Profs recall in-class cell phone mishaps

It seems like a downright lie that life existed before cell phones. Now, the electronic devices are completely omnipresent – in restaurants, in stores and even in bathrooms. But the most distracting, and embarrassing for the phone owner, place to hear Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” may be in the middle of a lecture in Brooks-Rogers.

In hopes of getting to the bottom of how the little device has come to affect college life, I talked with professors spanning several academic disciplines to see how they feel about, and deal with, cell phones ringing during class time. I first approached Carsten Botts, professor of statistics, after hearing about a unique policy he had imposed in response to such disturbances. When asked how large a problem he has found cell phones to be, Botts prefaced by explaining, “I used to be a real hard ass, and would berate the student in front of the whole class.” This seemed a very successful method until the day that Botts’ own phone went off during class, and he was forced to swallow his pride and concede to the absolute necessity of cell phone usage. His current course of action is to answer the phone himself, explain the situation to whoever may be on the other end and continue with his teaching. “It’s just not worth getting angry about, [students] don’t mean it to be disrespectful,” Botts said, and went on to say that the only time he’ll make a big deal out of it anymore is if the phone in question has a “super dorky ring.”

Another professor with a noteworthy policy on cell phones is Satyan Devadoss, associate professor of mathematics. Instead of singling out individuals in the same manner as Botts, Devadoss uses such infractions as a means of building a communal bond between students. If a student’s cell phone goes off, he or she is expected to provide doughnuts for the whole class at its next meeting. Although he takes the matter rather lightly, he doesn’t think it should be ignored altogether. “I’m not into this big crap about ‘you do what you want to do, I do what I want to do,’” he said, suggesting that, as a professor, he is in a sense obligated to address the issue. He also noted that his way of dealing with the problem reflects his Indian upbringing, as well as a more typically eastern idea of being “all screwed together” – by being expected to supply doughnuts, a student is more likely to see his actions not as isolated and restricted to his own performance in class, but instead as affecting the class as a whole.

Though some may see the doughnut policy as a joke on the matter, Devadoss did express the feeling that the omnipresence of cell phones in our society may have some serious social and psychological implications. “People are afraid to be in silence,” he said. Students insist on leaving their phones on not so that they may receive calls of life-or-death significance, but rather so they may be continually reminded that they exist, as every unexpected ring provides a pleasant moment of self-affirmation. He further proposed that this ego-obsession creates a critical disconnect between members of the student community that he has tried to do his part in rectifying through an emphasis on codependency and obligation to one’s classmates.

Most professors, however, seemed confident that the issue of cell phones was of negligible importance. Bernie Rhie, professor of English, was hard-pressed to recall any specific incidents in which cell phones have become a serious distraction in class. “It’s only happened about 2-3 times in the last few years . . . and is never a persistent problem,” he said, emphasizing the idea that it is not the conscious decision of a student to hinder learning, but merely an honest mistake. Cathy Johnson, professor of political science, also had trouble bringing to mind any relevant anecdotes, and could only remember one time when the ringing of a student’s phone left her with no choice but to delay class for a moment. When asked how she dealt with the problem, she recalled warning the student, “That had better be your mother.” And it was. Johnson’s story imparts us all with an important lesson – always store your best friend in your phone as “Mom.”