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“[E]ach and every one of my professors told the students that computers are not allowed in their classrooms.”

A student at Maryland’s Loyola University (UD‘s mother attended Mount Saint Agnes, a school that disappeared into Loyola many years ago) notes that all of her professors this semester have banned laptops. She goes on to say this:

The Aristotelian pursuit of knowledge for the sake of its virtue is over. Whether one believes that this is something to mourn or laud, the fact remains that most students attend college to get a job after four years of trudging through the core requirements.

I do not fault Loyola professors for wanting to prohibit laptop use so that they can better engage their students during the short periods in which the pupils, slumped in their seats and battling exhaustion, ennui or something of a bit more dubious nature, appear in class.

Yet, I do take offense to the haughty tirade that accompanies this announcement. Professors can ban laptops without making scathing generalizations about our generation.

I agree. Just put it somewhere on your syllabus that the devices aren’t wanted and let it go. That’s all it takes.

As to the death of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Yikes. Especially sad to read this from someone who’s attending a Jesuit school.

Margaret Soltan, September 13, 2011 2:36PM
Posted in: technolust

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13 Responses to ““[E]ach and every one of my professors told the students that computers are not allowed in their classrooms.””

  1. francofou Says:

    This surprises you?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Well, yes. I thought Jesuits might be the last holdouts.

  3. Michael McNabb, Attorney Says:

    It appears that the Beer & Circus described by Murray Sperber now affects even the Jesuits (who owned my high school). Click on the link at the end of UD’s post. Next to the heading “Unleash the Hounds” there is a large photo of soccer action.

  4. david foster Says:

    “The Aristotelian pursuit of knowledge for the sake of its virtue is over”…if we’re honest, wasn’t it always only a minority of college students who were pursuing knowledge for its own sake? If we look at all the generations of Englishmen who learned Latin and Greek and classical history in their public schools and at Oxford and Cambridge….how many of them had a burning desire to read the classics versus how many of them were doing it because it was expected of a person of their class?

    Still, they did mostly accept the expectation.

  5. Timothy Burke Says:

    I appreciate that you don’t soapbox about how this is a generational issue, o tempora o mores, but…you’re not matter-of-fact or lowkey about it as an issue. That’s part of the problem with the whole thing. The people who are matter-of-fact about it tend to not have a blanket policy, a crusade, a jeremiad. Or to be in-the-tank enthusiasts for laptops. They make situational decisions, course-by-course, student-by-student, year-by-year. So if being matter-of-fact is the right thing to do, then that might suggest that making a fetish of laptops (yeah or nay) is the wrong thing.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Tim: I’m matter-of-fact about it in the classroom – just a note on the syllabus, and a sentence about it in the first lecture. So far, that’s all that’s been needed. So my problem with the Loyola professors the student describes is that they’re just venting – it’s unnecessary, and it generates a certain amount of ill will.

    As to being situational about it – I can’t think of a course in which laptops would be anything but a curse – for all involved. Having a consistent policy isn’t the same as having a fetish. Note for instance that a number of law schools now have a no-laptop-in-any-class policy. They’re not fetishists. They’ve simply read the research.

  7. Jonathan Freedman Says:

    I don’t know if it counts as a making a big deal or not, but I do take 5 minutes or so at the beginning of the semester to explain the no-laptop policy I started imposing 2 years ago. I think it’s important for them to hear the reasoning behind it, even if they think I’m being unfair or mean, which by and large they don’t. I also make a big pitch for the importance of learning how to be bored–or to put it differently, undistracted when confronted with tedium–as a life skill.

  8. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I had one student produce a letter from the office that deals with accommodations for problems. She gets to use a laptop.

  9. Timothy Burke Says:

    Leaving aside the question of accommodations, I can only tell you that I have had students who are adroit, successful users of laptops and information technology enhance discussions in my class enormously by providing interesting, relevant information in response to a twist in the conversation. I think that skill in using information is something as intellectually important (and richly complex) as writing or reading, and I teach consciously to developing that skill (and debating it as a part of being intellectual) in the classroom.

    You can tell me you think that unlikely in the average classroom, inappropriate in a lecture to 400 students (which I think is an inappropriate format for most higher education anyway), or risky in the light of possible inappropriate use. These are important discussions. But if you want to tell me that I haven’t seen what I’ve seen, that it is definitionally impossible that I have had the experiences as a teacher that I have had, I don’t know what to say. That’s pretty much the operational definition of having a prejudice: an inability to believe that something that you do not believe possible has happened, even when a reliable witness tells you that it has and does.

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I disagree that students tapping away in search of info while discussion is going on is a good thing, Tim. It seems to me an unnecessary distraction for the student — and of course the images of their shifting screens and the sounds of their tapping distract their fellow students.

    The skill you’re describing doesn’t in any case seem to me intellectual. Secretarial, rather. You’re describing classes in which certain students helpfully tap away as you discuss this or that subject, and when they find a useful kernel, they share it with the class. Aside from the intrinsic distraction of any laptop use in a small human gathering, I think the mainstreaming of this activity has the effect of undermining students’ sense of their intellectual autonomy – their ability to get somewhere intellectually in a classroom all by themselves, without having recourse to authority. The Googler with the laptop has a tendency to stop students from making mistakes, from following their thoughts freely this way and that, from letting their own elaborations of ideas flow without hindrance.

    The authority of the laptop in this setting is rather like the authority of the ATM machine Jack Gladney interacts with in DeLillo’s White Noise. When its bank account balance number matches the number Gladney has painstakingly come up with on his own, he says:

    “Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval.”

    The classroom, as the guy who started the Teach Naked movement says, should be, to the extent possible, naked. Human beings, professor and students together, thinking.

  11. Timothy Burke Says:

    Here I think you’re being far too overly prescriptive about the range of practices that can work in a classroom–and narrating, in the absence of witnessing, what you think someone else must absolutely have been doing and thinking and being.

    Literature and poetry, as you well know, have a thousand paths to follow. I think teaching and discussion and dialogue do as well. When someone that I take to have integrity is confident in the integrity of what they do, I take that as the first and most important fact, and I’m reluctant to tell them what could and could not be true about what they do in the face of that assurance.

    Would you ban a student from looking in a book for a passage that they think is relevant to a discussion? If you were discussing Eliot and they happened to have a volume of Pound’s poetry with them, would you ban them from opening that and searching for a half-remembered verse that they wanted to bring to bear on the conversation? If they happened to have a cultural history of the turn to Catholicism among British intellectuals, would you ban the student from looking at that to recall something? Would they have to remember from their own reading what they were looking for? Would looking at the index be ok? You teach about texts: are you telling me that your classroom is naked of text? Or naked save the text you provide and no other? That you don’t believe in discovery of information applied to interpreting literature, in connection between texts, in the relevance of one literary work to another, of the context of writing to the understanding of literature?

    That’s an especially weird position for someone who likes DeLillo if so: DeLillo’s fictions are drenched in historical reference, understanding the meaning of those references is absolutely necessary for reading him and discussing him. You and I have the advantage of having lived in times proximate to DeLillo’s references: we know many of them from experience, and others we can acquire from study. A student born in 1992 doesn’t have the same advantage. Underworld is a maze of clues, allusions, half-connected dots: one should read this naively? Or only look for information about its references and allusions outside of the classroom, never within it? Or only wait and rely upon the professor to answer all questions about what this is, who that is, where that is?

    I simply disagree at a very fundamental level that a facility with information and search is “secretarial”. I think it’s profoundly intellectual if it is treated as such, meaning a practice whose norms, uses, meanings and aesthetics can be debated, imagined, dreamed about. That you choose not to is fine: it’s an authentic way of approaching both pedagogy and inquiry. But don’t insist that it is impossible that anyone else could treat it so. Gleick’s The Information: A Theory, A History, A Flood would be a good place to start if you wanted to consider this possibility rather than dictate impossibility.

  12. Margaret Soltan Says:

    For me, Tim, the crucial problem is the nature of the computer as medium in the classroom. A text, one text – a novel under discussion, a philosophical essay under discussion – is a singular object on which a thinking person can focus. All of the people in the classroom can restrict their focus to that one thing, that particular argument, narrative, style of prose, so that when they talk about that thing they are all looking at it simultaneously, and they have all read it.

    There’s this notion – as in the much hyped new Waste Land app – that the more the merrier. I’ll understand that poem better if I can immediately pull up a picture of the Margate Sands resort, or Eliot’s wife’s psychiatric history. Eliot didn’t affix images to the poem; he seems to have wanted it to be read, words on a page, as a self-contained poetic expression. The function of a professor would seem to be to put the poem in front of students, and organize their reactions to, and discussions about, the poem. Certainly in her remarks she will probably evoke, among other things, her sense of the larger cultural world that prompted it, etc.. But it will be her (educated) sense; it will not be “For the larger cultural issues, take out your laptop and go to the following essay about modernism.”

    The computer is an information and an image world – it brings literally everything into the classroom and invites students to roam, range, wander, and drift among everything. Many professors know the surreality of lecturing on, say, Benjamin’s essay on the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction, while the student to their left is watching Harry Potter or a Red Sox game. Much farther back in the classroom, another student is watching pornography. Professors are banning laptops because computers turn the classroom into a whirling surreality of images and words. They make it impossible to control what students are reading, watching, and thinking about in the classroom. I know that you are arguing that professors can control this medium. I simply disagree. It’s the nature of the medium to be uncontrollable in the classroom.

    Throughout our exchange you’ve called people like me fetishists, bigots, and dictators. My language might be strong, and I’m obviously unconvinced that, whatever your sense of some of your classroom experiences, they represent pedagogical advances. I suppose that makes me stubborn, or whatever, but I don’t think it makes me f, b, or d. As you – and countless universities that try to measure teaching – know, it’s very difficult to judge the nature and value of what goes on in any given classroom on any given day. From reading the research, talking to colleagues, doing my own teaching, and reading a lot of professors and students who’ve written anecdotally on the subject, I’ve concluded that mobile devices brought into the classroom are not enriching but are indeed part of the “flood” of information the book you recommend to me features in its title.

    Students are flooded with information all day, all of their lives. They live on the computer. Bringing that mode of distraction into the classroom – removing one of the few unconnected spheres (I guess church might be the other) from students’ lives – undermines so much of what’s unique about the classroom as a place.

    As you know, we already see the logic of bringing the computer into the classroom playing out: Online is the future of universities. Why have classrooms at all when it’s more and more just internet user v. internet user in there?

    I realize what I’ve said about teaching cuts both ways, and that I can’t convince anyone, based on my own version of the sort of in-class narratives you’ve been providing, that going without mobile devices in the classroom is better. That’s why I’ve spent years on this blog not only citing a growing and (to me) persuasive body of research, but also noticing emerging trends. The fact that, as the Loyola student whose article began this thread notes, the trend among professors seems to be toward banning outright, rather than toward the situational model you’re describing, is part of the evidence I’m trying to gather here.

  13. Timothy Burke Says:

    I commented that to make a fetish of the laptop (either way) strikes me as a problem, by which I mean, do not make more of it than it is. To make a fetish of something is not to be a fetishist, really. What I think you are doing is making extraordinary claims about the extent to which computers and digital culture are an unmanageable colossus, a media which cannot be used in a controlled fashion in a classroom because its intrisic nature will not permit such management.

    Do you believe computers can be used in a managed way outside of the classroom? It seems to me you must: you keep a blog, you read online materials, you practice digital intertextuality adroitly. Are you unable to control your consumption of information or your expression online? If you can control it, you can teach that control.

    I’ll return to my question about students bringing other texts to bear in discussion. You assume that all students would have the same text in front of them, and so all references to text are a common experience. And again, I’ll ask: if one student, just one, pulled out another or different volume of poetry, and said, “I’d like to compare this poem to the one we’re discussing”, would you regard that as an unmanageable distraction, a violation of the simultaneous, shared space of the classroom? Would you really find that unwelcome? Would you really find it unwelcome if a student had taken a course on Cold War American culture and wanted to bring that knowledge to bear on reading DeLillo? If not, would you find it unwelcome if they brought a book from that course and quoted from it?

    So if not, would you find it unwelcome if a student brought an image of Pieter Brugel’s The Triumph of Death with him to class? If they watched a YouTube clip of the Shot Heard Round the World while reading the night before?

    We always read literature in ways that its creators did not intend. Even in the purest practice of close reading, we are not constrained to what the poet or author meant. How could we be? I am not an Elizabethean man in England; I cannot read as such a person would have. We do not follow the instructions of an author as if we were consulting a manual. We find meanings that enhance, supercede, transform what a writer imagined at the moment of creation. Knowing that Hemingway blew his brains out adds to, transforms my reading of his work: I’ve not committed a sin in knowing that before I ever pick up The Sun Also Rises. Particularly because that’s what a reader’s imagination is for: to know and then unknow information. I can learn to read innocently and knowingly and do all between. I would argue that is what we are teaching as intellectuals, in fact: to read many ways, with lots of information and with very little, to read as scholars and to read as feeling beings.

    I would be delighted to have a student bring some other thing that they know–or feel–to bear on what we are discussing in a classroom. In fact, that’s what the goal of a liberal arts education is, I think. It’s the sign of someone who has learned how to learn. I am indifferent to whether that other thing outside of what I directed my students to know or engage comes from a laptop, a book, a memory, a sensation deep at the base of the spine. What I think you underrate, drastically, is that there can be as much art–and craft–to the finding of information online at the right moment, that an agile and perceptive mind can create a beautifully unexpected insight from that direction as well as any other.

    As far as research, I’m convinced that modes of attention and reading are cognitively different in digital media. Fair enough. Different isn’t the same as worse, and it is a common impasse in the history of media technologies (and genres of expression) that an older generation frequently assumes different must be worse. The novel was greeted that way at one time, so too blank verse. Radio, TV, film, magazines have all had their time to shine in this same kind of conversation.

    But I think you may want to be cautious about subordinating your own powerful, persuasive convictions about digital media and the character of the classroom (which, even as I disagree with, I respect) to the authority of “research”. Because that door, when opened in that way, lets a great deal else in. Do you teach as you teach because of the weight of scholarly research by specialists in education? Because there’s evidence in other kinds of studies that some of the pedagogies that I think you and I probably share very much in common have their own shortcomings. Moreoever, that research can’t answer for us the most important questions: what’s education for? what’s the point of teaching literature or history? what do we mean by “the liberal arts”? what’s an intellectual or a scholar and why should they be as they are (and who should care about them)?

    Empirical esearch about information technology only helps repudiate the people who act as if it’s a magic solution, who sell it as a nostrum. (They mirror your assertion in the opposite direction: that this is a medium whose intrinsic nature is so strong, so predetermined, that no human can master it or teach its judicious use–except that they argue that it will solve all educational problems, manage all the things mere humans struggle to accomplish.) The ethical and aesthetic arguments about what a classroom ought to be, could be, has been, won’t ever be resolved or even addressed by cognitive or sociological research.

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