When I prepare my materials at the front podium before class starts, I sometimes think that my students forget I can hear them. Over the years I've unintentionally overheard many conversations. Most are benign, like small talk about lunch plans or loads of homework or the weekend's game. A few have been self-incriminating, like confessions of not reading the day's assigned chapter or nursing a rough hangover.
But over the years, what I've increasingly heard from my students as I'm checking my rosters and pulling up PowerPoints in the minutes leading up to class is silence.
Students sit with one another, collectively gathered in a common location while pulled away from each other and drawn into their own private devices. They're side by side yet separated by cues that suggest don't bother me. The earbuds, the open laptops, the lack of greetings, the eyes turned downward into palmed smart phones: all are cues which subtly indicate that the communication taking place within the devices seems a higher priority than that which could take place in person.
Last week a student walked into a scene like this. He unzipped his jacket, settled his backpack under his desk, and sat down. He looked at the two students to his left and his right, both of whom were immersed in their smart phones.
"We might as well talk with each other," he said. "I don't understand why everyone just waits in silence for a class to start."
His two classmates looked up. One smiled. The other momentarily regarded him with a mixture of wariness and shock, like she didn't quite trust him or his hair was on fire.
But then something beautiful happened. The phones slipped into pockets, and they started talking. The conversation was about nothing in particular -- the cold weather, the embarrassing fall that one of them had taken while shuffling to class on an unplowed sidewalk.
I was happy to overhear it.
Image compliments of Robert Couse-Baker (flickr.com)