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Academics' Forum: What if We Took Unplugging Seriously in Academia?
Jim Rebar
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Academics' Forum: What if We Took Unplugging Seriously in Academia?

Allison S. Gabriel, University of Arizona

A new semester has started at the University of Arizona, which means I spent the past several weeks revising my syllabus. In particular, I was carefully writing my statement about why computers are not allowed during class time, which always creates quite a stir. Because I’m asked about this when I tell fellow academics that I do this, here’s exactly what I say:

Abbreviated versions of the notes for each chapter are available on D2L. You are to print these notes and bring them to class to keep up with note-taking. Importantly, because these notes are made available to you, the use of computers is not allowed during class unless there is an exceptional circumstance that is approved by Dr. Gabriel. This is to create a positive classroom atmosphere of engagement, which cannot be achieved if half the class is sitting behind a computer screen. Students who are caught using their computers will not only be asked to close their computers down, but also asked to leave class for the day.

I promise, you will be OK not using your computer for this class! In fact, it is likely going to help your grade. Don’t believe me? Check out this research that shows how grades improve when students take notes by hand versus on a computer: http://www.npr.org/2016/04/17/474525392/attention-students-put-your-laptops-away.

In this explanation (and as I discuss in my class), I reference work by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), which highlights that students who take notes by hand—compared to taking notes via their computers—have higher performance scores on conceptual questions. This is important for students in my Organizational Behavior class, as application-based and conceptual questions are the core of my exam content instead of questions that are more definition based.

When I introduce this topic in class, most students are accepting, but some of course remain resistant. In light of this resistance, I often try to crack jokes about how they will survive not having access to social media for the next 75 minutes and that an e-mail isn’t going to come in that really, really, really needs to be addressed right that very second. I often get a few laughs, people save what they’re working on and shut down their computers, and we move on. This decision hasn’t hurt me in terms of any comments on my teaching evaluations (or, at least, I haven’t seen anything yet thank goodness), and I have seen a noticeable difference in the level of participation in class and in their exam performance. Also, as I’ve written before in my columns, this is all happening in a really large section of almost 250 students.

Because it is the start of the semester, this also means a lot of catching up with colleagues about what we all were up to this summer. For me, Mike and I were in Tucson a lot, and this was largely by choice—we’ve lived in five different houses in three different states in the 4 years we’ve been married, and we decided that sticking around and having a low-key summer was well-deserved. We also were very fortunate to have several family members and friends from our respective hometowns visit us, so we didn’t feel too bad about staying put. That said, Tucson gets really hot during summer (but, don’t worry, it’s a dry heat), and we decided that we wanted to take at least one vacation to have a change of scenery. Well, that’s part of the story. The other part of the story of how we took our vacation was that I had insomnia one night during a revise and resubmit I was working on this past spring semester (on recovery no less) and decided to randomly book us a vacation at two o’clock in the morning. Luckily, I picked right, and it was a vacation both Mike and I really wanted to take: a week-long trip covering three national parks (Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce—all awesome and highly recommended), filled with as much hiking as we could get in.

It was on this trip that I truly realized how hard a time I have at unplugging, even though I make it sound so easy for my students when I tell them to put their computers, their iPhones, and so forth away. The revision I was working on that caused the bout of insomnia that led me to book our vacation was still going on prior to my trip, and the day before we left my coauthors and I received really positive feedback that necessitated another round of analysis checking to make sure we had everything perfectly finalized. I passed some work off to my (awesome) coauthors, put up my out-of-office e-mail, and set off on vacation, doing my best not to sit on my phone during the drive and just take in the Arizona scenery. But, it was really hard to mentally disengage. When you get feedback on a paper—good or bad—you want to work on it! It’s how lots of us academics are programmed, and Mike let me have my moments of rambling about the paper in the car because he knew I was excited until I finally decided to shut it down.

Now, one way to force unplugging is to go on vacation somewhere that doesn’t have cell phone reception, and that’s exactly what happened throughout the majority of our time at the national parks. Honestly, I wanted to be unplugged, I really did. But, I still had my phone in my hiking pack at all times (for the iPhone Health app, of course) and assumed most of the time that there was no cell phone reception. However, there was one particular moment that made me rethink whether this was really letting me unplug. When hiking in Zion, Mike and I decided to tackle the Angel’s Landing hike, which is harrowing to say the least (think steep drop-offs and chains to help pull you up [and stop you from falling over the edge]). It was an adrenaline rush, and incredibly hard, and the vast majority of the hike my mind was racing, focusing on where my next step was going to be. But, right at the top, at the very peak at the end of the hike, my cell phone reception must have clicked back in and I heard that all too familiar ping of my e-mail going off. A large part of me was focused on the fact that we had just made it to the top (and hadn’t plummeted off the edge—seriously, look up a video of this hike; we both agreed we would never do it again!), but a tiny part of me was still curious about what the e-mail was that came in. That moment made something really clear to me: even when I put up an out of office and I am physically out of the office, mentally I’m not. Maybe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I really love what I do, and work often doesn’t feel like work. But that doesn’t mean it needs to always be present in my mind.

I kept my phone in my hiking pack for the rest of the trip (again—that Health app!), but this time, I kept it on silent. On the very last day of the trip when we went back to Zion and decided to hike The Narrows, the phones stayed in the car, and I really, truly went in unplugged, and not just because we were waist deep in water during the hike, but because we decided that we didn’t need a million pictures, or any attachments to what was happening outside of Zion. It was great. Nothing exploded in my Inbox. It was OK that we didn’t have a bunch of selfies to document the day (let’s be honest—we can find pictures on the Internet). With my phone really gone, I didn’t find my mind wandering as much as it usually did. You would think that I’d listen to my own work about the importance of recovery, or my colleagues who research evening smartphone use (Lanaj, Johnson, & Barnes, 2014) or answering postwork e-mails (Barber & Santuzzi, 2015; Butts, Becker, & Boswell, 2015), but sometimes it takes one crystallizing moment to put things into perspective.

So, keep this in mind for next summer, or the next time you sneak off for a midsemester vacation: when your out-of-office is on, make it really on. I promise, your colleagues and coauthors (even ones like me that stay up thinking about revisions sometimes) won’t be mad. If anything, they might thank you, because you are helping contribute to a culture where we as academics actually take out-of-office notices seriously and not just as a signal that you might be a bit slower to respond to e-mails. As for me? I’m going to take a cue from my students this semester and try to kick the plugged-in habit for good and not just on our next vacation.


Barber, L. K., & Santuzzi, A. M. (2015). Please respond ASAP : Workplace telepressure and employee recovery. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology20, 172–189. doi: 10.1037/a0038278

Butts, M. M., Becker, W. J., & Boswell, W. R. (2015). Hot buttons and time sinks: The effects of electronic communication during nonwork time on emotions and work-nonwork conflict. Academy of Management Journal58, 763–788. doi: 10.5465/amj.2014.0170

Lanaj, K., Johnson, R. E., & Barnes, C. M. (2014). Beginning the workday yet already depleted? Consequences of late-night smartphone use and sleep. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes124, 11-23. doi: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.01.001

Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science25, 1159-1168. doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581

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