Principles of Luddite pedagogy

My classes begin in this way: With phone in hand, I say, "Please put your phones and devices away," and thereupon put my own in my bag out of sight. I then say, "The Lord be with you." (And also with you.) "Let us pray." I then offer a prayer, usually the Collect for the day from the Book of Common Prayer. After the prayer, we get started. And for the next 80 minutes (or longer, if it is a grad seminar or intensive course), there is not a laptop, tablet, or smart phone in sight. If I catch a student on her phone, and Lord knows college students are not subtle, she is counted tardy for the day and docked points on her participation grade. Only after I dismiss class do the addicts—sorry, my students—satiate their gnawing hunger for a screen, and get their fix.

For larger lecture courses (40-60 students) with lots of information to communicate, I use PowerPoint slides. But for smaller numbers and especially for seminars, neither a computer nor the internet nor a screen of any kind is employed during class time. I further require my students to submit their papers (however short or long, however rarely or commonly due) in the form of a printed copy brought to class or dropped off at my office. And for weekly (or random) reading quizzes, students must come prepared with pencil and Scantron; we begin the quiz promptly at the beginning of class, with the questions coming sequentially in large print on the PowerPoint slides. I give them plenty of time for each question, but I do not go back to previous questions. If you arrive late and miss questions or the whole thing, so be it.

I rarely reply immediately to emails, and may not reply at all if the question's answer is specified in the syllabus. I will reply within 24 hours, but I will not reply (unless it is an emergency) after hours, while at home; some days I may not even check my work email between 5:00pm and 6:00am the following morning.

I have a strict attendance policy: I count both tardies and absences; three of the former count as one of the latter; and beginning with three unexcused absences (for a twice-weekly course), I deduct four percentage points from a student's final grade. So, e.g., a student with four unexcused absences and three tardies would go from a 91 to a 79. More than six unexcused absences means an automatic failing grade.

Students behave exactly as you suppose they would. They come to class, they show up on time, they do the reading, and they take hand-written notes. The only distraction they fight is drowsiness (I will not say whether I contribute to that perennial pedagogical opponent). And for two 80-minute blocks of time per week, these students who were in second grade when the first iPhone came out have neither a device in their hands nor a screen before their eyes nor buds in their ears.

It turns out I am a Luddite, at least pedagogically speaking. On the questions raised by this set of issues, my sense is that my colleagues, not just at my university but in the academy generally, are divided into three campus. There are those like me. There are those who find us and our pedagogy desirable, but for reasons intrinsic or extrinsic to themselves they cannot or will not join us and fashion their classrooms accordingly. And then there are those who, on principle, oppose Luddite pedagogy.

This last group, broadly speaking, views screens, phones, tablets, laptops, the internet, etc., as positive supplements or complements to the traditional teaching setting, and want as far as possible to incorporate student use of them in the classroom. This view extends beyond the classroom to, e.g., learning management systems and e-books, videos and podcasts, etc., etc. The scope of the classroom expands to include the digital architecture of LMS: a "space" online where discussion, assignments, interaction, learning, video, editing, grading feedback, and so on are consolidated and intertwined.

What rationale underwrites this perspective? Perhaps it is simply "where we are today," or "what we have to do" in the 21st century, working with digital-native millennials; or perhaps it is neither superior nor inferior to traditional classroom learning, but simply a different mode of teaching altogether, with its own strengths and weaknesses; or perhaps it is not sufficient but certainly necessary alongside the classroom, given its many ostensible benefits; or perhaps it is both necessary and sufficient, superior to because an improvement upon the now defunct pedagogical elements of old: a room, some desks, a teacher and students, some books, a board, paper and pencil.

I'm not going to make an argument against these folks. I think they're wrong, but that's for another day. Rather, I want to think about the basic principles underlying my own not-always-theorized pedagogical Ludditism—a stance I did not plan to take but found myself taking with ever greater commitment, confidence, and articulateness. What might those principles be?

Here's a first stab.

1. I want, insofar as possible, to interrupt and de-normalize the omnipresence of screens in my students' lives.

2. I want, insofar as possible, to get my students off the internet.

3. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to hold physical books in their hands, to turn pages, to read words off a page, to annotate what they read with pen or pencil.

4. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to put pen or pencil to paper, to write out their thoughts, reflections, answers, and arguments in longhand.

5. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to develop habits of silent, contemplative thought: the passive activity of the mind, lacking external stimulation, lost in a world known only to themselves—though by definition intrinsically communicable to others—chasing down stray thoughts and memories down back alleys in the brain.

6. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to practice talking out loud to their neighbors, friends, and strangers about matters of great import, sustained for minutes or even hours at a time, without the interposition or upward-facing promise of the smart phone's rectangle of light; to learn and develop habits of sustained discourse, even and especially to the point of disagreement, offering and asking for reasons that support one or another position or perspective, without recourse to some less demanding activity, much less to the reflexive conversation-stopper of personal offense.

7. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to see that the world to which they have grown accustomed, whose habits and assumptions they have imbibed and intuited without critique, consent, or forethought, is contingent: it is neither necessary nor necessarily good; that even in this world, resistance is possible; indeed, that the very intellectual habits on display in the classroom are themselves a form of and a pathway to a lifetime of such resistance.

8. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to experience, in their gut, as a kind of assault on their unspoken assumptions, that the life of the mind is at once more interesting than they imagined, more demanding than a simple passing grade (not to mention a swipe to the left or the right), and more rewarding than the endless mindless numbing pursuits of their screens.

9. I want, insofar as possible, for my students to realize that they are not the center of the universe, and certainly not my universe; that I am not waiting on them hand and foot, their digital butler, ready to reply to the most inconsequential of emails at a moment's notice; that such a way of living, with the notifications on red alert at all times of the day, even through the night, is categorically unhealthy, even insane.

In sum, I want the pedagogy that informs my classroom to be a sustained embodiment of Philip's response to Nathaniel's challenge in the Gospel of John. Can anything good come from a classroom without devices, from teaching and learning freed from technology's imperious determination?

Come and see.


  1. Oh my gosh please tell me you're just joking or something, and not describing your true teaching policies and habits! This is only some attempt at poetry or something, right? You don't seriously just ignore students' emails when you don't feel like answering them, do you?

    As for technology, would you deny students a library card? A pencil and paper? Presumably not. Why deny them electronic library access? Why deny them the ability to take class notes more swiftly and accurately using a word processor?

    It's bad enough having to deal with administration when it comes to stuff like this. In one place I teach, they force me to disallow cell phones in class. I guess it pisses off other instructors when you allow cell phones and they won't. Creates dissent and bad feeling, I suppose. So administration wants us all on the same page, in that respect. Nonsense.

    I will never understand this kind of pushback against technology. Luddite, indeed.


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