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‘If your phone goes off, you’ll be asked to dance’

Around 2006, I created a cellphone policy for my students: “No cellphone use during class. No texting. No calls.”

For the most part, students were respectful when it came to using their phones in class. Texting was kept to a minimum, and we were just on the cusp of smartphone adoptions, so distractions from apps and games were limited.

The biggest obstacle back then was getting students to remember to mute their phones.

We’d start each class with a cellphone check, similar to the reminder theater goers get before a movie or live performance. In the early days, I’d forget to give that reminder at the beginning of class and, invariably, a musical ringtone would sound off.

It was so bad that I later revised the policy to read: “If your cellphone goes off during class, you’ll be asked to stand up and dance.”

Of course, this policy was written partly in jest, a way to lighten some of the more serious policies. The problem was that my students took this new language very seriously. I suspect it amused many of them. I only wish they had taken my other policies about attendance and late assignments as seriously.

Alas, this revised ringtone policy backfired.

A handful of students would purposely leave the volume turned up on their phones in hopes they would receive a call during class. This provided the more gregarious students (i.e., class clowns) an opportunity to share favorite songs, hits that other students would immediately recognize and sing.

Students didn’t see violations of the phone policy as punitive. They saw them as opportunities to get the class singing, and to show off a few dance moves.

It got so bad that even I joined in once when Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” filled the room. Instead of getting frustrated, I decided to sing along while the student danced, “Don’t worry about a thing / cause every little thing / is gonna be all right.”

I was off key, as was most of the class. Yes, I joined the chorus.

No, I did not join the dance. Even I have limits.

A few weeks ago, I uncovered an old syllabus with this language bolded in the policy section. There’s really no need for this kind of policy in my courses today, especially not during a pandemic. I wish there was. Plus, most students already have their phones set to mute. In 2020, it’s commonplace for us to silence our phones throughout the day, not just in class.

Now, when we expect to receive calls, it’s more about trying to remember to turn up the volume. After all, having the volume up is also helpful for those of us who frequently misplace our phones. When at home, I’m often heard pleading with my wife or kids, “Can someone call my phone? I can’t find it.”

Of course, this does me no good when it’s muted.

It’s times like these that make the joy of finding new ringtones feel like a distant memory.

So, consider this a “call” to bring back our fun ringtones. Check out apps like Zedge to find a new favorite, or make your own with apps like Ringtone Maker. Then turn up the ring volume and let the rest of us sing along.

Maybe we’ll even dance a little, too.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is a professor of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his

blog at www.adamearn.com.

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