Two Excellent Emails on the "Laptops in Classrooms" Question: Part Deux
Another email I got after posting the "Laptops in Classrooms" screed.
Hi Prof. Munger, I very strongly disagree with you, and I'll try to say why to get my thoughts on the table:
All through my undergraduate years, I brought my laptop to class with every good intention: more than any of the reasons you present, a searchable record of computerized notes is, I think, the most compelling reason for allowing computers in the classroom, and that was my goal.
But when I actually opened up the computer, I found myself struggling to accomplish this. I'd just check this one email, look at this one funny website, just have one more line of gchat with my girlfriend (who would have been doing the same from a different seminar), and then get back to the lecture. And suddenly, class would be over, and I'd be kicking myself, vowing never again to use my laptop that way during class.
Sure enough, the next class would come, and my laptop would be out, primed and ready for excellent, attentive note-taking, and a little message would pop up on my sidebar. Or I'd get bored for ten seconds and find myself sucked in as a result to a half-hour-long wikipedia quagmire.
The extent to which I was kidding myself every time I brought my computer to class, thinking it would help me to be productive, is a fascinating study in self- delusion, but I know that I was not alone in this addict-like behavior. Everyone else was doing it too --- some of my gchats were with them! It took me four years, but by my last semester of undergrad, I had quit taking my laptop to class, and I haven't taken it once since entering graduate school. It turns out that forcibly limiting your options is a great way to focus your attention. Human are impulsive --- too many choices can be crippling rather than liberating, because what seems in the moment like a good idea is not, of course, always what you really want to be doing. Feel free to deny this aspect of our nature if you will, but caving to students' demands about having laptops in class is like untying Odysseus from the mast at his first pathetic cry.
By telling your students you do not allow laptops in class, you are not enslaving them: you are setting them free. They are free from the constant distractions of the rest of the world. They are confined in a way, yes: confined to the path they have chosen for themselves --- to the education they are supposedly receiving and the classes they have supposedly chosen.
Pandering to psych studies about attention will not save you. Yes, paying attention is hard. But our minds are not simply ticking attention timers. I have had good teachers who have engaged my attention for 2 full hours (without gimmicky "activities"), and bad teachers who couldn't hold it for 2 minutes. A laptop would have provided an easy escape in the latter case, but it would also have prevented me from having the kind of direct, intense, and full experience in the former. I know because it did, many times, as an undergraduate, and freeing myself from my laptop was a revelation.
Perhaps you will say that this sort of experience is one that all students should have for themselves, but I disagree. The classroom is not a polity, and it is not a typical exchange relationship, as you seem to envision it: it is meant to provide students with an education --- and if a student (or, in most cases, their parents) wants to pay for a Duke degree, then we have the prerogative to decide what that means. And in this case, it should mean helping students form the good habits that my own undergraduate professors didn't have the guts to help me form. We are training them to pay attention in a world that does not simply consist of 15-20 minute segments punctuated by the naptimes or clapping games of our kindergarten teachers.
And this, in turn, should give us a greater sense of responsibility. I agree that there are too many professors out there who "suck" at teaching (inevitable, given the incentive structures in academia, but that's another story). But laptops are not a solution --- agreeing to have laptops in the classroom is simply giving up on good teaching at all. At least without laptops, there are no excuses.
"Pandering to psych studies"? Yikes. To be fair, the author is a political theorist, and the whole empirical thing tends to escape them. Still, a useful analysis.