education Published Elsewhere

On Empty Classrooms

The following column was published in The Observer on Thursday, September 18, 2014.

Willis Konick retired in 2007 as one of the University of Washington’s most sought-after professors.

For Willis, as his students called him, the classroom had changed over the years. According to the Seattle Times, ” [Willis] said teaching Dostoyevsky novels in the 1960s was easy because he didn’t need to explain radicalism to students. The students often came to class stoned – but he didn’t find that as annoying as today’s students, who often text-message during class.”

In 2011, researchers at Wilkes University surveyed 269 college students on their cell phone use. In the study, 92 percent admitted using their phones to text during class, with 10 percent admitting they had texted at least once during an exam. Most students, however, believed that their professors were unaware of this.

Trying to understand the effects of multitasking, a 2010 study by Sylvain Charron and Etienne Koechlin found that when pursuing a goal, the brain’s medial frontal cortex (MFC) works as a single unit to perform the necessary task. But when pursuing two concurrent tasks, the left and right sides of the MFC divide and attempt to work concurrently in pursuing those goals. When a greater reward is associated with one task, however, greater focus is placed upon that task at the expense of the other.

David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, commented on the study: “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental recourses. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio… But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook — each of these tasks is very demanding and each of them uses the same area of the brain.”

This helps to explain why cell phone use in the classroom has been found to correlate with a .36 grade drop on a 4-point scale and why those in direct view of classroom multitaskers have lower test scores than their peers. If you’re on your phone in class, are you really there?

According to Willis: “The cellphones are an addiction. They’re more than just a nuisance… It’s hard to wean them from the phones.”

“Wean” is a striking word, as if, by acting out improvised literary scenes in his classes, Willis not only grabbed his students’ attention but also nourished them. Unlike many classes, which transmit information through monologues that could be gathered from another student’s notes, Willis’s course transmitted life. It reminds one of John Henry Newman’s words: “The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”

But this life which makes it live in us is scarce, ending as it escapes the lips and dying as it bleeds onto the notebook page. I once had a philosophy professor who told his students not to take notes in class. He told us that notes encourage us to save the illumination for another time, but, in his class, the intellectual moment is now! Words are not to be stored away for later use; they are to change us at this very moment. Ideas are supposed to live and breathe and grow, as we discuss and argue and hang on every word.

Thus, the philosopher is often the man who would like to write and publish but who finds his time constrained by the world around him, carried on by his friends in shared wonder. Such wonder requires more than a book or a detached lecturer, just as Socrates points out that becoming a doctor requires more than hearing something from a book or happening upon a few drugs.

The philosopher cannot be made from philosophy books. First he must be awakened, from his buzzed stupor, from his cell phone, even from his books. He must be called out of the cave by name. But few will offer such an invitation. Perhaps this is what inspired James Schall to title one of his books: “Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College.”

If you cannot be awakened in the classroom, be awakened outside of it. Rumor has it that when the University of Washington banned smoking in its buildings, Willis taught through a classroom window while chain-smoking cigarettes, with living literature filling the room like secondhand smoke.

Christopher Damian graduated from Notre Dame in 2013. He is currently pursuing a J.D. and an M.A. in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. He can be contacted through his blog

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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