Late last month, as students returned from spring break, the University of Chicago Law School announced that Internet access would be blocked from classrooms. While individual professors at law schools have created policies banning laptops or allowing them only for specific uses — and while some colleges don’t even have classroom Internet access, or mandate classroom-only use without any enforcement — the move by Chicago appears to be the first institution-wide directive of its kind. Already, there’s been an uproar among students and even senior administrators, while some law professors have stepped up to defend the policy.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve toyed with the idea of prohibiting laptops in my classes; it’s no mystery that nine out of ten laptop users are (by my scientific calculations) instant-messaging, checking e-mail, or surfing the intertubes for hard core man-on-box-turtle pornography. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck just yesterday. I’ve survived my share of faculty senate meetings by watching baseball games on my laptop, and I’ve even thrown up a couple of blog posts in medias tedium. So when students are softly chuckling to themselves, it’s a good bet that they aren’t actually listening to that part of my lecture that covers the Ludlow Massacre; conversely, when they’re typing feverishly I tend to assume they aren’t trying to document my 5-minute tangents on Jimmy Carter’s fight with a rabbit, or the history of early 19th century flatware, or my rundown of the greatest facial hair in American political history.
But in the spirit of fairness, I figure that until I’m actually motivated to ask students what the fuck they’re doing while I’m talking about Chester A. Arthur’s mustache, I can only get so irritated with them. Besides, I’ve never actually seen any evidence that laptop-users do worse in my courses than the folks who stare blankly into space or squander class time drawing pictures of their favorite Star Wars characters. I’ve even allowed students to do beading or knitting in class, on the theory that “kinetic learning” isn’t simply a load of crap invented by people who prefer not to pay attention to what teachers are saying.
Moreover, every now and then we actually need to look up some important piece of historical data — such the date when marshmallows were invented — and we really need the Google-ator.