Life as an Extreme Sport

A Link Clean-up – Luddites in the Classroom!

I’ve had a bunch of links open for I don’t know how long (too long), and I should clean them up before my browser crashes and I lose them all and kick myself. Well, that and I’m trying to get back in the habit of writing here, again. Habits, for what it’s worth, are terribly hard to create, unless of course they’re bad ones. The bad ones, like staying in bed reading fiction or watching TV or not doing your dishes or laundry? Those are easy. The good ones, like going to bed and getting up consistently at the same time, writing every morning, working on your gorrram thesis? Much much harder to establish.

Anyhow. Digression.

A couple of weeks ago, I read about a professor at the University of Memphis banning laptops in her classroom. She apparently teaches in the law school, and felt that the laptops are terribly disruptive to her seminar-style lectures. Apparently she felt too many students were either attempting to take down what she said verbatim, being “fed” knowledge for later regurgitation, or were screwing around on the internet. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t participating in the class, which was designed “primarily as a practice session for students to develop the skills outlined in the “Course Objectives.”” Plus, she felt the laptop created an invisible wall between her and her students, and the clacking of fingers on keyboards bothered her.


Frankly, this sounds like the words of a very insecure professor who can’t control her classroom. First and foremost, by banning laptops, you automatically out anyone with an invisible disability, the people who she cannot, by law, prevent from using laptops. Way to go – you either look like you’re playing favourites by letting one or two people use the computer, or you end up implying or outright saying that a student has a problem. Secondly, if this is truly a seminar class where students are supposed to be participating and learning in order to receive evaluation and grading, then those students ignoring class for the internet and not participating over the tops of their laptop? Mark ’em down, so long as they’re truly not learning the material and unable to participate in the classroom while taking notes.

I’ve been on both sides of the table long enough now that I feel very comfortable making broad comments like the above, simply because I know what it’s like in smaller seminar classes. Yes, there are a lot of eyes there, and it can be a bitch to engage everyone. But not everyone participates in the same manner, and instead of trying to force everyone into a luddite zone where only paper and pen are allowed, the professor should instead work on improving her lecture skills and ability to run the classroom.

Don’t want people mucking around on the internet? Lecture from the back of the classroom. Have the students move their chair configurations into a circle. Don’t just stand in the front of the classroom and assume that because you are paid to stand there you have an automatic authority with the students. Authority is earned, not a privilege.

Finally, it also sounds like someone who wasn’t raised in the era of computers, who don’t understand how natural and fluid it is for people to multitask in this augmented age. Again, the solution is to catch up, not to halt the progress happening at such a rapid rate.

Okay, I can close that link now.


  1. Kelly,

    You have the same problem I do. I always have a gazillion tabs and windows open in Safari, and I am always pushing the limits of that browser. I guess I need 10 gb of ram just to really browse the web the way I want to. At anyrate, you might try this product called webstractor from SoftChaos. I have not tried it yet but it looks interesting in that it helps you manage your web history in an effective way. I saw it at MacWorld this year.

    On the classroom discussion I completely agree with most of your points. Especially the point about alienating disabled users. I think though the real issue is the undivided attention and note taking itself. I recognize that there are multitaskers and different learning styles. But in my opinion students really need to get over the note taking fetish. I have seen students take excessive notes, but for what end? Generally the notes are unreadable afterwards, and generally get in the way of comprehension. Socrates was very down on writing because he felt it destroyed memory. I think if someone really cares about about notes take your ipod attach a microphone to it and record the lecture or discussion. Or if you don’t own an iPod get a $20 tape recorder. Much simpler and much more fidelity than notes. But that is just my opinion.

    Now on the other hands notes are useful for capturing the mental content of what one was thinking during the lecture or seminar. But I don’t know how many students do this with their note taking. But I can see this as a useful activity. But I know a lot of people incessantly try to transcribe every word of the lecture which seems futile to me.

    But the bottom line is the approach of the instructor. Authoritarian classroom structures should be avoided, absolutely. You are definitely correct in saying that turning the chairs in a circle, etc can go a long way. But that would require actually thinking about pedagogical method and not just the content of one’s class. I can tell you the worst class I ever had was my first quarter of the first year of college. It was a physical geography course. Interesting subject, terrible instructor. The guy spent the entire time his back facing the students writing up inane notes on the whiteboard which were just summaries of the textbook and the students spent all their time transcribing these notes verbatim. I did the same thing because I was young and naive and thought that was what you were suppose to do. And it went on like this for every single class period the entire quarter. It was like the note taking was supplanting the content of the text book. A colossal waste of time. I was very disappointed in the class and would have preferred the instructor spent classroom time providing us with information that supplemented the text book. Of course I actually read the textbook for the course because I was interested in the subject matter, but I am not so sure how many of the other students even bothered given the structure of the class.

  2. Gordon,
    What I’d like to do is find some non-CHID folk and see what their response to this is. I fear we might be…contaminated. 😉

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