Wednesday, March 16, 2005

 

A stand for principle

During my little health care crisis last week, I seriously considered bringing my cell phone into the classroom. This momentous decision was occasioned by perceived medical necessity. I was essentially on "telephone standby" with my treating health care professionals, who were going to call me – on my cell phone – either to make an appointment for an office visit that day or else advise me that they would simply phone in a prescription to my pharmacy. For various reasons I don't care to explain, I felt there was some degree of urgency in receiving this call, which did not come as the start time for my hour-long class approached. If I were to miss the call, I'd be unable to return the resulting voice mail message until the lunch hour, increasing the likelihood that I would not complete my medical business that day.

How simple it would be to announce to my students at the start of class that there was a chance I would receive an urgent phone call during the class. I would explain that the circumstances were somewhat unique and unlikely to recur. It would be a one time thing, interrupting class for no more than a brief moment. I would make a charming, self-deprecating joke. If the call were to come, I would say excuse me, hurry from the room, and be back before the students would even have a chance to surf to eBay.

But would it be a one time thing? Once I broke the cell phone barrier, what other "urgent" calls would I need to take during class? And could I, with any moral authority, demand that my students turn off their own cell phones in class? Might I be embarking on a slippery slope?

I find cell phones to be a regrettable technology. Their convenience is undeniable – nothing beats whipping out the ol' cell when you "have to" make a quick call, and I have no nostalgia whatever for the panic-riddled detour down city streets searching desperately for a pay phone in order to make a grace-saving call to your waiting date, only to find that the phone on the first block is ripped out, the phone on the second block is out of order, the phone on the third block eats your quarter(s) and the phone on the fourth block – all out of your way – works, but you've run out of change, so you run two more blocks to the corner store where they don't give you change, so you pick out a pack of gum, but you realize it costs 81 cents with tax, which won't yield enough change for the phone....

But what about the down sides? What about the deplorable environmental effects by thousands of 100-foot cell phone transmitters, sending out electromagnetic waves that are responsible for massive bird kills? What about the brain cancer risks that the cell phone companies, in their contracts, say don't exist but nevertheless you are warned, so use the cell phone at your own risk?

What about the deplorable effect on manners – people talking in waiting areas more than twice as loudly as they would if their interlocutor were seated next to them? People interrupting their conversation with you, their meal with you, their sexual intercourse with you, because they have to take the call, the call that somehow never had to be taken in the old days when the phone didn't travel about on the person?

What about the nervous inability to be quiet with oneself for a moment, the cell phone conversation becoming a placeholder for nervous fidgeting, like the cigarette?

What about the unbearable self importance? I am so important, I must communicate with my office from the doctor's office waiting room, the airport departure lounge, the rental car shuttle? When the truth of the matter is that NO CONVERSATION OF ANY PROFESSIONAL IMPORTANCE EVER TAKES PLACE ON A CELL PHONE in a public place? Because, important professional matters are typical confidential, so that any business matters that can safely be broadcast to everyone in a 10 yard radius in a crowded waiting area – as self important as they may seem – are not really important in any objective sense.

Which brings me back to my classroom. What would I have done in the days before cell phones with this waiting call? Would I have hunted down a 50-yard telephone extension cord and brought a phone into class? Don't be absurd. Would I have directed the call to the law school receptionist and asked him to interrupt my class with a signal that my very important call had come through? No, getting the call during class would not have been important enough for that. Ah.

So the truth is that technology creates its own sense of urgency. Before there were telephones in cars for ordinary folks, important phone calls could wait until you got out of your car to the office with the phone. But now, it's somehow vital that you have your cell phone on so you can be reached in your car -- or your classroom.

No, I decided. That will not do. I will not carry a cell phone into my class.

And, by the way, the call didn't come in, and I have lived to tell about it.

***

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