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If You Must Ban Them Uptown

Let’s be honest. If you are sitting in a Yeshiva College English course, have a laptop, and, thanks to a miracle, manage to connect to the internet, chances are high that more often than not, you’re not looking up that obscure Chaucer quote, you’re checking Facebook or chatting with your significant other. Sorry for giving the big secret away to the administration.

However, I do think I might be off the hook. It seems the English Studies department at Stern College for Women already knows about these conspicuous habits. That’s probably the reason it has banned laptops, Kindles, iPads, Blackberries, and all manner of electronic gadgetry from its classrooms. The new policy unintentionally— but quite rightfully—provides fodder to the “YU treats its students like high schoolers” faction, and it might only be a matter of time before the same policy becomes practice uptown. However, I believe the policy has limited merit, and I hope Yeshiva College’s English department follows suit (with a slight modification).

Study after study shows the deleterious effects of laptops in classrooms. One of these studies, conducted by the University of Michigan, pitted two groups against each other: one gadget-laden, the other forced to use the humble pen. Not surprisingly, three quarters of the gadget users admitted to spending time during the course on “non-course tasks.” Another “no, duh” study conducted by the Winona State University found “laptop usage hindered students’ ability to pay attention and comprehend lecture material.” We all know it’s happening, the question now becomes whether the distractions outweigh the benefits.

In the social and hard sciences, where course lectures are, well, lectures, it makes sense to bring in a laptop. Presumably, if you’ve shown up to your massive chemistry lecture, you intend to pay attention. But even if you don’t, you still have a textbook to look back to and a large, fact-packed final to look forward to. Class participation is of marginal concern to your learning—and your final grade.

English courses are a whole different ballgame.

English courses don’t require note taking; they require critical thinking, contextualization, and deliberation. Distraction, in the form of a half-minute internet digression, can trip up any student (I’ll admit to a few forays onto Facebook in Belfer). But worse, it can trip up your neighbors, who can’t help but crack up at the silent video of a breakdancing baby you are playing on YouTube or stare at the game you are streaming from ESPN.

Laptops provide a wall of unknowns between you and the instructor. What’s behind that vertical screen, a Super Mario emulator or carefully tended notes? Forgive my anecdotal insensitivity, but every single case of “special handwriting accommodation” I have seen has simply been a case of students taking advantage of politically correct policy or the professor’s naiveté.

Further, a classroom of technologically connected students severely strains students’ motivations to participate in meaningful discussion. The Internet will always be more interesting, especially if the professor is mind-numbingly boring. But even if the class discussion remains fascinating and immersive, a laptop is still a very tempting stumbling block.

Before the entire student body comes at me with a pitchfork, let me qualify my position.

iPads, tablets, kindles and the like, I believe, are in a separate category and should not be banned.

Unlike laptops, traditional E-readers—Kindles, Nooks, and their electronic cousins—are dedicated reading devices. It’s perhaps intentionally difficult, if not impossible, to “surf the web” as the ink changes at mercilessly slow refresh rates. Wikipedia is just about the only site worth cranking up.

These 21st century books offer substantial gains over their elders. Many classics of the Western corpus are free to download. The search functions within these readers allow students to find passages they might not have highlighted, bookmarked, or commented on (yes, you can do all those things on a Kindle). Further, the virtually unlimited capacity to store books means that short story or book you read on the first week of the course can be added to the discussion almost instantaneously. Here, the benefits far outweigh distractions, and the Stern College’s sweeping ban seems unsuitable and technologically obtuse.

The newest generation of E-Readers—iPad, Kindle Fire, and other Android running tablets—might be considered too connected. Forgetting for a moment that Furst Hall has no internet connectivity, a ridiculous and frankly inexcusable oversight (or not) by the administration, tablets offer even greater productivity in the form of innovative apps. Dropbox and Google Drive, for instance, allow students to save PDFs and documents and access them offline from any device. Additionally, note taking on these devices is a far easier and more transparent ordeal. With tablets, there is no “wall of unknowns” behind which to cower and surf.

Stern College’s new Luddite-like policy seems overreaching and indifferent to significant variations in devices. When our English Department inevitably rolls out a similar policy, I hope they recognize the pedagogic benefits of new technologies.