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PATHOLOGY OF THE LAPTOP
March 13, 2010 - 5:50pm

By

UD

The laptop ban story has broken out of its narrow precincts. Articles on the subject used to cover the handful of American law schools with institution-wide bans, or the scattered professors in a variety of fields who independently ban them from their classrooms. But now the story has hit the big time. The Google News page for 'banning laptops' lists lots of national and international articles, all of them tracking events as, in the words of the Telegraph, "professors rebel."

The enlarged coverage rehearses the now-familiar claims and counterclaims about this technology:

Classrooms prepare you for the real world, and in the real world everyone's using a laptop.

Laptops make note-taking easier.

Laptops allow you to look up things in class.

Even if laptops represent a total waste of a student's classroom time, the student is an autonomous adult who has the right to choose to waste her time. Besides, her behavior harms no one.

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Universities are not the real world; they are supposed to separate you from the real world so that you can clear your head, slow down, and do serious thinking. The distracted state of constant access kills serious thought. (The real world, for that matter, is also getting sick of laptops, banning them from business and government gatherings, etc.)

Studies suggest that most laptop users take down every word the professor says, which makes these students not note-takers, but stenographers.

Lectures and discussions are not designed to have you look up things while the lectures and discussions go on, as if you're in the library. They're designed to have you listen with full attention to a professor's comments, and to interact socially and verbally in the immediate physical setting of the classroom.

The student is indeed an adult, but unless she's financially autonomous, her tuition is paid by some combination of the university, her parents, and the American taxpayer. She's wasting a good deal more than her own chance at an education -- she's thumbing her nose at the generosity of well-meaning people. And her behavior harms more than her financial sponsors. Her indifference to the professor and her fellow students, and the public nature of her screen images, add up to something distracting, demoralizing, and angering for other people.

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Lots of students have written opinion pieces in campus newspapers about how angry their fellow students' laptop use in the classroom makes them (they reserve special rage for porn films sitting next to them), but UD thinks it's also worthwhile to consider how multiple open laptops in front of them while they conduct a class must make professors feel.

Since UD's never allowed laptops in her classrooms, this will be a thought experiment.


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You know that pathetic famous passage from Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman?


I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

Attention must be paid. That's the phrase everyone remembers from the play because it's so... pathetic. It's not too far from Barney singing You are special, you're the only one, you're the only one like you... Which is to say that everyone feels the need to be acknowledged, the simple need to have their presence noted, their words heard. Total silence and obscurity are very sad to contemplate. One might as well be dead. Wee willie low man is pretty much dead.

Miller spins this terrible outcome, this ending up a nowhere man, tragically; but you can play it for laughs. A stock character in slackster films and other forms of comedy is the friend everyone totally ignores. He's there in the scene, and he's saying things, but no one notices he's there. He's shushed when he tries to talk. He's out of his element.

Professors standing up and talking about things that matter to them in front of a roomful of people openly watching movies are nowhere people. Somehow they've let the universal human impulse to be present and accounted for by the world slip. Don't mind me. Attention need not be paid.

Under this unaccountable willingness to conspire in one's own invisibility has got to be, as with Willie Loman, rage. Just as your serious, non-laptop-using students may be enraged, so you too may be enraged at flagrant indifference, and at the feeling you get, class after class, of grinding pedagogical futility.

You're like a raisin in the sun -- if UD may conclude this post with the title of another play. What happens to a raisin in the sun?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

 

 

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