Put your laptop away - Macleans.ca

Put your laptop away

And your phone. And your iPod. We have work to do.


Another day, another attack on us mean old industrial-age professors.

This time, it’s historian Fred Donnelly telling us all to chill out over lap tops in class. Students are not ignoring the work at hand, Donnelly suggests. Instead, they are returning to a pre-industrial mode of work:

Consider how people worked in the pre-industrial era. Labourers in agriculture and construction sang on the job. Weavers composed poetry to the rhythm of the loom and many skilled artisans employed a boy to read to them while they worked. Everyone talked on the job and took unscheduled breaks quite frequently. In short, they laboured away in a multitasking environment.

Right. And if slaves in the old South had had the internet, their masters would have been perfectly happy to let them caption Lolcats instead of picking cotton.

But seriously, the argument fails not just because of what seems to be an overly romanticized view of pre-industrial labour (oh to be a medieval serf: that was the life!), but because it creates a false analogy. There are some tasks you can do while you listen to music or chat with your friends. Who has not whiled a way a long car ride singing along to the radio? But there are other tasks that require one’s full concentration if they are to be done well. Listening to a lecture, and thinking about the content, and considering its connection to other things in the course, and taking notes — not to mention asking and answering questions — these are things that simply cannot be done effectively while watching videos on YouTube or killing zombies or updating your Twitter feed.

The laptop, Donnelly suggests, is a challenge to the authority of the professor, who is really no more than a Dickensian shop foreman:

Now, students have their own portable windows to stare into, their own songs to listen to, their games to play and messages to send to friends inside and outside the classroom. All the while they are seated at their work benches – oops, sorry, their places in the classroom – and presumably also taking notes from an instructor.

But that’s just it. They’re not also taking notes. They’re chatting with their friends in other classes:

ths class = CWOT prof thinks we r t8king notes FAIL LOL

That’s what kills me about the new apologetics of this supposed digital generation. While professors pat themselves on the back for being in touch and progressive, for creating a dynamic new learning environment, they are really creating an environment of increased contempt for learning and study.

All these students with laptops? They’re not multi-tasking. They’re just ignoring you.


Put your laptop away

  1. I use my laptop to write detailed notes in class. As do many of my fellow students. I can’t write nearly as fast as I can type!

  2. Ditto. I type way faster than I write. I do also, however, keep an eye on my email in case there’s a work emergency, because if I’m going to pay my tuition, I cannot just disappear completely from the grid for three hours at a time during the business day. Is that disprespectful? Perhaps, although I would argue that definitions of politeness have become more lax everywhere, including in professional settings, now that the use of mobile devices has become the norm.

    That said, I think there’s a whole other issue here too.

    Respect goes both ways, and many professors/schools disrespect their students by failing to give them their money’s worth for the courses they paid for. I’ve had profs that showed up late and sometimes wasted entire classes telling stories or gossipping. I’ve had profs that had clearly been saddled with a course they were unqualified to teach and who subsequently wasted copious amounts of lecture time reciting the text book or showing videos about topics that had marginal relevance to the topic.

    For all the talk of “you have to pay attention in class if you want to pass the course,” the fact is, I’ve taken relatively few courses where paying attention in class was truly worthwhile, and I believe the level of Facebooking and text messaginge in some classes reflects that.

    When I took courses where you actually DID need to listen to the lecture carefully in order to pass the tests, there was virtually no texting in class.

    Perhaps instead of bemoaning the lack of attention paid in class by students these days, profs who care about teaching well might welcome the opportunity to use this new, conspicuous form of zoning out as a barometer of their teaching strategies–and adjust accordingly.

  3. I usually bring my laptop to class because I can take quicker and better organized notes. They are also more easily referenced after when I want to search for a specific topic.

    I will admit that I do check my email and even facebook every so often, especially when a professor gets off topic. However, I also check out websites related to the topic for a better explanation. Both of these are signs of disengaging or unclear lecturing. When a professor makes an effort to involve students, I feel no need to zone out.

    • My point is not that we should avoid using new technologies, nor do I avoid using electronic technologies when it can help my teaching. But the article I was responding to implied that it was positively a good thing for students to listen to music or check in with their friends instead of paying attention to the matter at hand.

  4. I would like to respond to the comment by Todd Pettigrew on my article on laptops in the class room. Unfortunately Mr. Pettigrew has completely misread my article which does not endorse the use of laptops in class rooms as he claims. The thesis of my article is contained in the last paragraph where I call for rigorous research on the matter. My contention is that such enquiries occur in a cultural context we need to account for in any research exercise. The strident mis-reading of my article by Mr. Pettigrew only serves to illustrate the point I was making.
    Fred Donnelly

  5. Pingback: Laptops in the Classroom | ActiveHistory.ca

  6. Fred Donnelly can claim that he is only calling for research but the “cultural context” he wants us to be aware of is clear. If he had an open mind about banning lap tops from classes, he would not have likened students’ desks to industrial work benches, and he would not have called traditional professors “mono-tasking geezers.”

    Finding the dark implications in someone’s writing is not the same as misreading it.

  7. I have a laptop for school, but I never pull it out during class, because it is a distraction. I see other students who pull them out in class and almost invariably they are looking at facebook, youtube, etc. It is a rare occassion indeed when someone is actually taking notes on them. Basically, laptops in class are as bad as pulling out a newspaper and reading it during a lecture.