On Campus

Put your laptop away

And your phone. And your iPod. We have work to do.

Another day, another attack on us mean old industrial-age professors.

This time, it’s historian Fred Donnelly telling us all to chill out over lap tops in class. Students are not ignoring the work at hand, Donnelly suggests. Instead, they are returning to a pre-industrial mode of work:

Consider how people worked in the pre-industrial era. Labourers in agriculture and construction sang on the job. Weavers composed poetry to the rhythm of the loom and many skilled artisans employed a boy to read to them while they worked. Everyone talked on the job and took unscheduled breaks quite frequently. In short, they laboured away in a multitasking environment.

Right. And if slaves in the old South had had the internet, their masters would have been perfectly happy to let them caption Lolcats instead of picking cotton.

But seriously, the argument fails not just because of what seems to be an overly romanticized view of pre-industrial labour (oh to be a medieval serf: that was the life!), but because it creates a false analogy. There are some tasks you can do while you listen to music or chat with your friends. Who has not whiled a way a long car ride singing along to the radio? But there are other tasks that require one’s full concentration if they are to be done well. Listening to a lecture, and thinking about the content, and considering its connection to other things in the course, and taking notes — not to mention asking and answering questions — these are things that simply cannot be done effectively while watching videos on YouTube or killing zombies or updating your Twitter feed.

The laptop, Donnelly suggests, is a challenge to the authority of the professor, who is really no more than a Dickensian shop foreman:

Now, students have their own portable windows to stare into, their own songs to listen to, their games to play and messages to send to friends inside and outside the classroom. All the while they are seated at their work benches – oops, sorry, their places in the classroom – and presumably also taking notes from an instructor.

But that’s just it. They’re not also taking notes. They’re chatting with their friends in other classes:

ths class = CWOT prof thinks we r t8king notes FAIL LOL

That’s what kills me about the new apologetics of this supposed digital generation. While professors pat themselves on the back for being in touch and progressive, for creating a dynamic new learning environment, they are really creating an environment of increased contempt for learning and study.

All these students with laptops? They’re not multi-tasking. They’re just ignoring you.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.