Computers in class

Drew Baumgartner

Dear Drew,
I’m having difficulty paying attention in class. It’s not that I’m bored by the course material, or too tired from playing Halo all night; it’s that the girl who sits in front of me always has her laptop open to distracting Web sites. I’m really not trying to read over her shoulder; these sites are just really hard to ignore – it’s not just Facebook. Is there a way to mention that I’m distracted by it without sounding like I’ve been invading her privacy? Does she even have a reasonable expectation of privacy if she’s doing this in the middle of class?
-Fed-Up in Film Studies

I’ll get to your questions, Fed-Up, but first, I have a question for you: Is it possible for you to move? Assigned seating is pretty rare in college classes – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, come to think of it – so unless there’s some compelling reason to stay where you’re sitting, the solution with the least awkwardness may be to simply move to where you can’t see what she’s doing.
That said, seating choice is pretty important, if not for maximizing attentiveness, at least for seeming like you’re trying to. If this girl is monopolizing the front of the “Teacher’s Pet T” – the first few rows and the centermost columns of the seating areas – you might need to call her out. I’ll get to my tips on that in a moment, but first, a message to professors.
We all know that computers can be used for taking notes, but I think we also know that they were really invented for checking Facebook/e-mail/funny Web sites, and are primarily used for such purposes, both in and out of class. Short of banning laptops in class, the best solution is to spring surprise questions on anyone with a computer, just to see if they’re actually paying attention, and watching out for a few obvious behaviors.
If students are typing way too little, it’s because they’re reading The Onion; if they’re typing way too much, it’s because they’re Facebook chatting; if they seem self-conscious or secretive about what’s on their screen, it’s because whatever they’re doing is completely unrelated to the class; if they have their computer open in Freshman Studies, it’s because they’re finishing up the paper that was due today. Really though, it shouldn’t take more than a quiz or two to figure out who is actually taking notes, and whose status updates are real-time comments on how boring class is.
Now back to your questions, Fed-Up. No, this girl doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Whatever she chooses to look at in class is fair game for you to use in making assumptions about what a horrible person she is. She may not realize that any odd behavior at Lawrence has the potential to be the one thing the whole campus knows you for, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s quickly becoming Little Miss Collegecandy, or whatever it is that kids are distracting themselves with nowadays.
With that in mind, you shouldn’t feel bad about discretely mentioning all of this to her, or announcing it to your class, for that matter. What she’s doing is pretty funny, and I’m sure the professor would get a kick out of it. I know, I know, that would probably embarrass her terribly, but it’s not like it’s a secret that she’s been doing this – at least, not to anybody sitting behind her – so an open discussion isn’t really that different from everyone’s current quiet chuckling about it.
Maybe such a grand reveal is a little dramatic, so I might suggest a lighter touch. The next time you raise your hand, be sure to awkwardly include some of the words on her computer in whatever it is you’re saying.
It’ll hopefully get the message to her that you can read her screen without pointing it out to everyone that she’s been looking at stupid Web sites in class. If that’s too subtle or if she’s too enamored with her articles or whatever to pay attention, try it again, this time while poking her in the back of the head. You can’t get much less subtle than that.