Sunday, November 21, 2010

Syllabus hero

The other day over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan said (or linked to someone who said) that laptops were becoming more scarce in classes these days. Is this true? I'm not teaching classes right now where this is an issue, so I'm curious: are we on the downside of the laptop-using curve? Are the Facebook-checking students having to delay gratification for 50 minutes until the class is over? (I know, I know--some students take notes with their laptops. Some get 8 hours of sleep a night, write their papers months in advance, call their parents every week, and spend the rest of their time studying, but can we agree that not everyone does this?)

Second question: Is this the result of teachers banning laptops?

I was thinking about this because in looking up syllabi around the web the other day, I came across a few by instructors that ought to be called syllabus heroes. Syllabus heroes are the people who make policies that make mine look timid. Their syllabi include statements like these:
  • No laptops. No exceptions.
  • Texting in class = be asked to leave.
  • Turn off your cell phone. If it rings, everyone in the class loses participation points for the day. (I made that one up, but what I saw was similar.)
  • Be disruptive in class, and everyone in the class has to take a pop quiz.
The statements make no apologies and no explanations; they just state the facts.

And banning laptops? Can we even do that? Would it hold up if someone went to the Chair or Dean and argued that we were destroying their ability to learn and will to live?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I make laptop users sit where I can walk behind them and make sure they're taking notes (my classes are always around 35 people, not huge lectures). And they do. I think we could ban them for people who don't require ADA accommodations, but they might be necessary for some students. As for cell phones, I think people divide between those who teach on campuses that have had Incidents and the lucky rest of the world. At this point, if the messaging system sends out a text alert about about someone with a gun on campus, I want to know about it (although I don't usually take my own phone to class).

Fretful Porpentine said...

Mine don't have laptops any more, they have fancy cell phones. Which they invariably claim to be using to take notes, or calculate their grade, or access their Chinese-English dictionary. It drives me crazy.

Actually, I don't think I've had more than two or three compulsive laptop-tappers since I started at Misnomer U. -- which, perhaps not coincidentally, has no wireless access in the humanities building.

token undergrad said...

Speaking as a student, I think it is increasingly common to see professors banning laptops--three out of my four professors this semester do, and I even have one professor this semester who bans them in lectures and not just in seminars, which is a first for me. I don't bring my computer to class since I know I'll be distracted by it, so it isn't an issue for me, but I do think many of my classmates have had to reevaluate their note-taking (and online shopping) behavior since coming to college and getting into a laptops-in-class habit.

But then again, I have also had professors who not only permit laptops, but expect that students will use them in class to view pdfs of the reading, Google references/points of contention, etc. There are times when I've been called out for *not* having my computer in class. So I guess there's still a fair amount of variation.

Anonymous said...

One important oversight in the blanket ban on laptops is that they are used by many students who have writing disabilities such as dysgraphia. I know students that have gone through the disability services at my school to permit their use of laptops in their classes. Blanket bans would contravene the privacy of these students by needing to explain why they have an exemption.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

FWIW, in law school (where most of us definitely do take notes on our laptops - not that this prevents Facebooking etc., but the note-taking is for real), profs have no problem banning laptops. I think what at least one prof here does is have one person each class take notes on their laptop, and those notes get posted to a class website. (This would get around the privacy concern mcconeghy raises.) The notetaker rotates each class.

The privacy issue is interesting, though - pre-laptop ubiquity, I had a number of students who had notetakers for various reasons (one was a physical issue with writing, I think the others were more learning disability-related). I'm not sure that the student needing the notes was always able to maintain privacy under that system.

Bardiac said...

I almost never have students using laptops in class. I guess I thought they were too poor to have them or something. Then the other day, we were doing an in class revision project, and about a third of the students pulled out laptops and seemed to be working away. (From what I could overhear of the partner conversations, they were talking about paragraphs and topic sentences and such.) Maybe it helps that I tend to teach small classes?

undine said...

Dame Eleanor--brilliant! I should have them sit somewhere other than the back row so that I can do the same.

Fretful Porpentine, your school has solved the problem by default: no wireless. Are they really taking notes on their phones, on those tiny keyboards? I guess there's no way to find out.

token undergrad--thanks for commenting! What you mentioned leads to a whole other issue: we're always preaching "green this and green that," but our habit of wanting students to print things like .pdfs of articles isn't in line with that idea.

mcconeghy--good point. I was wondering how the syllabus heroes make exceptions for those permitted to use laptops because of disabilities but hadn't thought about the "visibility" aspect of a ban.

undine said...

New Kid, since laptops for note-taking are the norm in law school, do the professors face any pushback when they ban laptops in their classes? The practice of having one person take notes to post has other benefits, too--maybe encouraging high-quality notes because everyone will read them, although everyone probably takes high-quality notes already if they're in law school.

Bardiac, that sounds like the best of both worlds: students who know what constitutes appropriate use but are also equipped to work on revisions by having their laptops handy.

moria said...

My students are (largely) affluent and (almost exclusively) compulsively organized, so they love their laptops and other devices. I always ban them. No one has yet complained, and some are grateful.

My view is Soltan's: with even the most conscientious, non-Facebookingest students, laptops create material, as well as mental, barriers between the people in the room. I don't want to talk to someone across a white plastic barricade. (So would I feel as strongly about tablets as I do about laptops? Remains to be seen.)

My course policy hero: a woman I know who collects all of her students' cell phones in a bucket at the beginning of class, and returns them at the end. (If they ring whilst in bucket? She answers.)

Miriam said...

My syllabus makes clear that while I allow laptops (as some students really do find it easier to take notes that way), anyone caught Facebooking etc. will receive the Glare of Doom. This semester, I only have 1-2 students per class w/laptops.

Mark Scroggins said...

I'd never claim syllabus heroism -- only instructorial survival. The language on my syllabi the last few years has read as follows:

"This class is an electronics-free zone: laptops will stay in their cases; all cellphones, mp3 players, and other electronic devices should be silenced. If I see you texting etc. during, I will ask you to leave the classroom for the rest of the class session and you will be counted as “absent” for that day, even if the offence occurs in the last five minutes of class."

I invite those who might need to take notes by keyboard (learning disabilities, etc.), to talk to me after the first meeting, & they receive a dispensation.

undine said...

Moria, I like what you said about physical as well as mental barriers; those laptop screens are like little walls barricading the students from the rest of the class (and from me).

Miriam, does the Glare of Doom work with your students? Like you, I only have a couple who use laptops, usually, but they distract me because it's clear that their focus isn't on the class.

Mark Scroggins, I like your syllabus language and may adopt something like that for the next time, although I'm a little concerned about what mcconeghy mentions--privacy concerns.

Carl said...

Hear, hear. Also, have you heard about this diabolical new contraption all the kids these days have called a "pen?" They say they use it to write down what we say, but I've caught some of them using it instead to distract themselves and others with little drawings, called "doodles" I believe.

I tell my students if they want to use their electronic devices to look at porn during class they're welcome to, but they should please leave the room and make sure to clean up before they return. This seems to bring optional usage down to a dull roar. Also, the new commercials for the Microsoft smart phones are a godsend because I can now turn to a distracted student, make a big face and say "Really?!"