The Program

Down with touchscreens, up with books!

By Rory Gilchrist

It’s a question I get asked a lot: What role does technology play in the Great Books Program? I’m not the only one struggling for an answer—the College continually asks what role it should play. And as with almost every question we ask ourselves here, there’s a lot of room for disagreement. Some of my friends love the ease and the power of e-readers. They can keep the entirety of the program (and then some) on an iPad; useful when, say, Ptolemy references a Euclid prop to pull up the Elements in a flash. Others loathe their presence, and feel their classmates lose focus and get drawn into these shiny new devices. (These are the kind of people who write their papers on typewriters, however.) I think I stand somewhere in between. It certainly can be cost-effective, particularly over the span of four years, to rely on translations available in the public domain. At the same time, I can see the argument that these gizmos bring you no closer to the ideas these authors strove to understand, and could well distract you from them.

Our sister campus in Annapolis provides the following rationale to their students:

Dear Students,

The following is the sense of the faculty regarding electronic devices in the classroom:”It is essential that students and tutors be actively engaged in classroom discussions. Tutors will exercise their judgment to promote engagement in the proper activity of the classroom and to minimize anything that detracts from or interferes with it [… ] Tutors are concerned that electronic reading devices also may present a distraction; students who choose to use them to prepare for class should realize that their use in class may not be permitted. They should also note that translations available for these reading devices are often poor in quality. We advise students not to be guided solely by what is available electronically when choosing editions and translations.”

I can certainly see their point; the temptation is substantial to check facebook or your emails or even play a quick round of Doodle Jump during a lull in the discussion. Here in Santa Fe, I think the policy is a lot more relaxed. It’s up to the individual tutor to decide how comfortable he or she is with students using these devices. I myself have used my iPad a couple of times in class, for everything from a second copy of my Greek textbook to keeping a year’s worth of lab notes all in one place.

What do you think? Should students be allowed to use whatever format they’d prefer in class? or do these provide too much of a distraction for a curriculum as personal as our Program? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Edit: An earlier version of this post linked to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, erroneously overstating the opinion of the faculty. No such vote ever took place, according to an Annapolis tutor. (Thanks Gloria for letting us know!)

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

6 comments on “Down with touchscreens, up with books!

  1. A.J. Peters

    “If we’re reading and discussing it aloud, it’s often a logistical difference of literally being on the same page.” (from the linked article)
    That’s the biggest problem I’ve noticed — it’s hard to quickly flip through to the right passage. I miss the beauty and tradition of a phyiscal book, but I can get over that. The ability to quickly reference something, however, I can’t pass up.


  2. Gloria McGillen

    Nice post, Rory. The Chronicle article you shared does contain one inaccuracy that I think is worth pointing out. When a link to it appeared in a College Facebook group, an Annapolis tutor clarified that no vote on e-readers actually took place in 2010 among their faculty. Apparently the Dean of Annapolis sends out an email to students every year, noting that the use of e-readers is up to individual tutors’ discretion–so it sounds as though Santa Fe and Annapolis take similar approaches to the practical question of technology’s place in the classroom.

    I never used an e-reader or iPad in seminar or my tutorials, but a few of my classmates swore by them. None of us were strong-willed enough to resist the occasional temptation to doodle, though, regardless of the medium in front of us! This makes me suspect that the gizmos Johnnies use in class will never have as much of an impact on discussion as how much sleep they’re managing to get and whether they can make it to the Coffee Shop in time to grab some coffee or tea before class. 🙂


    • Rory Gilchrist

      Thanks for letting me know. Hopefully the article better reflects the truth. And I agree wholeheartedly. There are always a myriad factors in how engaged the class as a whole is on any given day (who skipped breakfast that morning, or who’s stressed out about their seminar paper, etc. etc.). But if we can make an effort to bring everyone closer to the ideas these texts purport, shouldn’t we?


  3. Zizheng Wang

    Technology sometimes can shape the working process of our brain subconsciously. It’s hard to judge the modification from that.


    • A.J. Peters

      I just came across this article ( from Scientific America, which seems to be describing what you’re getting at: our brains may respond differently to onscreen text. Pretty interesting.

      The begininng especially was great:

      “In a viral YouTube video from October 2011 a one-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine—or so a title card would have us believe.”


  4. use should be permitted if abuse (doodling) can be avoided


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