Laptops and theory in the Religious Studies classroom

Do you let your students bring their laptops to class? Personally, I’m torn. I love gadgets and hate to sound like a Luddite, but most of the research I’ve seen — not to mention my own experience — suggests that laptops are usually more of a distraction than a help (though this remains highly contentious). So there may be very good pedagogical reasons not to allow them. On the other hand, at many institutions, you may find yourself swimming against a pretty strong current if you try to ban them. Besides, these days, if you don’t let students surf the web on their computers, half of them will be surreptitiously using their smartphones anyway. But here’s what interests me especially about this issue. Ubiquitous internet access means that even in the relatively controlled environment of the classroom, our students are awash in a functionally infinite sea of data. Given a little bit of interest and skill, they will always have access to outside information that can confirm, challenge, complicate, or redirect the narratives and frameworks we are trying to present.

A few months ago, Craig posted an anecdote about lemmings. He described his admonition to his class not to “be lemmings,” i.e., not to be too quick to take his — or any other authority’s — word for things. Well, turnabout is fair play, and within a few minutes, one of his students said, “I looked it up on my iPhone — that lemming story is a myth.” The student was right, and Craig was (he says) delighted, since this sort of skeptical questioning was what he wanted to encourage. But what’s interesting to me is the first part of the student’s comment — “I looked it up on my iPhone.” It’s easy to imagine more or less the same thing happening in a different classroom and resulting in a much tenser and pedagogically less constructive exchange. When I was first teaching (back before wi-fi was common), I told an introductory class that there was no clear, contemporary archaeological evidence for Jesus’ existence. I was instantly blindsided by a group of evangelical students, who confronted me with the then only recently-discovered ossuary of James. (Its existence had been revealed literally only days prior to this lecture.) Since I’d been buried so deep in my first semester of lecture preparation, I was forced to admit I hadn’t even heard of it. I became flustered and lost some credibility. In the end, it didn’t matter that the ossuary turned out to be a red herring. What mattered is that a student produced data that I hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t quickly account for.

Internet-connected devices in the classroom mean these kinds of “gotcha” moments can come out of the blue any time. And one of the big problems in religious studies is that almost anything can act as “data” in one context or another. As J.Z. Smith taught us:

For the self-conscious student of religion, no datum possesses intrinsic interest. It is of value only insofar as it can serve as exempli gratia of some fundamental issue in the imagination of religion. The student of religion must be able to articulate clearly why “this” rather than “that” was chosen as an exemplum. His primary skill is concentrated in this choice. (Imagining Religion, p. xi.)

In my story, the student took the “datum” of the ossuary as an “exemplum” of bona fide archaeological confirmation of the Gospel story’s historicity. If I had been better prepared, or quicker on my feet, I might have been able to offer an alternative framework. I might have spoken about the confessional history of Biblical archeology, or the weight placed by some strains of contemporary Christianity on objective “proofs” of faith, or the peculiar pressures exerted by the Middle Eastern antiquities market. Instead, I found I couldn’t easily fit the new datum into the story I was telling, and so my story fell apart.

In a “wired” classroom characterized by an excess of readily available “data” that will mostly be unanticipated, chaotic, and decontextualized, Smith’s dictum becomes even more crucial. Religious studies professors will find themselves repeatedly called upon to justify their use of this datum rather than that, especially when “that” datum is one that the student intuitively finds more relevant or appealing. The fictive qualities of what Smith elsewhere calls our disciplinary “lie” — the simplified histories, bullet-pointed vocabulary lists, and PowerPoint overviews — become more difficult to conceal. Thus, our “primary skill,” as Smith says, will be called into practice more and more often as the seeming arbitrariness of our choices of exempla is revealed by a single Google search. Given all that, it’s kind of funny that Smith himself, the polymath of polymaths, has (he says) never used a computer.

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2 Responses to Laptops and theory in the Religious Studies classroom

  1. Jim says:

    Seems to that a gotcha moment is only that when framed as that. I’m not really an expert on anything in the same way the traditional professor imagines him or herself so i’m not afraid of being called out. And that seems to be the real concern her, not whether students are listening—nor even why the should or shouldn’t be listening. I guess the reason why the laptop bans seem ludicrous to me is that having a computer is not the issue as much as how we imagine the face-to-face experience given our access to all kinds of information in an instant.

  2. ARE YOU CHALLENGING MY EXPERT AUTHORITY ON THIS, JIM?

    Seriously, though, I think you’ve misread the “real” concern in the post here, if you think it’s all about fear of being called out — i.e., professors protecting their fragile egos and their “imagined” expertise by forcing students to pay attention in the “traditional” way. In high school, I remember a nervous, young, female math teacher making a mistake while laying out a geometry proof on the board. One of the students gleefully pointed it out. In front of a bunch of bored, antagonistic fifteen-year-olds (or whatever), that kind of humiliation meant the end of her ability to relate effectively as a teacher to that group of students, at least for a while. You may not run into moments like this in your own classroom, but many of us do. I know that many people would suggest that if the students were bored and antagonistic, and if she failed to turn an incident like this into a “teaching moment,” then she had only herself to blame. However, I tend to think that this kind of adversarial interaction can’t always be avoided, despite the best efforts of the instructor.

    My point in the post wasn’t that laptops should be banned because they threaten the supposedly exclusive authority of the teacher. My point was that they have the potential to intensify a dynamic that’s already present (in many classrooms, at least, if not yours). This is especially true in a religious studies classroom, where there are few preexisting limits on the types and forms of information that can potentially be invoked as relevant data.

    In a sense, then, I guess I especially agree with the first sentence of your comment, at least partially. It is a framing issue. However, it’s not about whether to frame these interactions as “gotcha” moments or not. It’s about developing a sufficiently resilient and flexible overarching narrative, such that the introduction of new and unanticipated data doesn’t render the whole structure useless.

    At least, those are my initial thoughts in response to your comment. Thanks for posting — you may be the first non-religious-studies person to stop by.

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