PJ Media

Laptop U: Where No One Looks at the Professor

I’m in the midst of a brilliant lecture. I’m very well prepared for this class. I have thirty or forty Powerpoint slides that boil down the textbook chapter into handy outlines. I have included outside material that I spent hours finding and scanning. I have even inserted a two minute clip from a news show that someone had uploaded to YouTube. I also genuinely find this topic fascinating, so I’m able to talk passionately about it. I’m pacing and making wild arm movements. I’m wearing a short skirt.

But about half the class isn’t staring at the wonder that is me. Their eyes are glued to their computer monitors. There is a background sound of clacked-clack as they transcribe my lecture. At least, that’s what they tell me what they’re doing. I can’t see their monitor screens. It’s more likely that they’re IM-ing their girlfriends and flirting with boys on MySpace and downloading songs.

I started teaching political science classes at college ten years ago when I was in graduate school. Other than a couple of tweaks to my lectures to include the unusual 2000 election, 9/11, and the Patriot Act, the lectures are pretty much the same. The Bill of Rights, federalism, checks and balances haven’t changed and probably won’t for quite a while.

While my lecture notes have stayed the same, everything else about my lectures have changed. In addition to my folder of notes and a tattered textbook, I also come to class with a flash drive around my neck. As I warm up the projector, I joke with the kids about reality TV shows. Now my lectures on American government are accompanied by my trusty Power Point slides. On one side of the slide is a neat outline or a definition. On the other side, there’s an image that’s usually aimed at gathering a few cheap laughs.

I resisted the move to Powerpoint at first. I worried that the students would lose the ability to figure out the important parts of a lecture on their own. I worried that it would detract from discussion. It would make the student a more passive participant. But students begged, and I adjusted.

So now, as I’m giving my lecture on the separation of powers and clicking through the slides of outlines and images of James Madison, I am looking warily out into the classroom. They, too, are attached to their computers.

The students swear that they are taking notes. They say that they can type faster than they can write. There might be something to that. All the high school students in my town are given laptops and are instructed to use them for note taking. Some elementary schools have stopped teaching handwriting.

But let’s say they are reading their e-mail while they wait for me to click to the next PowerPoint slide. Should I care? How often am I really doing one thing anymore? I make dinner, help my kid with his homework, unload the dishwasher, and periodically run upstairs to check my e-mail. If I can manage five different activities, perhaps my students can successfully handle a lecture and a chain e-mail.

Some universities have no laptop policies, because of the temptation to check Perez Hilton and the latest YouTube sensation while in class.

I let it go. If they miss two weeks of school and show up for the final with a hangover, I say “your funeral, dude.” To me, in-class internet surfing falls under the “your funeral” policy. If students want to bomb my final because they weren’t paying attention to the lecture, then go for it.

In the end, I am not sure the Powerpoint slides or the laptops are making the kids smarter. They swear that they have neater notes as a result, but I’m not sure that neat notes = good grades. And don’t give me “the modern students are visual learners” nonsense. When they eventually have to get a job, they aren’t going to get a Powerpoint presentation at the job interview.

Technology has brought up a host of other ethical questions in the lecture hall. Do you offer online lecture outlines? Some professors put their lecture outlines on the school website. Students print out the outlines, and then neatly fill in the descriptive information. The problem with ready-made outlines is that students lose the ability to pull out the important messages on their own. I rewrite my lectures too often to offer online outlines, but student demand might force me to make them available in the future.

How extensively do you use the class website? Most universities now offer professors a class template, which they can fill in with links and picture and discussion boards. I use it for posting links to additional reading and for reminding students of the next class assignment. It takes away the terror of missing class, the unknown of what awaits you when you return to class. It also takes away the sport of scaring the crap out of your students.

Should you check what students say about your colleagues on Rate My Professor? Rate My Professor is a website that enables students to post anonymous evaluations of professors. They rate faculty on their ease, helpfulness, and clarity. There is an open ended questions where they can write, ‘MY PROFESSOR IS A DRUNK AND A MORON.” And if the professor is hot, they get a chili pepper next to their name. Student evaluations have been going on for a long time, but usually that information is kept private between the faculty member and the chair of the department. Now, you can check out everybody and have a good laugh – maybe even while you’re sitting in class listening to that very professor.

The bottom line: in this strange new world of multimedia academia, I’m competing for my students’ attention – and I haven’t even mentioned the distractions of texting on cellphones. With all the distractions, I am essentially forced to shout for attention. The classroom has become a three ring circus, and I’m on the smaller stage off to the right.

When I think of my fictional professorial role models, I have to wonder what they would have said about university teaching in the current environment.

What would John Houseman in the Paper Chase have done? Donald Sutherland in Animal House? What would Sally Kellerman’s character in Back to School have said? Certainly they would have swooned or scoffed and said something witty. And it’s all too likely they would have refused to lecture at Laptop U. and chosen a less challenging pursuit.

Prof. Anonymous is an academic blogger who usually writes under her real name but doesn’t want her students to know she is onto them.