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Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Embracing Students’ Digital Devices

Mick Charney Associate Professor, Architecture - Kansas State University

If you are a seasoned teacher, you have likely noticed that times have certainly changed…or have they?

In the Shakespearean play of the same name, Hamlet says, “Yea, from the table of my memory | I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, | All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, | That youth and observation copied there . . . .” A couple lines later, when wondering how his uncle Claudius, murderer of his father, could walk around with a smile on his face, Hamlet repeats the reference to tables (think “tablets”) when he exclaims, “My tables—meet it is set down |That one may smile and smile and be a villain.” At this point, Shakespeare inserts the oft overlooked stage directions: “[He writes].” In faithful interpretations of the script, the actor portraying the melancholy Dane normally takes out a notebook and scribbles a note on his “tablet.”

The play reflects the fad at the time for pocket-sized memory devices that held specially-coated blank pages that could be erased – a writing tablet on the order of our own childhood “magical writing pads” consisting of a waxy board fronted by a clear plastic sheet which, after having been written upon with a special stylus, could be lifted up to erase the notes so that the pad could be used over and over again. Fifteenth-century owners of such “tables” claimed that they could not function without them, for they fostered an endlessly useful, quick way to record and store the details of an active life until that information was no longer pertinent. (See William Powers, 2010, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, New York: HarperCollins.)

Our students love their digital devices. They carry them around all day, sleep with them at night, and cannot understand why teachers regard them to be nothing better than distractions. If, however, faculty were to embrace the versatility of the BlackBerry (and smart phones, iPads, and the like) and its potential for personal cognitive growth, it would send a message to students that we aren’t all Luddites when it comes to the wonders of the World Wide Web. In fact, we can judiciously choose when such devices are to be used or not to be used as enhancements to the learning process.

Students are going to use their laptops in class to Facebook, their iPhones to text, and their BlackBerries to lap-sneak answers to questions whether we like it or prohibit it or not. Therefore, why not, on occasion, leverage the digital skills of the Homo distractus generation (as Powers labels them) and allow students to use their modern handheld digital memory devices for bona fide, in-class scholastic purposes.

“NetGeners” (the Internet generation) wants to share their experiences through their digital devices. The first day of classes is a special experience. Tell your students to take out their phones, snap a photo of their classmates or instructor and attach it to a text that they send to their parents. “Look at me, Mom and Dad; I’m in class.” Okay, now tell them that there will be times in class when devices are appropriate and other times when they will not; so, please put them away for the time being. And students will generally comply.

Then, suppose we are introducing some new course content and we had previously contrived during class preparation time to feign absent-mindedness during class over a particular point. “I’m drawing a blank. Can someone please look that up for me using your smart phone? Let me know when you’ve got an answer. Thanks.”This strategy becomes all the more effective if the question is so concocted that different NetGeners will necessarily hit upon different answers. Abracadabra! The door has been opened to a discussion of strategies by which one can analyze the alternatives, debate their usefulness, and make critical judgments about which answers are more reliable than others.1

Students have been digitally habitualized to believe in the futility of committing knowledge to memory. Instead, they can learn that, with just a couple more discriminating swipes of their BlackBerries, they can launch a more authentic thinking self into the otherwise madding crowd of the Internet – an informational repository that has too often become the singular authority for them. Now they can wipe the detritus of their daily digital lives clean and begin anew.

And if a cell phone should just happen to ring, remember that the offending student is probably just as embarrassed as you may be disgruntled. Don’t make an issue of it; don’t throw a fit. Lightheartedly proclaim, “Hello? I’ll get it!” If experience is a guide, students will chuckle, you’ll get back to your discussion quickly without friction, and you can assure yourself that the majority of your students will make certain that their miraculous handheld devices will never emit sonorous tones in class again. ________________________________________ 1 Thanks to Todd Zakrajsek and others who have made this suggestion. It works!

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