Power in the Classroom

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.

14 thoughts on “Power in the Classroom

  1. I do ban laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices, but I do not ban food in class. I teach a modern language at a large, public, urban university and many of my students work multiple jobs in addition to going to school full-time. Half of them ONLY have time to eat in my class. I don’t find it disruptive, so I encourage them to bring food and drinks if they’re hungry/thirsty. However, I’ve never found any benefit to allowing phones/laptops/etc. in the classroom. Students are far more engaged when tech is banned. YMMV—-I think in language classes it’s imperative to ban technological distractions. I want to encourage my students to interact with the other human beings in the room (including each other) rather than with people on the other side of their cell phones.

  2. We don’t even have to object to the use of arbitrary power to question the banning of devices. Maybe the debate should move away from whether or not devices are in the classroom (because they are in the classroom no matter what we say!) to how to establish norms of use.

    I love your comment, “I am not responsible for making students perform being a student.” Students were distracted before they had devices, and we never pretended we could stop them from daydreaming. However, I get distracted when I see students texting, for example, and I lose my train of thought. Does my distraction justify my setting limits on device usage in the classroom? Or should I change my own behavior–should I learn how not to be distracted by students’ distractions? Or does that give implicit permission to others to be overtly disengaged? New norms are necessary, and I’m open to rethinking my own assumptions about classroom engagement.

    1. In an era where everyone is disengaged all the time, I think part of my role as an educator is to essentially force students to engage, even if only for 50 minutes, three times a week. Again: in language classes, if students are texting, etc. they’re texting in English. Meanwhile, I am trying to provide an immersion experience in, say, French. Daydreaming and texting in a language other than the language being taught are totally different animals. I fail to see how banning food is less absurd than banning tech.

  3. Hi, Tressie — I’m assuming your post, which I enjoyed reading btw, is in response to my post, about which we spoke earlier on Twitter. 🙂

    I have written an addendum to my post based on our exchange and conversations with other teachers. One amendment I made was to my conclusion, which you cite above. It now reads, “So next term, unless a student accommodation is needed or an assignment calls for screens, I will probably not allow laptops, iPads, etc. to be open in my classrooms.”


    I’m about 99.9% sure neither that nor the addendum in general will make you side with me about the matter. 😉 But I just wanted to you know about the change(s), and thanks for making me think about technology and “power in the classroom.”

  4. I’m not sure if it’s a power or control thing at all. It’s really a courtesy issue, not unlike texting in the movie theater. I do however create a control device for power differential: I assign one student as “the blocker”. He or she is empowered at anytime to call ‘bullshit’. In other words, they are tasked with initiating a challenge to anything I might offer for which I either have not provided sufficient evidence, or if I make a subjective statement that needs support. What I find is that it empowers students who might not otherwise participate in classroom conversation.
    And, Tressie, you may have found your HBUC a bit paternalistic, but they sure did teach you how to write!

  5. I actually cannot imagine telling students that they can’t eat or drink in my class and I’m horrified when they ask if they can go to the bathroom.

    In terms of technology use, my current standard is that I understand that technology can actually engage or expand someone’s understanding of the material. I can’t even say which sites might extend that understanding – being on Facebook LCD mean that they’re looking for a link, twitter could mean that they’re tweeting ideas brought up in class.

    Currently, I reserve the right to ask students to shut down technology if it is distracting to them or others. I’ve actually been amazing how much it helps my classroom to have someone say “Krista, I found this article on Slate talking about this issue – can I email you the link?” giving them the autonomy to participat in the ways in which they can has actually made my class a more dynamic environment.

  6. I ran into a restriction like this when I was a student ages ago (15 years already?). I was taking awesome notes, ones I still look at today, but I interspersed note taking with playing no-brain games like Solitaire or minesweeper. It was a method of dealing with my ADD. It gave the fidgety distracting part of my brain something to do so I could listen and absorb the lecture/ discussion. So students who appear to be goofing off may be doing the digital equivalent of doodling or knitting, and actually enhancing their ability to focus on class time.

    My grades actually fell after the professor disallowed my laptop and I had to “pay attention”.

  7. It looks like most of the posters here currently teach, so I have a different perspective. I’m a first year grad student, and I’ve found that taking notes on my computer dramatically *increases* the amount that I get out of class (I have a tablet and am taking primarily math classes, so I’m using OneNote to take electronic notes that are handwritten). For me, electronic notes mean the ability to have all of my notes (and homework!) available online all of the time, so I don’t have to worry about losing my notebook or forgetting to bring it. Also, if a friend of mine misses a class I can email them a pdf of my notes for the day, which is much easier than having them copy out my notes by hand. I also have had back problems in the past, and I find that not having to carry multiple notebooks and textbooks (which are increasingly available electronically) around helps. That said, some students do spend their time playing games or watching sports and thereby distract others in the classroom. I think my preferred policy is for professors to prohibit individual students from laptop use once they’ve been caught misusing it. I do agree that texting in the classroom is a breach of basic etiquette.

  8. I allowed laptops both semesters last year and monitored the results. I found that students still paid attention to me roughly the same amount of the time, but were much less likely to pay attention when one of their classmates was speaking. This makes sense from a power perspective, but it meant several students repeated others’ questions or asked about something another student had already answered, which hadn’t previously been a problem. Since I prefer a discussion-based classroom, I returned to a flexible ban and explained it at the beginning of this semester. For me, creating a learning environment for the class as a whole trumps students’ individual rights to disengage.

    Like VMS, I also allow food so long as it doesn’t disrupt… and I’ve approved laptops, too, when they’re writing something in groups.

  9. Thanks for writing this. I teach in the sciences at the university level, and I had not given much thought to the power dynamics involved in banning technology.

    My 2 cents: I agree that students should be allowed to use whatever technology they like during most lectures, so long as they’re not disrupting other students (e.g., no loud YouTube videos). Speaking for myself, I tend to get bored and zone out during lectures, and having my laptop allows me to multitask, which actually (oddly enough) helps me stay focused. Also, when taking notes, I can type much faster than write by hand. Also, as you have already laid out so well, it’s up to the students to decide how much attention they want to pay in the class. Students who want to zone out will do so whether or not they have a laptop with them.

    But I do think there a couple exceptions to this rule. As VSM has pointed out, language classes work best when students interact with one another in person, and when immersed in the language. I believe science labs are another example. We strictly ban cell phones or laptops in lab because whenever students are allowed to use them, they just look up all the answers and copy them down off of Wikipedia or wev. The whole point of labs is to engage with the materials hands-on and learn by doing. Rote copying off of the internet just defeats the point.

    Anyway, thought-provoking article. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. And it’s a great comment. My only issue is the idea of “best” as in “language immersion is best when…”. Best assumes lots of constants that I’m not sure are realistic. Convenient but not necessarily realistic. As I said elsewhere if all technology is always a distraction to all of one’s students that’s a remarkable about of consistency among student bodies. I am skeptical about that degree of consistency.

  10. @VMS – I think you underestimate how engaged students are in having discussions that language limits automatically make inane. With an immersion method, you’re telling adults to interact with one another without most of their expressive ability.
    Taking away the ability to quickly check a word on their iPhone further limits the tools they have to actually interact.
    That’s just one example. Technology is a much a tool as it is a distraction, and I’ve found limiting students’ tools to those their teacher is comfortable with absolutely limits their growth and engagement in the subject.

  11. Thanks for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post on this subject. I teach a freshman writing class at a large private university, and I struggle with the issue of laptops in my classroom, because on one hand I agree with you that my students have to make a choice about how to engage with their own education. On the other hand, in a vein similar to Kua’s comment about student attention to each other, I see a remarkable difference in student commenting depending on the use of technology by other students. When students look around the room at fourteen open laptops and fourteen down turned gazes, they feel like they will not be listened to. So I think part of my responsibility as their teacher is to create an environment where they feel their peers are listening to them. I don’t think there is any one great solution, but a couple of things I do are: 1. Have two designated note takers who post notes online after each class. I also try to post photos of notes I write on the board during class.. 2. Generally not comment one way or the other if students have laptops open when I am talking, or if we are discussing readings they may have read as .pdf files, or for in-class writing exercises. 3. During class discussions or at times when students are reading their writing aloud, ask that everyone close their laptops and listen to their peers. In that context, I feel like the need for students to feel heard (I can’t stop students from daydreaming or ignoring what they hear, of course, but I can stop them from visibly ignoring the student who is reading) trumps the need of other students to multi task, and I’m the only person in the room empowered to offer that protection.

  12. Old school, I guess… college for me was about 30 years ago. Back then, it was assumed that you were a) an adult and b) a consumer, paying good money for your education, and if you chose to skive off classes or zone out in the middle of them, it was your business. We scoffed at faculty members who took attendance and would have felt highly insulted at being ordered around like we were in high school.

    However: There’s definitely a downward trend in the mindset of college students nowadays, i.e. the typical 18-21 age group. They do act more like high school students — I don’t know how much of that is due to the infamous Helicopter Parent. Mine set foot on campus maybe twice and didn’t have the slightest knowledge of my course of study unless I shared it with them (typical conversation with Dad: “What are you majoring in again?” “Marketing.” “What is that, exactly?”). But “kids today” might well think nothing of using technology in a completely inappropriately disruptive way. And eating anything more than a granola bar & coffee or water during class? Uh… no.

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