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On iPods and sleeping in

It’s the half-million dollar question: why did our University purchase 1,650 iPods and give them to incoming freshmen free of charge?

A lot of explanations have been offered. Provost Lange calls the iPods “an exciting new component of Duke’s strategic plan,” the Vice President of Information Technology says they will motivate students to “think creatively,” and CIT Director Lynne O’Brien has speculated that the iPods “will encourage faculty to experiment with adding elements such as music, foreign language and poetry to class curricula.” Specifically mentioned uses include lectures on tape, recorded course material and language lessons.

The reasons given are not bad ones, but it would be a stretch to say they justify such a major expenditure. After all, calculators, tape recorders and laptops certainly have as much academic value as iPods, yet Duke gives none of these to students for free.

So why did the Class of 2008 receive free iPods? The real reason might explain a bizarre news story that put Duke in the national spotlight last spring.

On April 19, an Associated Press piece entitled “Duke Tries to Aid Sleep-Deprived Students” ran in dozens of newspapers around the world. The story reported Duke’s canceling of 8 a.m. classes and said the University was trying to help “sleep-deprived” students who “too often are struggling to survive on a mix of caffeine, adrenaline and ambition.” It then quoted several Duke administrators expressing concern with the lack of sleep American college students typically get. “They begin to get into a pattern of sleeping four to five hours,” remarked one. “They’re coming in to see us, and they’re ragged,” said another.

The report, which ended up on CNN, continued to portray Duke’s scheduling shift as a bold initiative taken in response to the problem of sleep depravity. Then, halfway through, it completely shifted gears and revealed that the changes in scheduling didn’t make the problem better, but actually made it worse by moving much more common 9:10 a.m. classes to times as early as 8:30 a.m. The piece concluded with Vice Provost Judith Ruderman scoffing at the very problem Duke was claiming to be so concerned about: “‘We’re going to have a lot of grumbling next fall when the reality sets in,’ Ruderman said. ‘But you know what? They’re resourceful and they’ll manage.’ Ruderman’s advice to her sleepwalking students? Take an afternoon nap.”

The situation looked absurd. It appeared that Duke had canceled a set of classes that almost no one takes, made the rest of their classes start earlier, and then ran to national reporters to say that the schedule changes were motivated by a deep concern with students not sleeping enough.

In reality, Duke was not quite that exploitive. As the University quickly pointed out, it had not approached the Associated Press for the story, the Associated Press had instead picked up a (Raleigh) News & Observer piece about Duke’s research on sleep depravation and incorrectly made the canceling of 8 a.m. classes the headline and main focus of it. Yet even taking that into account, the News and Observer story itself oddly implied that Duke’s new scheduling plan was a response to the supposed sleep depravation problem. Clearly, administrators wanted their cancellation of early classes reported.

The link between the sleep story and the iPod giveaway comes down to one word: publicity. University administrators want to attract the best and brightest students to Duke and so they no doubt seek national press coverage depicting Duke as revolutionary and hip. It’s unlikely anyone is actively plotting publicity stunts of zero educational value, but it is likely that some decisions are made with a heavy consideration of newsworthiness.

iPods truly may help Duke freshmen learn more efficiently this year, but they will have an even greater effect on the high school students trying to decide between Harvard and the almost-as-highly-ranked school in North Carolina where the students receive free iPods and get to sleep in. My money says this is no accident.


Nathan Carleton is a Trinity senior.


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