As college students enter the last few weeks of the fall semester, a course on cell phone cultures is catching a lot of eyes and ears with its very public final exam.
Standing in a circle in the shadow of the George Mason University clock tower at the stroke of noon — well noon-ish, because this is college and inevitably there is a student late for class — the first of English Professor Stephen Groening’s flash-mob final exams begins.
Armed with a cell phone, Mason senior Emily Clough, 22, shouts at a classmate standing five feet away, “I can’t understand what you’re saying. Maybe I should Google it.”
Fellow senior Becca Marshall, 22, shouts back, “The cell phone is paradoxal [sic] because it promises to connect us with people who are far away but disrupts us with people who are near.”
As more students join Clough’s and Marshall’s 15-minute flash-mob rants on the powers of cellular communication technology, the scene turns to chaos.
The flash-mob final, Professor Groening explained while taking video with his iPhone on the sidelines, is meant to reflect the culmination of themes discussed by the class over the semester. For the final, the 28 students enrolled in the class were divided into four groups of seven.
Almost all of the class lessons, Groening explains, incorporate the use of cell phones. Indeed, while other professors may fluster at students using their cell phones in class, Groening’s syllabus reads, “Bring your cell phone to class! During certain class sessions, the use of cellular phones will be permitted, encouraged, and in some cases mandatory.”
The course — ENGH 319: Cell Phone Cultures — is in its first semester at Mason. While under the English Department heading, the course is part of the Film and Media Studies program.
The ability to use her phone in class was attractive to Marshall, a public relations major with a minor in electronic journalism.
“It caught my attention when I was looking at the course catalogue because you don’t see a lot of cell phoning allowed in a class,” she said. “I’m much more aware of my cell phone behavior; and I analyze everyone else’s… I like to think it has made me a much more considerate cell phone user.”
The use of cell phones in class also attracted Clough, a history major, who was looking for an elective to add to her English minor.
“It really helps us look at technology in a positive light because so often it’s talked about negatively,” she said. “It’s a hard class… I think I did not necessarily take it seriously [at first]. I thought we’d be watching videos like on pop culture. But it’s a lot of work.”
Among the lessons taught during the semester are those on cell phone surveillance, tracking and spying, the use of Smartphone technologies — including Facebook and Twitter — in social movements, and debates on whether cell phones make cultures less or more communicative.
During one class, all discussion was texted by phone. This virtual, but in-classroom silent lesson, took place entirely on Twitter.
“What I want from them is the ability to critically analyze everyday life. So much of what they hear [about cell phones] is negative,” Groening said. “It’s taken for granted. There are basically two groups. There is ‘cell phones are bad and are destroying society’ and there’s ‘cell phones are great.’”
Student reaction, Groening said, has been mixed but positive overall.
“Some of the students love the freedom of creativity. Others want more structure and are asking me ‘Well, what do you want [on assignments]?’” he said.
GMU English Department Chairman Robert Matz said the class reflects cultural changes in literature that are caused by technological gains.
“The history of writing is really tied to the history of technology,” he said, citing the printing press, the typewriter and the personal computer as part of this joint evolution. “Every time technology changes, so does the way we write and thinking about writing.”
GMU’s English Department, Matz said, has a lengthy tradition of integrating pop, literature and technology cultures. While some may complain that students have become worse spellers and writers because of texting, Matz said he has seen the opposite.
“I’ve seen — as an instructor here — how important cell phones have become to students’ lives, not only from a communications perspective but from an entertainment perspective… If anything, my students are better writers now than they were 10-15 years ago.
“One way to look at it is that through Twitter, students are writing more than ever.”
Groening said he hopes the course enjoys continued student interest. It is next scheduled to be offered during the summer semester.