some of us are brave
I am not sure I say it often enough because research is, as a doctoral student, my number one job but I love teaching. I hate grading but I could teach all day long if my voice would hold up.
I actually do not know that I could conduct research were I not teaching. The classroom is where I find out if I know what I think I know and, often, learn that I don’t know it like I thought when a student reflects back at me something I’ve not yet considered deeply enough. It’s intellectual flying without a net!
One of the most persistent contemporary debates about teaching revolves around the use of technology in the classroom. I recently read a post from a professor who has gone back and forth with her laptop policy in the class. I won’t link it. I thought about that long and hard. But, I’ve not had good luck with critically engaging other people’s posts here before so I have, with some sadness, decided not to do it.
And it is not necessary in this case. There are lots of similar posts that sum up problems with allowing students to use tech in class. They generally include some notion about how things have changed, how a few students use technology for learning purposes, how most students use it to Facebook and “surf”, and strangely enough to me there’s almost always a mention to the sound of typing. The degree of antagonism and certainty about one’s position varies in these posts but the aforementioned themes seem to dominate.
It all strikes me as discussion about power and authority. I’ve written ad nauseum about my uneasy relationship with power. It…weirds me out. Not that people have it but how so many of us seem to crave it. The classroom, rather like parenting, has an inherent power dynamic. As a tweep pointed out to me when I expressed similar thoughts on twitter, there is no way around that. Whether i like it or not, my position at the front of the room and, more importantly, as the one who enters grades into blackboard, makes me an authority figure. I don’t shirk that responsibility. But, I do not think that power should be extended to the policing of the internal lives of students. Doing so feels like a gross over-reach.
And is that not what banning technology (and hats and gum and other such rules among college students) about? It’s about policing the internal lives and individual behaviors to conform to our ideas of what is proper? I graduated from an HBCU where we specialized in this kind of policing. Under the auspices of preparing wayward borderline ghetto kids for the “real” i.e. white world we had rules about everything from having a cellphone in your purse to what color pen you could use on assignments. HBCUs are know for their paternalism and mine was no exception. I would visit UNC, which was not 9 miles down the road from my alma mater, and I was amazed by the sense of freedom those students assumed. They wore flip flops to class and engaged spaces as if they owned them. In contrast, it was not unheard of for a professor at my university to scold a student for being too casually dressed or for not having her hair “done”.
Perhaps that influences my response to the way some academics approach the use of technology in their classrooms. I am not at all sold on the idea that enrolling in a university also enters one into a contract with professors that includes turning over all their autonomy for the 10 hours a week they are in class.
There are rules that facilitate the social aspect of a classroom space. I understand rules like not eating, perhaps, to be a part of that (although I also think that’s rather petty but I know some students take it too far). But, for the life of me, I do not understand how banning laptops contributes to the social good of the class. I do understand, clearly, how it can make a professor feel more in control and a student less.
The gist of the post that prompted my thinking on this subject concluded by saying the professor would allow laptops only with a note from the university certifying the student needed an accommodation. This strikes me as an odd, inevitable end to this kind of policing. A young adult cannot be believed when they say they require a laptop to work efficiently in class? The act of having a university authority certify the validity of a student’s need is, I know, bureaucratically sound but I still do not like it. What are we training people for here? That they cannot, should not, be trusted with their own intellectual development or personal boundaries? That they must provide documentation from some administrator for them to be heard? Eek.
I know college spaces are different, as are pedagogical orientations. I have experienced many different such spaces. I know how students flout the sanctity of the classroom space. Trust me. I have no shortage of stories from undergrad about students behaving very, very badly. But, I remain uncomfortable with the kind of blanket exercise of authority that my colleagues embrace.
I freely admit that I may be privileging my own learning style. We all fall victim to this. I chafed under paternalistic academic structures and, as such, I do not want to inflict them upon others. I understand others might find such relationships provide them a sense of security. Turning over your autonomy to an authoritative superior is very comforting if you are afraid of being in control of yourself. But, part of of what I want students to develop is a sense of their own power. I want them to exercise some authority over their personal domain. If googling something I just said in class to refute it gives them that skill? So be it. If taking back some small measure of control over their lives by deciding to Facebook instead of read does it for them? That’s the risk of what I hope to do: teach them to think for themselves.
I do not want to teach from a place of dictatorial power. I do not want the responsibility of monitoring the inner lives of my students. I actually expect that sometimes they really *do* have something more important to worry about than my class. They are people with lives and families and pressures. Some of those pressures are real, others are probably mostly drama but that isn’t for me to monitor. So, when the girl in the front row passes out asleep in my class? Sure, it’s annoying but I figure she’s tired. It happens. Similarly, if a student is surfing the web as I explain status attainment models? So be it. I’m responsible for delivering the best lessons I can write. I am not responsible for making students perform being a student.
Banning laptops and twitter and facebook and cellphones and hats and bubble gum just doesn’t strike me as things within my purview. Sure, you can convince a group of young people that you have that right but that’s a lesson in docility and power and authority and control that I’m not there to teach.