A Look at Laptops in the Classroom

Illustration by Alicia Toldi

One of my most disheartening experiences as a Conn student took place in my sophomore year. I was sitting in the second row of a Blaustein classroom taking notes during a philosophy class. I turned to glance at an open laptop next to me and was confronted with the women’s clothing page of the J. Crew website.

It’s nearly impossible to walk into a classroom here and not see at least one student typing or clicking away on a laptop. Obviously, this was not always the case (as laptops are a relatively recent invention), but the overall policy used to be stricter.

Professor Barbara Zabel of the Art History Department said in an e-mail interview, “At first, students had to have permission [a letter from the Director of Student Disability Services] saying that the student needed to use the computer to take notes for specific reasons. So at first there were very, very few computers in class.”

This has relaxed over the past few years and the trend is certainly on its way up. Professors I spoke with agreed that more and more laptops enter classrooms with each new class of freshmen that matriculates. Unavoidably, as this number grows, so too does the number of students checking e-mail, browsing Facebook or online shopping during class time.

English literature professor Courtney Baker said bluntly, “Some people are assholes about it. Here’s the thing; we can tell. I know the article [being discussed] isn’t that funny.” She added, “Am I really going to have to stand behind you to make sure you’re not on Facebook?” Zabel agrees, adding that she has “called students” on surfing the web during class. Philosophy Department Chair Andrew Pessin has also observed this behavior, which he calls “rude and distracting.”

Tennyson J. Wellman, who teaches religious studies and philosophy courses, has had individual conversations with students who have obviously drifted off into laptop-land, but he was also quick to assert that this kind of disengagement is nothing new: “I once caught someone reading a Danielle Steele novel while sitting in the back of the classroom.”

On a daily basis I see students mindlessly clicking through Facebook photos in class, completely ignorant of what the teacher is saying. It’s normal for one’s mind to wander during a lecture or discussion – the event is passive. G-Mail chatting friends or online shopping is actively choosing not to participate. In a discussion-based class whose success depends upon class participation, laptop screens begin to resemble tiny walls isolating students from their peers.

I’m trying to be highly specific in my criticism, limiting it to discussion-based humanities classes; the sciences seem more suited to computerized note taking. The style of class is also relevant. A student browsing the web in a lecture-style class is only harming him- or herself, and not the dynamic of the class. In a seminar, however, the same behavior keeps students from hearing not only their professor’s comments, but also their peers’, which are often just as important.

“I’ve seen people chatting with each other on Facebook, laptop-to-laptop, telling each other how bored they are. Or writing on each other’s walls – while they’re sitting in the same room,” an undeclared sophomore said in an interview, adding that she once saw someone upload a new profile picture to her Facebook page in class. Other students have reported seeing their classmates doing crossword puzzles (specifically, timed crossword puzzles), playing games, instant messaging, downloading music and reading news and blogs.

Our generation is wired and well connected – that’s not a bad thing. But we’re creeping toward a point where college life is more about being social and less about being intellectually engaged. The whole point of having a laptop in class should be to expand scholarship and increase efficiency, but I’ve found that they’re having the opposite effect. Strangely enough, classes have become something to be tolerated rather than the reason we’re here.

“It’s fine that you don’t think this class is worth your time. Seeing people on Facebook is frustrating, and it can be distracting as well,” said an international relations major in the junior class. She remarks that it creates a divide among students: “I’m listening and taking notes and you’re not.”

Being able to access a resource as vast and valuable as the Internet isn’t something that should be disallowed, though, and that makes professors’ opinions on the matter very ambivalent. Professor Pessin suggested disabling Wi-Fi in classrooms, but immediately realized that’s not a plausible solution. Professor Nina Martin of the Film Studies Department thinks that the arrangement should be governed by a simple sense of mutual respect.

“I don’t forbid them and I don’t really police them,” Martin said, also saying that she has no reservations about walking around the classroom from time to time if she sees someone particularly distracted. She’s familiar with “students sitting in the back row checking Facebook,” but on the whole, says, “We’re utilizing this stuff. It can be really valuable, but it’s more of an addendum or a sidenote,” indicating that students should be wary of becoming absorbed by the screens in front of them.

Other professors, too, acknowledge that students very often use their computers for constructive purposes.

“I completely respect those students who find it easier, more efficient, etc. to use laptops in class, and overall I suppose I don’t object,” said Pessin in an e-mail interview.

“I happen to like that students can look up a term,” said Baker. Zabel also mentioned that she likes having computers in the classroom in case titles or names slip her mind: “Last year, I had an excellent student who very quickly looked up the name of a film I wanted to tell the class about; that kind of quick reference can be helpful.”

Professor John Gordon of the English Department agrees and has no reservation about their use: “I’ve never not been happy to have laptops in class,” he said. “I think that the Internet is a huge plus for the kind of literary scholarship I try to encourage, and being able to ask some student to look up this or that on the spot is, categorically, a good thing.”

All in all, professors seem to be supportive of the laptop trend, but I don’t think they know how widespread the problem is. After all, they can ultimately only see the glowing white apple on the back of their students’ computers. They have no idea what’s on the other side.

“I’m not sure why there aren’t more people who bring them to class,” Baker said. As I scribbled notes, trying to keep up with her, I asked why she thinks that. She quickly responded, “Who writes longhand anymore?”

If you’re anxious to check out the J. Crew women’s section yourself, you can find it at here.
Just don’t visit during class. Please. •


  1. John, I’m a professor, elsewhere, who found your post via University Diaries. I admire the thoughtfulness with which you’ve written about this topic. Like you, I think laptops in classes are a deep distraction. I’m happy not to see them in my classes. I prefer that people in a class be present to one another, minus screens.

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