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My Students Have Cooler Phones than I

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My Students Have Cooler Phones than I

Adam Bessie

As a community college English instructor, I have a problem with cell-phones.  Yes, all my students have them, even if they haven’t purchased the book for the course yet.  And yes, of course, it drives me nuts when they madly message through one of my life-changing lectures or immaculately designed activities, or when “Shorty Want a Thug” thumps out of a phone, slashing the sacred silence of a quiz.

And while these are all annoyances, this isn’t my main problem.  No, the problem is that my students have much cooler phones than I.   They don’t have little clunkers, or hand-me down’s – no mom’s mini-van in the pocket.  Rather, many seem to be packing a Lexus: a $400 iPhone with instant access to YouTube and GPS, a BlackBerry with a professional keypad, a Helio with more megabytes for music than I have on my home computer.  In fact, it’s as if each student has a friggin’ super-computer in her pocket – and one that looks damn good, to boot.

By contrast, when I pull my phone out to check the time, a snicker travels around the room faster than a text message. It’s small – but not cool small – just too small for my hulking fingers.  The acrylic paint is curling, and is magenta – which is apparently not a cool color.  I can make calls, and attempt to text message on the tiny buttons, but no features – no internet access, no photos, no video, no nothing.

I might as well have a rotary phone in my pocket.  All it can do is, like, call people.

But my students have the world at their fingertips – and that’s no cliché.  They can be in my class and be everywhere else at once.

No doubt this can be a serious – and understandable – temptation during a compelling discussion of coordinating conjunctions.

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The Simpsons or coordinating conjunctions?  Hmmmm.

And in large lecture classes, I’ve heard of students casually watching the Simpsons on their phones while the professor rambles about something or other happening in Africa.

But this isn’t my problem with cell-phones.  Without YouTube access, bored students who don’t care what’s going on in Africa would have found another way to not find out what’s going on in Africa, like passing notes, day-dreaming, or good old fashioned ditching.

And this problem could be a great opportunity. In my classes, which are always under 30 students, I’ve seen these awesome machines used…well, usefully.   Students keep their schedules like little executives, they use the internet to look up unknown words. Once, in a discussion of a book, a student looked up a speech by the author on YouTube, which elaborated on the lesson.

An enterprising teacher – with a  better phone than I – could no doubt find a way to make these super-phones a teaching tool.   I could imagine the professor having students look up video on YouTube about genocide in Darfur as she discusses it, bringing her lecture to vivid light. 

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The super-cell-phone will change the way teachers teach, and students learn. But so did the computer. And the typewriter before that.  And the printing press.  And even the advent of writing itself.  And at this rate, things will keep changing.

So what’s my problem with cell phones then?   I suppose it’s more of a question: How do my students afford these expensive devices?  Where is the money coming from? Parents? Or do they work long hours to pay for the phone?  Do they go into debt?

The money symbolized by the cell-phone is my problem.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)

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