Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Maturity, Privacy, and Technology, or What’s a Prof to Do?

Is student maturity promoted by the ubiquity of technology?

As an educator, I spend quite a bit of time worrying about college students' maturity. By maturity, I mean their abilities to accept responsibility for success and failure, to adhere to deadlines, to own up when the latter are missed—in short, variations on the theme of being honest and truthful to self and others. (Note that I did not mention cheating, which is a topic unto itself and worthy of deep exploration some other time.)

Teachers are forever being told variants on the "this generation is technologically sophisticated but stilted regarding social graces" message and the (increasingly tiresome) "narcissism" mantra. Well, they are certainly self-focused, even self-absorbed, but I am not completely convinced that past generations (present company very much included) weren't equally adolescently fixated on the wonders of ME-ness—we just didn't have smart phones for sharing—no—broadcasting, our fleeting, quotidian insights.

Consider what is likely to be an increasingly common dilemma: The "Where Was I?" Phenomenon. I am one of those faculty members who takes attendance in each of my classes. My explanation is simple: In order to contribute to the class, students need to be there to contribute by listening and discussing issues with their peers and me. But I tell students they may miss class for any reason—they are maturing young adults, after all—but that they must not explain to me the reason for their absence. I tell them that if they had to miss class then the reason must have been a good one (a corollary here is that I never, ever ask them where they've been, why they missed, and so on). I explain that their private life matters to me and that I don't want to invade. That being said, there are consequences for missing class; if you are not there to contribute, your grade suffers. This rather basic policy has worked well, but I worry that its days are numbered.

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Here's why: Technology. To begin, I've elected not to "friend" current students on Facebook (one of my cleverer colleagues maintains two Facebook accounts—one for students and one for his peers—I wish I had that drive and organizational prowess.) So far, so good, and I am not cozying up to my students electronically out of class. But, not all teachers share my policy. If, for example, one of my peers is "friends" with a student and me, as well, I may inadvertently learn a missed class is actually due to a hangover, a torrid love affair, or (perish the thought) fatigue with my teaching prowess, because these truths appear in my peer's news feed. Yipes.

I know, I hear you saying "unlikely" and, in any case, "your policy is that all reasons are legitimate." True, but my policy is based on presumed privacy. Once that privacy is breached, however inadvertently, my opinion of the student could be corrupted ("watching a rerun of How I Met Your Mother was really more important than our discussion of prejudice and stereotyping processes?"). Psychology long ago demonstrated that presumed objectivity is subjectivity in disguise.

And now there is the matter of foursquare, an intriguing app for smart phones everywhere. Using it automatically announces your doings and whereabouts as good or better than a GPS (e.g., "Dana is shopping at Williams-Sonoma"). Essentially, when activated, it allows you to "check in" wherever you are. Now, I don't have a smart phone yet, but will. Is it possible that I will then accidentally learn where students were when they were supposed to be debating the eternal verities with me? It could happen, assuming I elect to use foursquare. I am not one to fall for Big Brother paranoia, but I am not a fan of shouting out my doings indiscriminately. But I failed to mention one thing about foursquare, the motivation for downloading it in the first place: Users can get credits or "badges" for checking in, which sometimes means discounts on future purchases. Student resistance may be futile in the face of freebies.

Is this much ado about nothing? I'm not so sure. Mature students, like mature adults, tell the truth come what may. Maturing and immature students sometimes fail to do so and they end up telling tall tales along the way ("So, my paper is late because my printer died" and "My grandmother was sick and I had to go home." Reader, if I had a dollar for every time I've received variations on just those two themes!). Although it might be sobering in a useful way to "catch" a student in a falsehood, I wonder if this form of "gotcha" belongs in the college classroom or on the campus at all.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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