Course encourages deep thinking with a simple rule: no phones

A male student holds a pencil pointed at a book he reads in a classroom.

SF State senior Adam Tejeda reads his copy of "The Ethics of Ambiguity" by Simone de Beauvoir.

Assistant professor’s classroom tech ban promotes distraction-free reading

Wrapping your head around the philosophical musings of Friedrich Nietzsche can be tough enough. Try doing it when barraged by the ping-ping-ping of new texts and emails. That’s why a San Francisco State University professor has created a course that helps students explore deep thoughts by depriving them of their biggest distraction: their phones.

Carla Pennington

Assistant Professor of Humanities David Peña-Guzmán

Taught by San Francisco State Assistant Professor of Humanities David Peña-Guzmán, “The Reading Experiment: The Power of the Book” was offered for the first time this past spring, and will be offered again this fall. Once every two weeks, Peña-Guzmán and his students gather for a five-and-a-half-hour session. The students are allowed to use technology for the first half hour of class to take notes as Peña-Guzmán gives historical context to the day’s reading. After that, cell phones and laptops are collected and placed in what students have named the “bag of despair.” Students then spend the next four hours reading together in silence in a classroom that is optimal for focused study, with comfortable seats, snacks and a white noise machine to drown out background noises. The last hour of class the group discusses the assigned reading.

Peña-Guzmán says he’s trying to help students rediscover the simple but richly rewarding pleasure of reading.

“The goal is ultimately to create a distraction-free space where you can have a proto-meditative experience and lose yourself in a book — even if only for a couple of hours,” he said.

While students are given a heavy in-class reading load representing philosophers such as Nietzsche, feminist author Simone de Beauvoir and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, there is no midterm or final paper. Students are evaluated on class participation, attendance, in-class writing assignments and take-home essays that exhibit their grasp of the material.

Senior Adam Tejeda says it was initially hard to part with his phone, but he soon came to appreciate the joy of tech-free reading.

“Being able to come to a place where you’re just going to be reading for hours and deliberately give up your phone has changed the way I study in general,” he said. “It’s much easier to take things in without those distractions.”

Senior Shati Ayinde-Passmore says she would otherwise average anywhere from eight to 10 hours of phone screen time a day. The class has given her a reason to “put it down and step away.”

“Now, when I’m at home doing work, I feel comfortable putting my phone upstairs to just focus on my reading, and I get through it a lot faster,” she said.

The upper-division elective course fulfills a written communication requirement and can be used as credit toward the humanities major. While the theme in the spring was “Reflections on Human Existence,” Peña-Guzmán says the format of the class can be used to delve into any subject and is beneficial for educators and students alike.

“I really do look forward to this class. I read the books along with my students because I want to share that experience with them,” he said. “This course is about getting us back to the point where we can dive into a text without constantly stepping out. It’s about reconnecting with our ‘inner reader.’”