Digital Doubts

In the Chronicle‘s Digital Campus issue, some pieces raise questions and concerns about the flood of digital technology in academic life.  One of them, by Ben Gose, under the title “When One Person’s Tech Treasure Is Another’s Trash,” ends with a short moment in a Spring 2010 class in which I announced (for the first time) that laptops were forbidden.  “Half the class applauded,” Ben concludes.


Because so many students are getting tired of looking at someone else’s Facebook page during class.  For those who approved the ban, the annoyance of another student’s screen four feet in front of them outweighs the convenience of checking their own Facebook page during class.

And it’s not enough to tell them, “Well, just ignore the screens in the row in front of you or next to you.”  Screens are coercive.  They draw your eyes.  You never know what kind of comedy or outrage or titillation might pass through.  If students complain, I tell them, “Listen, if I had a laptop on the desk during a lecture, I would check my email, look at the UCLA sports blog . . . I can’t resist it, so I put it away.”

The distraction of others’ screens helps explain another concerned entry in Digital Campus.  It’s by David M. Levy, Daryl L. Nardick, Jeanine W. Turner, and Leanne McWatters, and it bears the title “No Cellphone?  No Internet?  So Much Less Stress.” The authors present findings from surveys of students, the main one being that students aren’t uncritical enthusiasts of digital technology, but instead are often uneasy with their hyper-digital lives.  They worry about all the time they spend online.  They feel the stress of an always-on, ever-connected existence.  But they also feel that they can’t get out.  Too much of their social and personal lives run through the tools.  They want a break, but can’t separate on their own.  “When forced to disconnect for longer stretches of time,” the authors write, “some students discover that they enjoy the slower pace of life.”  Yes, but they need to be forced to tune out.

On another subject, one piece by A. J. Ferguson provides “Tactices for Teaching (Almost) Paperless Writing.” It provdes tips for how writing teachers can “go digital” and ”Eliminate paper as a working medium.”

Just one comment here. I teach writing often, and one of the practices in my class is to make each student write a first draft with paper and pencil.  No keyboard, no computer.  Also, they have to use a dictionary and thesaurus in book format, not in Web site format.  It’s slower, it’s harder.  Students resist.  Doesn’t matter.

Once that first draft is complete, they can go digital all they want.  But an all-paper-and-pencil first draft is required.

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