Cell phone ringtones infiltrate, disrupt classrooms

By Hassan S. Ali

The story is the same in every class, lecture, or discussion section: A professor is interrupted by the flamboyant ring-tone rendition of a popular rap song and distracted students are momentarily drawn to the source of the sound. The frantic rustling of purses and backpacks to silence cell phones during class has only recently started creating concerns, with professors taking measures against this common classroom nuisance.

“I am always amused that students seem to think that they cannot be in a classroom without a bottle of water and a cell phone,” said Allen Sanderson, senior lecturer of economics in the College. “Cell phones have become essentially pacifiers for adults; I assume that your mother, broker, or lover will leave a message if it’s important, so turn the damn thing off.”

According to a national survey by Student Monitor, just over 33 percent of U.S. college students had cell phones in 2000. In the fall of 2004, nearly 90 percent of students had cell phones.

Angela Anderson, manager of Streamline Wireless on 53rd Street and Harper Avenue, said she was not surprised by the number of cell phones on Chicago’s campus. “Almost all of our products are geared towards college-age students, and I think that [classroom] disturbances are always bound to happen,” she said, noting that Cingular Wireless’s adage of “Be Kind, Be Courteous” does not always ring true, especially with students.

A renowned expert on social etiquette and protocol, Jacqueline Whitmore, said that students can take simple steps to avoid embarrassing situations in the classroom. Apart from following a routine to remind people to turn off their phones, Whitmore recommended looking into a new feature of the technology. “Many wireless phones now have environmental settings that automatically adjust the phone and its features so you do not disrupt your surroundings,” she wrote as part of last July’s National Cell Phone Courtesy Month campaign. “The people you are with should take precedence over calls you receive.”

Joseph Piotroski, a professor at the Graduate School of Business, has a course syllabus that reads, “If a cell phone, pager, or related device rings during class, the offending student will receive…a fifty point deduction from their final exam score (for each recorded offense).” But despite the perceived nuisance of cell phone interruptions in many classes, Chicago professors and faculty generally have not taken such stringent measures.

“It’s such a clear issue, and there’s no ambiguity that phones needs to be turned off,” said Susan Art, dean of students in the College. “No professor has ever brought it up to me, which I think is a very good sign.”

A number of colleges, in contrast to Chicago, have implemented serious cell phone policies in their classrooms, making it clear that disturbances should not and will not be tolerated. At Rutgers University-New Brunswick, teaching assistants receive detailed guidelines on how to deal with cell phone interruptions. “A cell phone ringing during class is the same as a student getting up in the middle of a lecture and shrilly screaming in three-second intervals,” reads a Rutgers’s Teaching Assistant Program statement. “Make sure to inform your students that all cell phones and beepers must be turned off before they enter the classroom.”

The University administration has not seen the same kinds of problems as Rutgers or other schools, in which some “cell phone conduct policies” have been included as a part of official academic regulations. “I’m not aware of any written policy on cell phone use during classes here,” said Belinda Vazquez, assistant dean of students in the University. “I imagine that certain professors have their own individual policies about maintaining etiquette in the classroom, but otherwise it hasn’t been an issue.”

Arefa Patel, a second-year in the College, is one of the many students who have been annoyed by cell phones going off in class. “This guy’s phone went off and his ring tone was to a Bollywood song, and all the girls started laughing,” she said, adding that not all situations have been taken so lightly. “I’ve heard professors get mad about it. Someone’s phone was beeping, and the professor simply seemed agitated the first time, but after a few beeps, she asked everyone to turn off their phones because it was ‘annoying.'”