texting in some capacity where they really shouldn't, my immediate reaction is "Well that's a little rude." But then I tend to think "Maybe the conversation they're having really can't wait. Maybe they're having some sort of personal crisis. Maybe it's like that time my friend '____' texted my talking about her problem '____' and how she really needed a friend. In the middle of my film class." And yeah, something like that happens maybe only 1/10 times, but I don't want to be a douchebag 1/10 times. Or maybe I'm an overly apologetic spineless liberal. One of the two. Either way, I try not to think "oh that person's a bastard" when there's at least some possibility that their motives are wholly innocent.

The truth is, when I see someone texting in class... that's their deal, not mine. Ideally, one's attention is focused on the professor, as well as anyone else providing valuable input. If I'm distracted by someone's cell phone, then I probably wasn't paying enough attention in the first place.

Of course, giving people the benefit of the doubt doesn't mean that I'm ignorant of the fact that some people are just being rude and self-centered.

Personal conversation's different, because if something actually is important, all it takes is the other person saying something like: "Sorry, I've really got to take this." That way, at least they're communicating "I want to talk to you, really, but I can't just ignore this text." If they can't even be bothered to say that, then yeah, they're being an ass.

I think the problem has something to do with the erupting sense of entitlement that's come along with the advent of the internet, and communication technology in general. Slowly but surely, being genuinely polite to someone you're engaging with has become less of an issue, because people don't have to deal with each other face-to-face through communication on the 'net (example: I'd like to see the guy who posted to the bit about Ann Coulter claiming that Dr. Lockett wasn't as well spoken as her say that to his face). I think that things are starting to leak over from the internet, which has become so prominent, to the real world. I'd wager that's helped in part to spark the faux-concern of "political correctness"... but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

I think Some other student's right, though... technology isn't the cause, just the enabler for tendencies that have been resting in humanity for ages.

Anonymous said...

My cell phone story in brief.

A year ago a kid was texting in my class. I took his phone and put in my top drawer. Near the end of class I went to retrieve it and notice an old cassette tape box that was roughly the same size and colour of his phone. I took the box out of the desk, yelled out, "Hey, John, want your phone back?" and then crushed the tape box in my hands. Then I tossed the broken remains out the window. This was done all to quickly for young John to tell it was not his phone. His eyes welled up with tears. It was, bar none, one of the happiest days of my life.

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