Complaining about Comcast is sort of like complaining about death or taxes and about as common. I know that. But because of a Twitter exchange I had, I thought I’d add to the genre generally and specifically to my latest Twitter follower, @ComcastLisa. This is more for her than anything else, so if you have had your fill of internet posts complaining about Comcast, feel free to move along. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read on.
This post was born out of this exchange with Marc Bousquet:
As I say here, I don’t disagree with the often cited figure that 75% of instructors in higher education are are not tenure track, and it’s certainly not that I think everything is hunky-dory on the good ship academia. It’s just that I think this needs to be unpacked a bit.
There has been a rash of “turn off the laptop” articles in various places in the educational media, but I think what has pushed me over the edge and motivated this post is Clay Shirky’s “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away” on Medium. In the nutshell, Shirky went to the no laptop camp because (he says) students can’t multitask and students are too easily distracted by the technology, particularly with the constant alerts from things like Facebook.
First off, while I am no expert regarding multitasking, it seems to me that there are a lot of different layers to multitasking (or perhaps it would make more sense to say attention on task) and most of us perform some level of multitasking all the time. Consider driving. I think it’s always a bad idea to be texting while actually moving in traffic because, yes, that’s too much multitasking for most people. But how about texting or checking email or social media while at a long light? I do it all the time. Or how about talking on the phone? For me, it’s easy to talk on the phone while driving if I am using headphones or if I’m driving a familiar route in normal conditions. When I’m driving an unfamiliar route in bad weather or in heavy traffic, not so much.
Second, distraction and not paying a lot of attention in class isn’t exactly new. When I was in high school, I sat in the back of the room in that chemistry class I was required to take and I read paperbacks “hidden” under the table. Students used to pass these things called “notes” on paper. Students did and still do whisper at each other in distracting ways. As both a college student and as a college teacher (certainly as a GA way back when), I’ve been with/had students who were distracted by and multitasking with magazines, newspapers, other people, with napping, etc., etc.
I agree with Shirky and some of the articles he cites that what’s interesting and different about contemporary electronic devices generally and social media in particular is that these are designed to distract us, to break our concentration. I routinely experience the sort of instant and satisfying gratification suggested in the abstract of this article. But to suggest that teachers/professors can solve this attention problem by asking students to temporarily turn off their laptops and pay attention to the sage on the stage strikes me as both naive and egotistical.
So here are three tips for Clay and other would-be haters for how to mentally adjust to the inevitability of laptops in their classrooms.
Number one, stop lecturing so much. When professors take the “stand and deliver” approach to “teaching,” the laptops come out. And why shouldn’t they? In an era where anyone can easily record a video and/or audio of a lecture that can be “consumed” by students on their own time, why should they sit and pay attention to you droning on?
I realize this is easy for me to say since I teach small classes with 25 of fewer students, but there are lots of ways to break up the talking head in a large lecture hall class too. Break students into groups to ask them to discuss the reading. Ask students to take a moment to write about a question or a reading and then ask them to respond. Require your students to discuss and respond. Use the time in class to actually do work with the laptops (individually and collaboratively) to do things. Just stop thinking that teaching means standing there and talking at them.
Number two, be more interesting. If as a teacher (or really, just a speaker) you are noticing a large percentage of students not paying attention and turning to laptops or cell phones or magazines or napping, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being boring. I notice this in my own teaching all the time: when my students and I are interested in a conversation or an activity, the laptops stay closed. When I start to drone on or it otherwise starts getting boring, I see the checks on Facebook or Twitter or ESPN Sports or whatever. I use that as a cue to change up the discussion, to get more interesting.
Number three, “Let it Go.” Because here’s the thing: there’s really nothing professors can do (at least in the settings where I teach) to completely eliminate these kinds of distractions and multitasking and generally dumb stuff that students sometimes do. Students are humans and humans are easily distracted. So instead of spending so much time demanding perfect attention, just acknowledge that most of us can get a lot done with a laptop open. If you as the teacher are not the center of the universe, it’ll be okay.
I thought about combining this post with one about the job market in general and the differences between fields like composition and rhetoric and other fields in “the humanities” generally. And I just heard a story on NPR about the tough market for people with PhDs in the sciences for “postdocs” looking for tenure-track jobs I thought about reflecting on here. (Just to give it away a bit: academic careers for researchers are tough with all the cuts to funding, but the silver lining does appear to be work in the private sector for these folks).
But instead, I just want to pass along the ad and information about the search we have running in my program. The ad itself is after the break; I’m not on the committee (anyone with questions about the position should contact Derek Mueller) and I am not speaking for EMU or anyone but myself. But I just wanted to share a couple thoughts about EMU and the area:
- EMU is a great place to work. Oh sure, we have some of the funding problems of a lot of regional and MA granting kinds of institutions, but generally speaking, the finances and leadership have been pretty stable in recent years. The economy is improving in Michigan, so I’m crossing my fingers that some of that will trickle down from the state to higher education funding. EMU has a very strong faculty union, and I think that helps the working conditions a lot. This has some cons but the pros are pretty enormous in terms of setting the terms for work (both in terms of teaching load and what it takes to get tenure and promotion) and in terms of having a way to complain about problems. Let me put it this way: when I read about crazy things happening at other similar kinds of universities around the country– sudden increases in teaching load, “furloughs,” some sketchy hirings and firings, no way to grieve a problem, etc., etc.– I always think “that ain’t gonna happen at EMU.”
- We’ve got great and interesting students. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and there are lots of education majors. But that’s been changing at EMU for a number of years, and increasingly, students come to EMU for all sorts of different programs, including our undergraduate and MA program in written communication. I would describe EMU as “opportunity granting” in that it isn’t as selective (or as expensive) as the University of Michigan or even Michigan State, but we’re not an “open admissions” university and everything we hear from admissions suggests we’re attracting students with higher high school GPAs and test scores. We’re kind of a commuter school and a returning student school, though there are a lot of traditional students living on campus too.
- I’ve got fantastic colleagues. There are nine of us who are coming out of a “composition and rhetoric” sensibility in terms of training and teaching. That’s a big deal. My first job years and years ago at Southern Oregon University was a problem for a bunch of different reasons, but one of the biggest problems was I was “it” as far as the comp/rhet guy. There are a lot of jobs like that out there, and let me tell ya, that’s a lonely lonely space.
- I also think this is a great opportunity because of where we are at with both our undergraduate and graduate program in writing. We have a well-established major and MA in writing, which means that whoever we hire isn’t going to have to invent the wheel. At the same time, we also are welcoming to new ideas and contributions in all kinds of different ways.
- We’re right next to the University of Michigan– in fact, UM’s central campus is just over five miles away from EMU. The downside to this is that EMU is pretty much always overshadowed by “Big Blue.” When you’re at a party and you meet someone who is talking about working at “the university,” they don’t mean us. But the upsides are enormous. For example, faculty at EMU have the same borrowing privileges from the UM Library system as UM faculty (which reminds me I need to take some books back). And of course it’s really easy to partake in all of the various cultural, intellectual, and sporting things that come to the area because of Michigan.
- It’s a great area to live, particularly Ann Arbor. Can’t sugar-coat the whole winter thing and last winter was the absolute worst. People I know who have lived here 40 years can’t remember it any colder. But besides the summers being great, it’s just a nice community. Ypsilanti has its pros and cons (I live in Ypsilanti, FWIW) as a kind of funky, artsy, blue-collar, rust-belt kind of place, less a “college town” than a small city on the outskirts of Detroit and the edges of Ann Arbor. For the travel-minded, we’re conveniently closer to the Detroit Metro airport than most of Detroit. And Ann Arbor itself is, in my view, great. It’s consistently voted one of the best places to live in America and one of the best college towns. Lots of great restaurants and shops and bars, a very vibrant downtown area, lots of festivals and events, great schools, not one but two Whole Foods, yadda, yadda, yadda. Given that a lot of universities and colleges are in the middle nowhere, I feel very lucky to be here.
Okay, enough from me. If you’re interested, check out the ad.
We had been having problems with our Comcast/Xfinity/Whatever it’s called internet access for a while, and my calls to Comcast to check on the service were pretty futile (“Is your modem plugged in? Is your computer on? You should unplug your modem and then plug it back in. Okay, is your modem plugged in?” and repeat).
I finally got around to doing some “research” with the Google and, according to some web site I found (so obviously it must be true), our modem was no longer supported. And actually, that did have a ring of truth to it because that modem had to be at least six years old, maybe a lot older. So off to Best Buy and then back home with a new modem.
I knew that there was a reactivation process with the modem, so I was prepared for being on the phone with Comcast again. I made it through the electronic screening gauntlet and started talking to a nice human. “I need to set up a new modem,” I said. “I can help you with that,” she said. We were off to the races.
Things started turning bad almost immediately when the “tech” person asked me for the number on the back of the modem. “Which one? There are three of them”– that is, a couple of different device serial numbers of some sort and (just to skip ahead a bit, the one that Comcast actually needed) the Media Access Control ID. She asked for all of them, which took a while because a) it was a crappy phone connection and b) I’m pretty sure this person was not in the U.S. So there was a lot of me saying “D! I said D!” and her saying “Did you say B? or G?” But fine, eventually we worked it out and she had all the numbers she could ever need.
Then after about twenty minutes of numbers and waiting for something, my increasingly unfriendly and less competent customer service person said something like “oh, no!” in a low voice. “What?” I asked. “The system went down, I… I… I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she said. We were about 40 minutes in at this point. I’d had it.
“You know, this is really stupid. I don’t think you know what you’re doing here,” I said in my testy angry voice. She sighed, and then– click– hung up.
oh no she didn’t….
So I called right back, ran through the Comcast phone tree, got to a human. “How can I help you?” she asked. “I just got hung up on by another customer service person. That’s completely unacceptable and I would like to speak with a supervisor,” I said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry that happened sir, but I’m sure I can help you with–”
“I JUST GOT HUNG UP ON BY ANOTHER CUSTOMER SERVICE PERSON. THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE AND I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH A SUPERVISOR!” I said a bit more forcefully.
That worked. I got on with a supervisor (or at least someone who said he was a supervisor) who got the modem running. But even better: the supervisor dude apologized and completely jacked up our service for all the trouble. So now, we’ve got (for the next year at least) HBO, Showtime, a bunch of channels I’m sure we’ll never watch, and some higher speed of internet access. There must be some kind of checkbox on a service screen at Comcast that he clicked to give us everything.
So the moral of the story:
- If you get a new modem for your Comcast internet set-up, plan on spending the better part of an afternoon to get it done.
- Ask for the supervisor, especially if they hang up on you.
- And hey, Comcast supervisor dude: good job of turning this into a positive.