On a cold Winter Quarter Tuesday, I take my usual seat in my morning class. As the lecture begins, someone directly in my line of sight opens a laptop. Our professor starts talking, telling fascinating stories about her experience as a young local broadcast journalist and engaging the class with her lecture. As much as I try to focus, however, I find myself distracted. Right below the professor’s face are the bright, moving colors of online shopping websites, games and articles on this fellow student’s computer screen. I really want to pay attention to this lecture, but anytime I try to look at the professor, my eyes are drawn back to the bright internet distractions.
This situation has happened to me countless times, and I’m sure many other Northwestern students can relate. As someone who decides not to use laptops in class, despite my intentions to focus, my attention can immediately be stolen by the unfortunate choice to sit behind someone with an open laptop. Professors who find themselves on the other side of these laptop screens can relate to this, and, for that reason, many either designate areas for laptop users or don’t allow them in class at all. Yet a lot of professors, including the one for that Winter Quarter class, don’t have any clear laptop policies. In those cases, for your own sake and the sake of those around you, close your laptops in class.
When your actions are having clear detrimental effects on others, it’s time to rethink them. In that sense, the distraction argument is honestly the most compelling. Moving, bright screens easily grab attention, and in lecture-heavy classes, having your eyes dragged away from the professor can seriously detract from the experience. Your peers have a right to a positive class experience and learning environment, and flipping between the same three sites for 80 minutes seems not only a pretty bad reason to disrupt that, but is also unfair to your classmates.
On top of distracting others, however, using laptops distracts the user. Our classes are valuable in more than just the content we’re learning – this school costs a lot of money. Spending this valuable in-person class time doing things you could just as easily do any other time is a waste, and it’s even worse to affect other people who are paying to be in the class and are eager to learn. (And, come on, if we could make it through seven hours of classes a day in high school, we can make it through an 80-minute lecture at Northwestern.)
If you were at a play and opened your laptop in the audience, you would almost certainly be kicked out. Although a lecture isn’t quite the same level of production as a live show, the same concept applies: A live human is in front of you, speaking on their area of expertise, and the very least you can do as a way of showing respect for their work is listen. Anyone who’s given an in-class presentation knows how disheartening it is when no one is listening to you, so pro tip: Pay attention to your professors.
Those who regularly use laptops in class will probably provide a few counterpoints: “I take faster, better notes on laptops!” Class notes shouldn’t be about writing down every single thing the professor says or puts on a slide – they should distill the most important information into a comprehensible form. Plus, a number of studies show that paper notes are actually better for retaining information.
“My class is just a boring distro and I have nothing better to do!” Nonetheless, other people in the class probably still want to pay attention, and your professor deserves your attention regardless of whether the class is in your area of study.
“I can’t pay attention even if I don’t have my laptop out!” Even so, there are other ways to distract yourself that don’t distract others in the class or disrespect your professor. Doodle in your notebook! Write about something that interests you! Paint your nails! If you want to disregard the points about getting your money’s worth, feel free to scroll through social media in your lap. There are plenty of reasons to pay attention in a college class, but if you truly are not able to pay attention, at least deal with it in a way that isn’t harmful to the people around you.
This argument may be controversial, but it really shouldn’t be. Laptops are available to us anytime outside of our relatively short time in actual classes. When you open your laptop in class, you are inherently affecting those around you, whether that be the students around you distracted by your screen or the professor in front of you losing your attention and respect. For your own sake, get the most of the classes you’re paying for. Paper notes are better for retaining the information you’re being presented with, and it’s easier to pay attention to the person teaching in front of you without a bright screen in front of your face. We may have a never ending stream of assignments and exams, the stresses of extracurriculars and the existential dread of finding a career outside of class, but in the classroom, the least you can do is try to focus without the distracting world of the internet on a bright screen in front of you.