Imagine going to an AC/DC concert and seeing someone in the front row, listening to a Walkman, rocking out off beat.
That’s how communication professor Brecken Chinn Swartz feels when she sees students staring intently at their laptop screens during her lectures.
“If [the students’] attention is somewhere else, people around them get distracted and the classroom energy dissipates, like a balloon without air,” Swartz said. “I might not be AC/DC, but you’ve paid for me, so why don’t you tune in?”
Although the majority of students still scrawl notes by hand, laptops are a mainstay in vast lecture halls and intimate seminar rooms. Some professors ignore the tapping of fingers across a keyboard or the intense gaze that reveals a distracted student, while others have addressed the issue with specific classroom policies.
For Swartz, her teaching assistants suggested that she institute a formal laptop policy, so this semester she required any student who wanted to bring a laptop to e-mail her explaining why and to agree to stay off the Internet during class. She also asks that students who bring laptops sit in the front row.
Swartz likens this policy to signing a contract. “I don’t engage in warfare with them. That’s a waste of class time. They know my policy and if they violate it, it would be like a slap in the face.”
“If I see [them breaking the rules], and if they need something from me – a grade rounded, a recommendation letter – I’ll remember,” she said, adding that only about 12 students in her class of more than 260 bring their laptops to class.
But not all professors mind when students bring in their laptops.
Former university English professor Eric Hazell said laptops are handy for spontaneous fact checking. “I don’t know the answers to everything, so it’s nice to have someone look it up for me.”
And unlike obvious distractions such as crossword puzzles, professors can’t see what a student has on his or her screen. If a student is clearly not paying attention, Hazell said he light-heartedly asks what they’re looking at.
“I don’t to it to embarrass them,” Hazell said. “I do it to joke.”
Other professors ignore it as long as the student is not distracting others.
“I let them know that I’m not going to be policing them,” said Ann Battle, a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Human Development. “It’s their course, it’s their money, it’s their education and I’m there for the people who want to learn.”
Senior Jehiel Baer said having his laptop in class allows him to take more organized notes because he writes sloppily and at a slower pace. But Baer, a government and politics and international business major, admitted that the temptation to check e-mail or surf the Internet while in class is hard to resist.
Sophomore Chelsea Day, who is in Swartz’s class, doesn’t see the need to bring her laptop to lectures.
“I’ve been taking notes in college forever and I don’t really think you need a laptop,” Day said. “If I had my laptop in class, I wouldn’t be taking notes.”
Journalism professor Chris Harvey wanders around the computer lab where she teaches to occasionally check what students have on their screens. Harvey said she doesn’t tolerate typing when the class shifts from instruction to discussion.
“I do think there’s a minimum respect level that people should show each other when a teacher’s gone through the trouble to prepare for a class,” Harvey said.
Although personal technology makes it easier to get things done and stay in touch with others, technology use ultimately comes down to personal choice, said Anna Post, spokeswoman for the etiquette-advising Emily Post institute.
“Your choices with technology do affect other people,” Post said. “Failing to pay attention to someone is failing to show respect.”
Swartz agreed, saying “I’m a human being and I like to be in touch with friends, too. [But], to do well in life … [students] have to learn to focus. … If we all are just scattered constantly, what’s the society become?”