Texting in Class: What can we learn from Mead?

Over at the excellent Sociology Source, Nathan Palmer recently shared some thoughts about dealing with texting in class.  I’d be surprised if this reflection on classroom authority doesn’t resonate with most of us who think about how to effectively teach in the smart phone saturated college setting.  I’d never considered the Weberian take on the issue, but I do regularly talk to students about the meaning of cell phones in the classroom, especially when I teach Goffman (presentation of self), and Mills (cheerful robots).  However, the classical theorist that most informs my approach to limiting phone use during class is George Herbert Mead.  In particular, I tell students that in “The Fusion of the I and the Me in Social Activities,” from Mind, Self, & Society, Mead suggests that keeping the phone in your pocket could make class a ‘religious’ experience.

Self and Society in the classroom

Mead describes the self as a process in which the active “I” adjusts to the social control of the “me.” The “me” is our understanding of the expectations and attitudes of others that we take into account when we act in social situations.  To become a self in society, Mead argues, we learn to take the ‘role of the other’ so that we can successfully adjust our conduct according to social expectations.  When our gestures produce the same response from others as they do in ourselves, we can complete a successful act.

For most of Mind, Self, & Society Mead discusses the “I” and “me” as separate phases of the process of self.  Briefly, however, he considers the emotional consequence of the fusion of the “I” and “me.”  It is the fusion of the “I” with the “me,” Mead told his students, that produces “the peculiar sense of exaltation which belongs to the religious and patriotic attitudes” (273).  To describe when these rare experiences come about, I’ll quote from Mead at length:

In the conception of universal neighborliness, there is a certain group of attitudes of kindliness and helpfulness in which the response of one calls out in the other and in himself the same attitude.  Hence the fusion of the “I” and the “me” which leads to intense emotional experiences…We sit down and play a game of bridge with friends or indulge in some other relaxation in the midst of our daily work.  It is something that will last an hour or so, and then we shall take up the grind again.  We are, however, involved in the whole life of society; its obligations are upon us; we have to assert ourselves in various situations; those factors are all lying back in the self.  But under the situations to which I am now referring that which lies in the background is fused with what we are all doing.  This, we feel, is the meaning of life–and one experiences an exalted religious attitude.  We get into an attitude in which everyone is at one with each other in so far as all belong to the same community…One’s interest is the interest of all.  There is a complete identification of individuals.  Within the individual there is a fusion of the “me” with the “I” (274).

During these fleeting moments, Mead argues, “the ‘me’ is not there to control the ‘I,’ but the situation has been so constructed that the very attitude aroused in the other stimulates one to do the same thing” (275).

I like to think that a class meeting should be something similar to the described game of bridge.  It is something that will last an hour, or so, and is relatively distinct from the rest of our day.  Here, we adopt an attitude of helpfulness, each of us playing a part in achieving understanding of the day’s topic.  The syllabus outlines our shared goals, and our mutual obligations to our classroom community.  When each of us conducts ourselves in line with these shared attitudes, the class might not only be educational, but even exhilarating.

Certainly, a student who texts in class is not allowing the “I” and “me” to fuse. The texting student, therefore, is going to experience the classroom “me” as pure social control, as a boring constraint rather than an intense experience of exaltation.  I don’t know about you, but I prefer exaltation to boredom, so if I can experience this educational buzz simply by keeping my phone in my pocket and taking the expectation to be a part of the conversation seriously, that seems like a pretty good deal (especially since it’s only for an hour, or so).  The exaltation, Mead tells us, is a product of team work.  Each participant must adjust their conduct relative to all of the others for the act to be a success.  This means that the texting student is also detracting from the experience of others who observe that their interest is not the interest of all.

There are connections to be made with Palmer’s suggestion that instructors may be left only with charismatic authority.  Like other forms of authority that Weber discusses, charismatic authority is a product of social relations.  Its source is more the regard of ‘disciples’ than anything innate to a leader.  Mead deconstructs the experience of charisma to show us how it might be conceived as a product of situations in which all actors cooperate with everyone involved.

In terms of pedagogy, it’s less what or how we profess than it is the work we do, with our students, to create a space conducive to engaged interaction.  Perhaps texting can be limited by asking students to participate in the production of exaltation.

Here is the cell phone statement from my most recent Social Theory syllabus:

I request that you do not use cell phones or laptops while in class as they detract from your engagement in what I intend to be a collaborative, deliberative, interactive environment.  Your non-participation detracts from everyone’s experience.

Mead, George H. and Charles W. Morris. 1934. Mind, Self & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago press.



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