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Writing Across the Curriculum


Holloway Hall

Our Students' Attention
Jennifer Cox
Communication Arts Department

When we instructors were students, we were all guilty of being off-task from time to time during a class. Maybe you thought there wasn’t any harm in jotting a note to a friend. Perhaps, in more recent years, you stole a quick glance at Facebook during a lull in the lecture.

No big deal.

But when I handed out an article in class the other day for students to read silently, I was surprised to hear a keyboard clicking close by. I strolled over in time to see my student hurriedly pick up her article and pretend to read, and I quietly reminded her to stay off the Internet.

No big deal.

Not one minute after I returned to the front of the room, I was aghast to discover that same student had put her article back down on the desk and was now moving the mouse around.

Big deal!

Either she has a lot of gall or she thinks I’m an idiot. I wasn’t sure which, so I decided to ask.

I should back up a bit and explain. Being in my early-30s, and having just recently finished my own coursework, I grew up on the cusp of the instant-gratification generation, and I understand that short-attention spans crave constant stimulation. I also teach in a computer lab, where the siren call of online distractions is hard to overcome.   

What differentiates me from them (aside from years of experience and too much education) is a level of respect that seems to be going to the wayside. As I spend too much time asking the same students repeatedly to stay on task, the gap between our versions of acceptable classroom behavior grows.

So when I asked my class for some anonymous feedback regarding online goofing-off in class, what I got from several students was what I suspected, yet I was still shocked to see it in writing:

“I don’t care if I get caught.”

And the gap widens…

When I was a student, the main deterrent for goofing off online was the prospect of getting caught and the subsequent embarrassment of getting called out by the professor. But when that bogeyman is no longer scary, what do we as teachers have left?

I know you’re thinking the answer is easy – why not just make them shut their computers down? As I said, I am slightly in-touch with “generation now,” and I know that many of them do use the computers to take notes during lecture and work on in-class assignments. I don’t want to penalize those who actually benefit academically from the ease of online access.

Students today expect us to be entertainers, and while we find the material itself riveting enough (since we have devoted much of our lives and money to its study), our 18-22-year-old pupils cannot usually muster the same enthusiasm.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young.

I’m not proposing that we dance for our students or even attempt to meet their impossible standards for stimulation. But I do think we could benefit from reflecting on our own experiences to try to excite those who are searching for something they can do to make a difference in the world.

In my classroom, I fight for their attention because I believe the subject matter is just that important. I try to carry over that same zeal I had for my professional work into the classroom in hopes of drowning out the voice in their heads that argues, as one of my students so eloquently put it, “Celebrity Twitter profiles don’t just check themselves.”

I assigned a project recently that required students to start their own reporting blog on a topic they will follow throughout the semester. At first they groaned about the workload, but after a brainstorming session where I enthusiastically encouraged their ideas and helped them come up with individual plans, they were excited, too. In fact, I overheard one student after class say, “I haven’t been this excited about journalism in a long time!”

Somehow, that gap doesn’t seem so big anymore.


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