Distracted Learning: Cell Phone Cultures Class Breaks All the Rules

By Cathy Cruise

“No cell phones in class.”

Nearly every student is familiar with this decree, whether it’s delivered verbally or via course syllabus. But a new class at Mason actually requires students to bring their phones. And that’s not all that makes this course notable.

The course ENGH 319 Cell Phone Cultures is being taught this semester by its creator Stephen Groening, assistant professor of Film and Media Studies. Groening is new to campus, having begun here last fall after serving as a postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Culture and Media Studies at Brown University. His cell phone course, he believes, actually played a role in landing him the position at Mason.

Mason professor Stephen Groening listens to students presenting their findings in the Cell Phone Cultures class. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“On the job market, you’re asked what sorts of courses you would teach if you got hired,” he says. “I came up with the broad outlines of this syllabus and submitted it with my application materials for this job. And it got brought up in the job interview.”

Cell Phone Cultures is part discourse, part scholarly theory, part YouTube videos and Gossip Girl clips, all peppered with observations, insights, and laughter. The newness of the course shows, but in a good way. While Groening is very much in control, there is a distinct off-the-cuff element to his teaching style. When questions are raised, many come from Groening himself.

“Would anyone like a word count?” he asks. “Would that be more helpful? I’ve never given this type of assignment before.”

He’s alluding to an informal paper in which students were asked to draw on ideas from assigned readings, while reflecting on how cell phones are used for private conversation in public.

The room buzzes with a quiet energy, and students respond with suggestions for more guidelines, a bigger page allowance. One asks, “Can I rant?” and another, “Can I swear?”

Students watch cell phone videos made by their classmates in the Cell Phone Cultures class taught by Mason professor Stephen Groening. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The course is currently over enrolled, and Groening attributes its popularity to students’ obvious ties to the material. “The ‘relatability’ factor, as the students call it, is pretty high and that’s to my advantage,” he says. “They can immediately see a connection to their own lives. So that’s one obstacle to teaching that I’ve already surmounted just by the nature of the material. I’m also lucky with this group of students. They’re great and very enthusiastic. It’s an elective, so they’re here because they want to be, and that makes a big difference, too.”

Brian Le, a communication major, says he enjoys the class because it allows him to express himself. “Steve is a real person,” he says. “Not a professor that just stands there. Just talks at us. He actually wants us to interact and talk with everybody else in class.”

History major Emily Clough says she signed up for the course because it looked interesting on the syllabus, and she hasn’t been disappointed. “This class is awesome,” she says. “It’s the one I look forward most to each week. There’s so much negativity about cell phones today, it’s nice to hear some positives.”

This is the first time Mason professor Stephen Groening has taught his Cell Phone Cultures class. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

But how do you teach when students basically have carte blanche to text and surf the web? Groening says this simply creates more material for the course. “I see them,” he says. “I know they’re texting their friends during class. But it’s just more for them to think about and more for me to think about. When I was a student, I wasn’t paying attention all the time either. I was doodling, thinking about other things. The question is, Does it distract the people around you? That’s when it’s disruptive. And so far it hasn’t been.”

Since so many students today use mobile phones as research tools, Groening says it’s to his advantage that they can look things up, access assigned readings online, and download materials right onto their phones. One student, Groening says, actually wrote an entire paper on her phone while she was on the Metro.

“She just opened up a text application and wrote the whole thing on the subway,” he says. “I would love to require that, but one of the obstacles to this course is that I don’t know that all the students will have a cell phone or what capabilities they will have.”

To work around this problem, Groening had his students complete a survey to tell him what types of phones and operating systems they use and whether they can take photographs and videos. He lucked out.

“There were only three students who didn’t have video [capabilities],” he says. “Everything else they could do—text, take pictures, access the Internet. So for the video exercise, those three people are going to team up into groups.”

This exercise, a field research project, will require students use their phones to record videos of people using their phones in unusual, annoying, or interesting ways. These segments will then be posted to a class wiki (students are asked to have wiki, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail accounts) so they can be viewed by everyone.

Clough, for one, can’t wait to begin. “I’m really looking forward to that project,” she says. “Because I know a lot of great examples of cell phone use in public that I find both interesting and ridiculous, so that will  be a lot of fun.”

Another assignment will be a “silent class,” in which all conversation will be conducted entirely via Twitter. Tweets will be displayed on several projectors in the room, and students will be evaluated on their remarks about issues from required readings, their conversations with classmates, and their thoughts on the act of texting and tweeting itself.

So what could possibly top these assignments?

A flash mob, of course.

“I don’t know about everybody else in class,” says Le. “But when I first saw it on the syllabus, I was thinking we’re going to study a flash mob, we were going to find one and participate in it. But Steve was like, no, you’re going to create your own flash mob. And that’s crazy. I’ve never had any kind of final exam that is remotely similar to that.”

For this assignment, the class will break into groups to form and participate in flash mobs right on campus. Groening admits even he’s unsure of how this project will pan out. “People of a certain generation associate flash mobs with disruption, illicit activities, robberies, riots,” he says. “I specifically say in the syllabus you can’t violate any university policies. I’m hoping the class will be able to show a more benign, spontaneous, organized activity with this tool so many people say is about disorganization and distraction.”

In addition to teaching, Groening is working on his first book, Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment and Atmospheres of Globalization. The work explores the history of inflight movies and television, and the connection between the entertainment and transportation industries. The subject matter, Groening says, overlaps with the cell phone course in its exploration of mobility and mediation.

“This idea that you can be in constant contact with people on the ground,” he says, “and the kind of distracted viewing that students may have in class—where they look up at a professor then down at their phones, like looking up at a movie on an airplane, then down at a book or meal. Also how both forms assume people are always on the move, and how these technologies encourage us to stay on the move.”

As for Cell Phone Cultures, Groening plans to teach the class again next year and hopes to expand on its content. That’s good news for Clough and Le, who have already encouraged others to sign up.

“I’ll tell my friends and also anybody else who’s going to be interested in films and media studies,” Le says. “This class rocks.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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