Checking In on Checking Out: Students’ Technology Habits Damage Academics at Emory

My peers are losing themselves to their screens. In lectures, they are physically present. But mentally, many of them are absent, present only to their laptops and phones.

Attending a lecture means listening to what the lecturer has to say. Attendees shouldn’t check their email or work on their coding homework, and they certainly should not hold their phones in front of their faces as they text their friends.

The blatant disrespect of students distracted by technology was on full display during a Nov. 7 symposium on the Russian Revolution. The symposium, presented by the Russian, East-European and Eurasian Studies (REES) Program, featured University of Michigan Professor Ronald Suny and University of California, Berkeley Professor Martin Jay.

Before I attended this lecture, I had no idea that Nov. 7 was the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I did not know that, for decades, the date marked a major holiday in Russia. In fact, I attended the symposium because my professor offered extra credit. (The Russian Revolution is not among my biggest interests.) That said, I left the lecture with a new and better understanding of the historic event.

But whether I was interested in the Russian Revolution remains immaterial. The symposium was a well-planned event. Both Suny and Jay had traveled long distances to deliver their lectures. Their informative, analytical and, at times, humorous lectures revealed thoughtfulness and the long hours they spent to master the literature they incorporated into their presentations. Those scholars deserved attention and respect. I made a conscious choice to be present at the event, both physically and mentally. I stopped checking my phone; I put it away. I sat up straight and listened to the lectures with an open mind.

Unfortunately, many of my peers chose to do the opposite. Some were on their computers the entire time doing homework. Others were on their phones, scrolling through social media websites. Groups of students stood up and left halfway through the lectures. Looking around at fellow students, I felt embarrassed and ashamed by the image of Emory we collectively presented.

Students spend almost 21 percent of their time in the classroom using their digital devices for non-class activities like monitoring social media, according to a study by University of Nebraska, Lincoln Professor Barney McCoy. Students reported that they “check out” from class because of boredom and to complete related schoolwork. Those behaviors are not only disrespectful, but they also inhibit learning in lectures and in class. Many of the students at the Russian Revolution symposium certainly checked out, and if they were trying to hide their boredom, they weren’t succeeding.

As students at a top-25 ranked university, Emory students know what it is like to work hard. We know the time, effort and dedication that goes into crafting interesting and engaging presentations. Why, then, are we treating our professors and campus guests, who do the same, with disrespect?  

I am not perfect. I’ve responded to the occasional e-mail during class and checked out for a few minutes. But I do not treat professors and lecturers with the amount of discourtesy that I witnessed at the Russian Revolution symposium.

Emory, we can do better than this. Let’s put our phones away, close our laptops and engage with the present. Let’s give presenters the respect and attention that we would want to receive ourselves. Most importantly, let’s remember to be decent human beings who value the hard work of others.

Laurel Sutherland is a College senior from West Chester, Pa.