Students – like this one at the University of Maryland – know it. But many can’t stop playing screen games, even in class, so they won’t back a ban.

“Why,” asks this same student, “do professors take this lackadaisical approach when they can ban laptops and get rid of such high levels of distraction altogether?”

Because many professors like what UD has called The Morgue Classroom [scroll down]. A night of the living dead classroom — lights set low, silent students enrapt before screens, professors intoning PowerPoints — this is, let us admit, a beautiful thing, a mystical thing, a floating atmosphere that frees the dreaming mind to roam…

Emily Fish, who calls for the ban, is a freshman at College Park, and, as such, still educable. She can still be brought to feel the dark pull of the new classroom. But there’s undoubtedly a learning curve. Many of the changes occurring in twenty-first century classrooms need to be clarified to students. Think here of the problems Murray Siskind, in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, had with the students in his seminar celebrating the car crash.

“[My students think these more and more massive car crashes in movies] mark the suicide wish of technology. The drive to suicide, the hurtling rush to suicide.”

“What do you say to them?”

“These are mainly B-movies, TV movies, rural drive-in movies. I tell my students not to look for apocalypse in such places. I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old ‘can-do’ spirit. Each car crash is meant to be better than the last. There is a constant upgrading of tools and skills, a meeting of challenges. A director says, ‘I need this flatbed truck to do a midair double somersault that produces an orange ball of fire with a thirty-six-foot diameter, which the cinematographer will use to light the scene.’ I tell my students if they want to bring technology into it, they have to take this into account, this tendency toward grandiose deeds, toward pursuing a dream.”

“A dream? How do your students reply?”

“Just the way you did. ‘A dream?’ All that blood and glass, that screeching rubber. What about the sheer waste, the sense of a civilization in a state of decay?”

“What about it?” I said.

“I tell them it’s not decay they are seeing but innocence. The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something fiery and loud and head-on. It’s a conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naivete. We want to be artless again. We want to reverse the flow of experience, of worldliness and its responsibilities. My students say, ‘Look at the crushed bodies, the severed limbs. What kind of innocence is this?'”

“What do you say to that?”

“I tell them they can’t think of a car crash in a movie as a violent act. It’s a celebration. A reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs. I connect car crashes to holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth. We don’t mourn the dead or rejoice in miracles. These are days of secular optimism, of self-celebration. We will improve, prosper, perfect ourselves. Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying, walking on wings. The people who stage these crashes are able to capture a lightheartedness, a carefree enjoyment that car crashes in foreign movies can never approach.”

“Look past the violence.”

“Exactly. Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”

The Morgue Classroom breaks away from complication to make the classroom a chapel of private fantasies – sex fantasies, sports fantasies, gun fantasies, crash fantasies, whatever you seek from the screen.

Perhaps eventually the Morgue Classroom will shake itself awake and morph into something like a circle jerk. But that’s probably not for a few more years.

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2 Responses to ““We’d all be better off if more professors [would ban] laptops.””

  1. Jeremy Bangs Says:

    Congratulations on one of the better posts about Thanksgiving this year.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jeremy: Thank you.

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