By Garrett Pierman of Florida International University
The digital age is in full swing, especially in academia. In class, our students, if they are allowed, are browsing, tweeting, liking, and sharing across the web. They are also, one can hope, occasionally taking notes. Maybe you’re doing much the same – a like here, a comment there to break up the research sessions or avoid awkward small talk in the elevator. At home, our phones are our constant companions as we compulsively check for email replies, student concerns, and notifications from the academic and public political worlds. Technology has enabled us to do more. More work with more information, citing more literature, and reflective of more data, more of the time. This looks, from a distance, wonderfully efficient: we’re reachable at a moment’s notice, our inboxes are tidy, and our instantaneous information spigots are always open. But is more, in terms of the use of technology, always better?
Demirbilek and Talan, in their 2017 study of student multitasking, empirically confirm the suspicions of most instructors (Demirbilek and Talan 2018, 117–29). Students who have the ability to text and use social media in class do so, and their grades suffer as a result of their distraction. This situation is a familiar one – it increasingly seems that our glassy-eyed students can only see the world through an Instagram filter.
We would be naïve to think that this same distractedness that is affecting our students passes us by. On the professorial side of the desk, every distracted moment must be paid back, often from the already spartan reserves of personal time. At family gatherings, in quiet moments of rare leisure, even at the dinner table, we find ourselves as acquaintances in our present moments as we pass from one byte of work to another on our phones. This distracted and alienated state, which increases stress, strains personal relationships, and tempts academics to devote even more time to the already demanding ivory tower, has gotten so out of hand that the French have passed a “right to disconnect law”, forbidding employers from expecting employees to reply to work emails outside of paid hours (“For French Law On Right To ‘Disconnect,’ Much Support — And A Few Doubts.” NPR. February 3, 2017). This attempt to demarcate the spaces of work and leisure is unlikely to pass here in the United States, especially in academia, but has some lessons to teach us.
Here are some of the practices my colleagues and I have developed over the years to more intentionally use technology to work better, have more free time, and increase our qualities of life:
- Consider a device ban in your classroom.
Setting a device ban forces each student to be present in the classroom. While some of them will be skeptical until their grades improve, selling it as a deliberate break from life outside of the present moment, such as many of us do at dinners with friends, has convinced many of my students.
- Set email office hours and expectations.
Set a time (or a few) during the day to check and respond to emails. Make these times known to students and colleagues so they know when to expect replies. At the extreme end, you can sign out of your academic email totally outside of these hours, forcing you to become more deliberate about checking and, as a bonus, less tempted to check during moments of downtime.
- Uni-task purposely.
Teach when you teach, email when you email, and sleep when you sleep. Our brains do better when we focus on one thing at a time, even though we prefer variety over monotony. Thus, spend shorter periods doing a sequence of different things instead of all-day doing a less productive mix of emailing, engaging in the present moment, etc.
- Demarcate spaces.
In addition to the signing off and uni-tasking, consider leaving your devices out of certain spaces entirely. For instance, if you find yourself staying up late checking your phone in bed rather than sleeping, consider putting the phone on the other side of the room. Not only will you be forced to actually sleep in your bed, but you will also have to physically get up to turn off any morning alarms, which makes snoozing less likely.
- Embrace your free time.
Now that you’ve signed off and put your phone away, go do something else outside of work. Sleep. Read. Cook. Spend the energy you would have wasted multi-tasking on pondering instead of a distraction. Taking the time to be rested, engaged, and mentally well, as a mentor of mine likes to put it, is the part of your job you do before you get to school.
In reading this, you might get the idea that I’m a Luddite. If anything, I am the opposite: as a millennial and a scholar, I see the amazing productivity and progress that we can do with technology. But these accomplishments are less likely when we are screen-addicted zombies. To combat that tendency, I simply suggest here that we take a good, hard look at our daily practices with technologies and ask what we can do better. In order to stay productive, sometimes we need to turn off the phones, tune out the email, and drop out of the digital world, at least until tomorrow.
Note from the Author: As educators, we have to consider the environments we create in our classrooms. Our use of technology has to be beneficial and inclusive to make learning possible. Thus, we have a responsibility to take into account that none of these are one-size fits all solutions. While suggesting to some students to unplug during class may well help them, that is not always the case: many students use laptops and other devices to be able to fully participate in our classes. We should encourage them to do so. Any device policies we include should make room for good-faith use of these devices without the student having to disclose anything sensitive, such as disability status, to anyone including us. Instead, any advice I give here is meant to start a conversation about how we want to use technology: inclusive course design must also be part of that conversation (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Should-You-Allow-Laptops-in/245625/).
About the Author: Garrett Pierman is a PhD Student in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the ways in which technology affects democratic discourse. His work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, the journal Class, Race, and Corporate power, as well as the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.
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