Colleges say cell phones just a lot of talk



Sally Notarino owns a cell phone. She carries it with her to work in the Saybrook College dining hall each morning, and she uses it on breaks to talk to her husband and friends. Last year, and the year before, she would occasionally take a call during work — on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, when several students chewed in silence and listened as she discussed the collapse of the World Trade Center.

But eat breakfast in Saybrook this week, and you won’t spot Notarino on the phone. Like a few other colleges, Saybrook has banned cell phones from its dining hall. And unlike any other college, Saybrook is making a serious effort to enforce the ban.

“The use of cell phones in the dining hall inhibits conversation,” Saybrook Master Mary Miller said. “You didn’t used to bring your phone with its cord to the family dinner table.”

Miller and her aides printed reminders about Saybrook’s no-phone policy and left them on each table in the dining hall for a week. For most students, the reminders were a surprise — they had either ignored the policy or forgotten about it.

But according to Miller, students will not see cell phones used in the dining hall anymore.

Other masters share Miller’s distaste for the student who interrupts his own dinner conversation — and disturbs the tables nearby — in order to pull out his jangling Samsung and field a call.

“I have occasionally joked with students, telling them that cell phones will be confiscated and publicly destroyed,” Branford College Master Steven Smith said in an e-mail.

Smith added that he could not tolerate the “constant interruption of those irritating tunes played by the cell phones.”

“This actually led to a shoving incident between two students last year in our dining hall,” Smith said.

Notarino said she does not understand the no-phone policy.

“What’s the difference between talking to your neighbor and talking on the phone?” she said. “When someone’s cell phone rings, they’re panic-stricken to run [outside].”

Cell phones are ubiquitous on campus, not just over lunch, but in libraries, on sidewalks, at seminar tables and in lecture halls. David Noyola ’04 compared John Gaddis’ Cold War lecture to a social gathering. In the few minutes required by Gaddis to get his students’ attention at the beginning of a recent class, Noyola observed as the person behind him placed “no less than two” phone calls to people sitting in the auditorium.

“And she sees one of the people a few feet away and says, ‘Hey! Why didn’t you answer your phone?’” Noyola said.

Gaddis said he has heard only one phone ringing in the first third of the semester, but that he had expected to hear more.

Most students admit they think cell phones are inappropriate in class, and many will leave the dinner table for the privacy of their college common room if their illicit Audiovox starts to ring. But the ethics of phone use are still sketchy, and even conscientious users find themselves in awkward situations.

“I’d like to say that I’m considerate,” Alexis Hoag ’04 said. “But evidently I’m not.”

Hoag recalled the day that she was kicked out of Koffee Too? for talking on her phone. But she said there are times she has been in Starbucks completely surrounded by cell phones and “people gabbing on and on.”

Despite all of its conveniences, the cell phone distresses English professor Leslie Brisman. He said he has sat through the inane cellular chats of students during office hours, and sometimes the constant interference has made him “just want to cry.” He added that the use of cell phones may not be just an annoyance — in a larger sense, cell phones are “destroy[ing] the fabric of social relations.”

“What I notice is that cell phone communication has a shockingly large component of unfiltered conversation,” Brisman said in an e-mail. “The result is a loss of the power of shaping experience that is so much a part of personality. We ‘are’ not just what happens to us but how we filter what happens to us.”

Brisman said students who rely too much on their cell phones may not develop into the type of people with interesting things to say. Those who immediately call their parents to tell them about the sticky rice they are eating at dinner, for example, are not really conversing. Instead, he said, they are just making noise.

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