On Leisure and Boundaries

At Belmont University in Nashville this past weekend, my fiancee told me just about everyone was on his or her cell phones during the graduation ceremony.  Not talking, but browsing the web, texting, tweeting, playing games.  In my classroom, I frequently am forced to ask kids to put away their phones or iPods because, to them, anytime seems to be the right time to play a game or listen to music.  It’s not just teenagers being teenagers, attempting to get away with it or push my buttons.  Young people have grown up in a culture where it is the norm to distract oneself no matter the place or time.  This is problematic.

On the new phenomenon of blurring lines between leisure and non-leisure spaces, S. Craig Watkins writes in The Young and the Digital:

In the current cultural milieu, fast entertainment is more than a luxury or a way to pass time.  It is an entitlement more and more of us expect no matter where we are–at home, at work, in school, on vacation, or even when driving our cars.  That cultural ethos, or the expectation that anytime is the right time for entertainment, is transforming our behavior and our world.

Watkins brings me back to thinking about the classroom–it’s a space where individuals having instant access to personal entertainment options used to be an absurd notion.  Not anymore, but most schools have prudently been cautious or even downright authoritarian regarding phones and iPods in the classroom.  Advocates for more lax cellphone and internet policies decry these rules as draconian or anachronistic.  I used to be one of those advocates, writing a piece for Education Week promoting cell phone experimentation and use in class for educational purposes.  I have changed my tune.

I don’t believe great learning can occur without a disciplined, non-distracted approach to thinking, writing, listening, and creating.   We overestimate our abilities to multitask.  And while advocates for students having open cell phone and internet connection at all times are right about certain advantages, such as opening students up to boundless sources of ideas and inspiration, most young brains don’t have the discipline to stay away from constantly checking their Twitter feed.  Can we teach students to unlearn this tendency?  Does anybody want to?

Today, when you ask students to turn off their computers, mobile phones, and iPods, you are asking them to turn off their lives.  That’s a powerful idea.  So when us educators tell students to put away and turn off their lifeblood, students take it personally.  

It’s not just young people, of course.  I catch myself texting at stop lights when it’s completely unnecessary.  I occasionally watch YouTube clips of trick shot quarterbacks when I should be grading papers during my planning period. 

Are their any spaces left where one escapes–or chooses to escape–from the constant pull of leisure, entertainment, and or distraction in the connected digital age?  Is it worth trying to preserve some spaces?  I found this story about a bride caught texting while walking down the aisle on her big day.  Surely this is anomalous, ridiculous behavior, right?

It might be futile to revert to more restrained personal technology use.  We are barreling towards a place and time where doing nothing, listening, watching, observing, and being in the moment is rare, even weird.  I’ve got more questions than answers, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Right on. This is one reason why it seems as if very few students I encounter are creative or innovative enough to entertain themselves, entertain and idea, and see it through.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful observations Carolyn. That is certainly frustrating, feeling like normal conversation space is constantly interrupted now too. I can imagine this issue is only exacerbated by people who connect work e-mail to their personal devices. This is one reason why I choose not to have school e-mail coming through my phone. I think you’ve inspired me to write a post about Multitasking.
    Have you read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr? He talks about the plasticity of the brain and the effects of technology. You should check it out.

  3. You asked, “Is it worth trying to preserve some spaces?” and I say YES! I have been thinking about this a lot as there are people I want to have better relationships with at work (i.e. my boss) but I can’t seem to have a conversation with him because he is constantly multitasking with his iPhone. So, there’s one space- space for a real conversation and feeling of connecting with someone else, getting to know them (and usually yourself) a bit better. I have also been reading about brain science. There are plenty of arguments about how continuous multitasking and information overload is detrimental to optimal performance. The simple truth that alarms me comes down to neural connections: how we choose to focus our attention and energy actually alters the brain’s activity and its structure. I believe people suffer more from their thoughts about events than from the events themselves. The good news is, adult brains remain open to change, and can change, throughout their lifespans! The most positive and awesome (in the true sense of the word) experiences I have had in life were never ones where I was multitasking. Preserving space to deeply enjoy, play, focus, perform, create etc. drops you in to a different brain state where you don’t have thoughts and words zooming around. Throwing that touchdown pass or nailing a solo is “wordless.”

  4. I am in total agreement with you! I miss the days in my childhood summer when I was “bored”. I actually remember saying that to my mom! 🙂 We have lost those calm, quiet, still moments in life as we clutter our every waking minute with stimulation. I have tried to teach my boys to meditate, but they all fall asleep, including my husband. LOL Slow down world, I want to sit by an just enjoy myself!

  5. I do not envy you one bit!

    The whole problem of being a student (having also taught journalism to college students and adults) is that it can get really boring if the teacher is lousy…but LIFE is boring! Kids who expect 24/7 entertainment are truly creating a hell for themselves in their inability to be calm, quiet, still and alone. I cannot imagine how anyone of any age can possibly create or innovate if their brains demand non-stop amusement and stimulation.

  6. I agree, but we have to be aware of and realistic about the technologies that we are competing with both in and out of the classroom environment. I know it is hard, but use the technology to your advantage. I have one professor in a seminar class and everyone has their laptops open, so she pings us all the time to find answers to inquiries on the subject we are discussing. It is hard to surf in her class because she could call on you at any moment to find an answer and she may not repeat the question. LOL

  7. Melody, I’ve been in the same situation! As a teacher, I know that if my lesson isn’t very engaging, I might see more students start slyly popping in ear buds or check their phones. That said, even not-so-dynamic presentations and lectures deserve some level of attentiveness, right?

  8. OK – I was totally and completely busted by this post as I opened it during a class presentation! Why do I let my technology distract me during class? After reading the first paragraph I put my phone away and turned my attention back to my classmates presentation. I try not to let my mind wander during class, but it does especially if the speaker/teacher does not engage me or if I do not find meaning in the materials being presented in the class. Technology is just another vehicle that allows me to wander off the path of focus and concentration in any situation.

  9. Sweetie…I am having pockets sewn into my wedding dress for my cell phone and have figured out a way to attach a discreet head phone to my veil…is this a problem? 🙂

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