Those of us who teach on a semester-based calendar will be putting the finishing touches on one syllabus or another over the next week. In my case, it’s five fabulous syllabi — five courses, three preps, on three different campuses, for two different employers. (I know: take a number.)
I’m not allowed to ban guns in my classrooms at the university campus, or in my office either, which I will be sharing with 11 other lecturers. I have thought about showing up to work every day with a pair of purple Nerf six-shooters in hip holsters, with a bandolier of orange foam bullets slung over my shoulder – yes, all of these items are real, and are in fact just lying around my house (we are terrible about Nerf safety) – but that’s probably against the rules.
I can, however, ban the use of cell phones and laptops. In the past, I have allowed the unobtrusive (i.e., not distracted nor distracting) use of laptops and cell phones, but have proscribed certain kinds of activities.
Here is the most recent iteration of my electronics policy:
The names of the apps are always changing, but the underlying principle of my electronics policy is the same: the classroom is a space where students (and even professors, to some extent) should feel free to ask questions and make mistakes and try out ideas without having their efforts broadcast in real time to the whole world (wide web).
In his fantastic interview with Frank Rich, published in November 2014, Chris Rock talked about (among other things) the challenge facing stand-up comedians in the age of cell phone videography:
It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy….[I]f you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
The most obvious analogy here, of course, is the analogy between the stand-up comedian and the professor in a lecture hall, with the professor as the performer and the students as the audience.
But that’s not really how the classroom works. That’s not how my classroom works, anyhow. And, to be Goffman-esque about it, that’s not how any social situation works. We are all performative, and we are all learning as we go.
But in our society, some of us have never had the privilege of being in a social space where it is okay to make a mistake, while some of us have been able to get away with some pretty big mistakes on a regular basis without ever having to answer for them. Sociologist and public intellectual Tressie McMillan Cottom has described that inequality in terms of “who has the privilege of being an individual.” And as she subsequently explained, the “context collapse” of social media flattens out the dialogical landscape (essential, of course, for the most efficient extraction of surplus value from people’s intellectual labor) and renders all social situations, all contexts, equally subject to scrutiny (and monetization).
Much recent discussion about Twitter in academe has swirled around these intertwined issues. What is practice space v. what is public space, what is process v. what is product, what is an audition v. what is a performance? A graduate student giving a paper for the first time at an academic conference has a lot more at stake, and a lot more to lose, than a full professor – but both of them must now operate in a world where all academic space is becoming public in the broadest possible sense. The academy, like every other social organism in our age of gamified panoptical surveillance, is reeling from the effects of context collapse.
Well, I can’t do much to help the academy (though that never stops me from trying). But even as a lowly adjunct, I am allowed to establish (some) classroom policies and set expectations for how my students will interact with me and with each other during class.
My students will probably not like my electronics policy, and even after I explain my reasons for it – and I always do explain my reasons for course policies – they may not appreciate it. But I think they will benefit from it. I can’t proscribe everything that might have a chilling effect on classroom discussion this semester, but I can try to keep our world safe from Pikachu and Periscope and the panopticon for one golden hour.
They can tweet about the awful ordeal later.