Submitted by Anonymous on September 13, 2016 - 3:00am
For graduating high school seniors who are entering college this fall, it is an exciting time. Possibilities have been opened! Yet now new concerns arise: Have they chosen the right college? Will they thrive?
These are hard questions for any young adult, but for those with autism, the stakes are especially high. A 2015 Autism Speaks report found that only 30 percent of high school graduates with autism ever attend a two- or four-year college, and those that do fare poorly. Research suggests that 80 percent of them never graduate. Furthermore, only 32 percent of high school graduates with autism find paying work within two years of graduating high school. This need not be. Half of all individuals with autism have average or above-average intelligence. They can do the work. The problem is not the students. It’s the colleges.
We come to this issue from an unusual perspective. One of us, Elizabeth, studies at Pasadena City College and has autism. The other, Margaret, teaches at California State University at Los Angeles, and -- in addition to being Elizabeth’s mother -- has worked with students on and off the spectrum. Together, we have seen the many ways that colleges fail students with autism.
Federal legislation, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, mandates that colleges provide reasonable accommodations for disabled students. But common accommodations, such as providing a quiet exam setting, don’t adequately address the problems faced by many students with autism.
As autism scholars Ernst VanBergeijk, Ami Klin and Fred Volkmar note, autism is a social disability. The inherent qualities of autism -- resistance to change, sensitive sensory systems, weakness at reading social cues and a tendency to take language literally -- interfere with communication and social engagement. A quiet exam room will not help students overcome those barriers. The problems students with autism face are more insidious.
Elizabeth, for example, struggles with understanding if professors are being sarcastic or rhetorical. Uncertain, she often responds too much or too little. When one professor expressed frustration at her eager hand raising, she asked privately if he would signal her when he wasn’t being serious or didn’t require a response. “No,” he said. “I don’t need to change my teaching for you, and you need to learn sarcasm.”
It would be easy to regard Elizabeth’s experience as exceptional, the product of one unsympathetic professor. Yet research out of Australia by Ru Ying Cai and Amanda L. Richdale confirms how common such experiences are. In focus groups, autistic college students told story after story about metaphorical or abstract language leading to confusion, as well as loud, active classrooms challenging their abilities to focus on learning. For many, the frustrations became too great, leading to stress, anxiety and regrettable outcomes. However, when students felt their social needs were met -- in particular when faculty members proved willing to modify their teaching style -- students had much more positive experiences.
But American professors are not required to modify their teaching style for disabled students, and colleges are not required to think about the social, communicative needs of any students, let alone those with autism. Those things are not considered reasonable accommodations. But if autism is indeed a social disability, then denying the social needs of autistic students is inherently unreasonable.
It would help if faculty members understood how autism affects learning. But professors are busy. They juggle many demands, and professional development is often low on their to-do lists. At Margaret’s university -- which houses an outstanding center for teaching and learning development -- professional development seminars are often poorly attended, especially those focused on helping students with special needs. At one seminar on working with hearing-impaired students, Margaret was one of three instructors to show up, and if our conversations with colleagues and peers are indicative, then Margaret’s experience is a common one. Even when given the opportunity to learn more about the needs of disabled students, professors turn those choices down.
Some positive changes are underway. More than 100 colleges now offer programs for students with autism, but most of them are private, expensive, residential programs. Meanwhile, research suggests that up to 80 percent of college students with autism at one point filter through community colleges, where students, often still highly dependent on family support, can live at home. Those institutions generally offer fewer resources for students with autism. If we are to meet the needs of neurodiverse students, public community colleges will need to lead the way.
In these days when most community college disability offices are underfunded -- Elizabeth’s community college does not even provide note takers -- meeting the needs of students with autism may seem daunting. But meaningful institutional changes do not need to strain budgets. For Elizabeth, the greatest support has often come from students who have chosen to act as social interpreters. A whispered word or two is often all she needs to better and more appropriately engage with her curriculum. Colleges like California State University at Fullerton already have mentorship programs that pair neurotypical and neuroatypical classmates.
We recommend expanding such programs so that peer mentors -- perhaps those offered the coveted privilege of priority registration -- work side by side with autistic students in the classroom. Of course, that brings us back to the privacy concerns voiced earlier. Peer mentors can only work with students who are willing to self-identify in the classroom as having autism, which is why autistic students themselves must also be involved in making campuses more responsive to their needs -- and that will only happen when students with autism bring neurodiversity into conversations about campus diversity.
Until that happens, faculty can do a lot to foster feelings of safety and inclusion for all students -- both with autism and without. Elizabeth advocates for simple kindness, acceptance and the understanding that some disabilities are invisible. In Margaret’s classes, she announces on day one that students registered with the school’s disability office should feel free to talk to her about not just the accommodations they may legally require but also about other things she can do to make her courses work for them. She shares -- with Elizabeth’s permission -- the struggles Elizabeth has faced in education, and she urges students to see her as someone who really wants to help them succeed.
Work by Nicholas Gelbar, Isaac Smith and Brian Reichow offers faculty members other suggestions for helping students on the spectrum: incorporate universal design into curriculum and assignments. As much as possible, use concrete language in both lectures and the syllabus. Break tasks down into more steps, provide greater organizational support, realize that group work, public speaking and active classrooms (such popular buzzwords in today’s curricular development) may offer particular challenges for students who struggle socially and who do not thrive in environments demanding rapid transitions. In other words, when dealing with students whose disability makes flexibility extremely difficult, faculty members must be the flexible ones. They must also take responsibility for educating themselves about neurodiversity, and if that seems too hard, they can do one last thing. They can defer to autistic students who do understand their own needs, and they can give those students the support they ask for.
One thing is undeniable: without significant changes, the traditional gateway to greater community inclusion and financial security will remain closed to people with autism. And that’s a tragedy, because those with autism have a lot to offer -- not just to our colleges, but also to our nation’s economy. We all win when everyone can compete and contribute.
Elizabeth Finnegan is a student at Pasadena City College. Margaret Finnegan teaches at California State University at Los Angeles. She is the author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (Columbia University Press, 1999), and her work has appeared in College Communication and Composition, American Quarterly and other publications.
The brief summer respite from controversies surrounding free speech on campus ended last week when the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming students affirming its bedrock commitment to academic freedom, while decrying trigger warnings, “safe spaces” and censorship. The letter went viral, prompting impassioned responses ranging from full-throated endorsements to charges that it reeked of “arrogance, of a sense of entitlement [and] of an exclusionary mindset.”
Get ready for another contentious academic year on the free speech front. A recent Gallup poll concluded that college students support First Amendment rights “in the abstract” but “many are also comfortable shuttering free speech and impeding a free press” in order to restrict “offensive or biased speech.” Taking the measure of campus debates about free expression from this past academic year, the survey results provide additional evidence that real issues are at stake beyond the scorching, end-is-nigh headlines such as “The Death of Free Speech on College Campuses.”
Increasing skepticism about the importance of free expression is turning a significant -- and vocal -- contingent of students into cynics who regard free speech as nothing more than a weapon of the rich, the powerful and the privileged. That trend poses a threat to the development of robust critical thinking skills as well as to the health and vitality of participatory democracy.
For those students who imagine that First Amendment rights are monopolized by the “entitled,” free speech is seen as little more than a license to offend and oppress historically marginalized groups, especially people of color. If this sounds fanciful, you haven’t spent enough time reading through the editorial pages of college newspapers from the past few years. Here is a representative excerpt from a March 2016 op-ed from the Bates College newspaper: "Advocating for unlimited free speech privileges a certain group of people who already have the opportunity for their voices to be heard. It advocates for unlimited acts of violence and aggression towards marginalized people with little to no consequence. For this reason, it is hard for me not to argue for the censorship of what we say, to ensure that marginalized people have a verbal space to inhabit safely in public, as it is obvious that they do not always have safe physical spaces to inhabit in this country."
On the issue of censorship, the author has lots of company. The “Free Expression” Gallup poll reported that more than two out of three students say colleges should be allowed to “establish policies that restrict slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups.” Setting aside epithets, more than one in four say colleges should be able to restrict speech “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”
Those numbers signal that many students are suspicious of -- or even downright reject -- the premise that the best antidote to offensive speech is always more speech, an idea that has long been a basic tenet of free expression. Among these students, the survey revealed, are men and women, whites and blacks as well as Democrats, Republicans and Independents; so let’s put to rest the charge leveled by some on the right that it’s just those “pesky” women, minorities and bleeding hearts who are calling into question First Amendment rights.
The Gallup survey also investigated the extent to which students feel comfortable articulating their opinions. Fifty-four percent of the students say the “climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” Senior administrators and faculty members bear some responsibility for this troubling state of affairs. According to a report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), more than half of colleges and universities have restrictive speech codes -- that is, “policies prohibiting student and faculty speech that would, outside the bounds of campus, be protected by the First Amendment.”
In addition, more than 100 colleges and universities (and counting) have Bias Response Teams, which are tasked with investigating and responding to complaints about so-called “bias incidents.” At Syracuse University, “name calling,” “avoiding or excluding others” and “making comments on social media about someone’s political affiliations/beliefs” are all potential instances of bias. In principle and practice, Bias Response Teams communicate to students that “no incident is too small to report.”
Regarding faculty members, under the powerful influence of the “linguistic turn,” we scholars in the humanities -- and occasionally those in the social sciences -- have been banging on for decades about the awesome power of language (or discourse, in its formal dress), outlining in exquisite detail the ways in which it may serve to coerce, subjugate and oppress. In this kind of environment where speech is oftentimes regulated and the capacity of words to inflict damage is frequently underscored, it’s no wonder that some students of all backgrounds are in favor of eliminating speech that might insult or offend.
Unless I’m gravely mistaken, the overwhelming majority of students who are afraid to share their ideas, opinions and beliefs are not closeted bigots. Even so, they are understandably reluctant to have frank conversations -- in classrooms and in proverbial late-night bull sessions -- about questions that might veer into controversial territory. Questions like: Is sexual orientation hard-wired or a personal choice? How do you tell the difference between cultural mixture and cultural appropriation? And is the Black Lives Matter movement achieving its objectives?
It was, in fact, an earnest attempt to reckon with the last question that sent Wesleyan University into a tailspin last September when a student named Bryan Stascavage wrote an op-ed in the campus newspaper challenging some of the rhetoric and tactics associated with Black Lives Matter. Judge for yourself, but the Washington Post seemed to get it right when the paper said his analysis was “no more radical than the conservative commentary you might see on mainstream op-ed pages” in national papers. Many Wesleyan students, however, were deeply offended by the piece -- in the midst of a campus uproar about the “frustration, anger, pain and fear that members of the student body felt in response to the op-ed,” stacks of the paper were stuffed into recycling bins, the student government slashed the newspaper budget in half and Stascavage was tarred a “racist.”
The calamity at Wesleyan set the tone for an academic year filled with troubling incidents of campus censorship and threats to free speech, including growing concerns about the “tension between academic freedom and Title IX enforcement,” an activist push to restrict or ban news-media coverage of student protests at several colleges and universities, and numerous attempts -- some successful, some not -- to disinvite “objectionable” speakers from coming to campus. Calls for trigger warnings about “disturbing” classroom content continued to proliferate, to the point where some students are now requesting trigger warnings -- or even alternative assignments -- for readings about the Holocaust.
The academic year came to a fitting end with the ACLU filing a lawsuit against the University of California at San Diego in May to “enforce core First Amendment rules against targeting the press.” Earlier in the year, the student government, aided and abetted by administrators, cut funding for all student media in an attempt to shut down the Koala, a raunchy and irreverent satirical paper in the tradition of the Harvard Lampoon and the Onion. The precipitating event was a column called “UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” which ridiculed trigger warnings and safe spaces. In numerous complaints submitted to the UCSD Bias Response Team about the paper’s “sexist and racist comments masked under cruel humor,” students called for “an end” to the Koala or, at the very least, a system for “administrative approval of the content.”
Beyond the campus green, you cannot just shut down the presses when confronted by speech that offends you. “In a democracy,” the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote in the wake of the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, “no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that a reluctance to engage with “distasteful” or "scary" ideas will render students defenseless when they step into the sometimes rough-and-tumble civic arena after they graduate. On too many campuses, widely held political positions that aren’t “progressive” -- such as being pro-life or against gun control-- are summarily dismissed as intolerable.
“Part of being an American is the obligation to listen to language that makes you uncomfortable,” criminal lawyer and staunch First Amendment champion David Baugh said in a recent interview. “If you’re going to be a citizen, if you’re going to speak freely, you have to be able to tolerate bad ideas.” For Baugh -- who is African American, the son of a Tuskegee fighter pilot -- his declarations on tolerance are not sanctimonious abstractions. Working with the ACLU in the late 1990s, Baugh volunteered to help defend Barry Elton Black, an imperial wizard in the Ku Klux Klan who had been arrested for cross burning, an outcome that Baugh considered a violation of Black’s First Amendment rights. (The Supreme Court, in its 2003 Virginia v. Black decision, agreed.)
Elaborating on how to address “bad ideas” such as racial supremacy, Baugh explained, “In a true free society, every idea has to be discussed if for no other reason than saying that’s a stupid, damn idea, we ought to throw it away.” This is a more colloquial version of the phrase from Yale University’s 1975 Woodward Report that intellectual growth and discovery require the freedom to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” In an educational setting, playing devil’s advocate to consider unpopular or minority positions is an indispensable teaching tool. Beyond the classroom, tolerance for ideas we find misguided or repellent does not mean, as many students appear to believe, that we condone them. It’s possible to condemn ideas, broadcasting our misgivings to the high heavens, without censoring them.
Critical Thinking and Citizenship Rights
If colleges and universities shrink from engaging with materials students find too sensitive, controversial or offensive, the growth of their critical thinking skills will be severely stunted. We already have a tendency to misrepresent ideas that we disagree with. And that’s when we actually expose ourselves to them. Only 16 percent of college students say Americans do a good job at “seeking out and listening to differing viewpoints from their own.” A “just say no” approach to “objectionable” materials will turn us into intellectual sloths. Without the stimulation to interrogate our basic assumptions or to consider alternatives to our preferred explanations, our own ideas will devolve into pathetic caricatures. If you are in favor of affirmative action, for instance, how sophisticated can your position really be if you refuse to engage with the claims and evidence advanced by its critics?
Scholars on the left rightfully challenge our most cherished national ideals such as “freedom,” “equality” and “opportunity,” showing how they have not applied to far too many groups of people based on their race, national origin or gender. (Women, for example, have been eligible to cast votes in less than half of our presidential contests.) Since the election of Barack Obama, the idea that we live in a post-racial society has been subjected to withering criticism from left-leaning academics. Supported by a raft of empirical data, professors like legal scholar Michelle Alexander of The New Jim Crow fame cogently argue that the notion of a post-racial United States is an illusion, a self-congratulatory lie we tell ourselves in order to justify gross social and economic inequalities. As Princeton University professor of religion and African American Studies Eddie Glaude Jr. acidly observes, “We have a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.”
The left’s attention to power dynamics and structural inequalities sometimes becomes a fixation. Consider the response of the University of Minnesota’s Council of Graduate Students to a draft faculty statement on free speech released this past March. “People found [the text] offensive,” a spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Students reported. In a letter objecting to the “Four Core Principles” document, the executive committee of the Council called some of the language used “tone-deaf” and “ill-advised,” dismissing as “deplorably patronizing” the proposition that “the most effective response to offensive ideas is to rebut them with better ideas.” It also roundly rejected the principle that “free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.” Instead, the graduate student group argued, the university should give “special consideration to otherwise marginalized speakers,” a kind of affirmative action for speech that would provide distinct forums for “those who are not well-spoken or who use English as a second language.” (Whatever you think of this idea, it would be a logistical nightmare to implement.)
It would be unpardonably naïve for free speech proponents to ignore the fact that some voices -- the rich, the powerful, the white, the male -- have been amplified, while others have been tuned out or muted. Even in the age of social media where the public square is a click away, we need to be mindful that the speech of some individuals, rightly or wrongly, has more currency in the marketplace of ideas. Nonetheless, this marketplace is teeming and vibrant, energized by a multitude of different points-of-view. As I write, the book that has been on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction list the longest is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a text that argues, “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control [black] bodies.”
It would also be disingenuous for strong advocates of free expression to dismiss the charge that ringing the free speech alarm bell sometimes serve as an excuse to malign student protesters and deflect attention from pressing conversations about racism or other social problems. This “diversion” thesis is not without merit -- just take a few minutes to skim through the contemptuous stories about campus activism on websites such as The College Fix, the Daily Caller or Heat Street.
But free speech, we are obliged to acknowledge, has been at the heart of every single successful movement devoted to expanding citizenship rights and enlarging the charmed circle of “we the people,” from abolitionism and woman’s suffrage to marriage equality. So it’s especially ironic that, while some students compare unfettered free speech to lynching, today’s most energetic social movement is devoted to ending violence against black people. Emerging from a hashtag, Black Lives Matter would not be a household name or a substantial political force without First Amendment rights, including the freedom of speech, the press and assembly.
Rue the day that “free speech” starts to appear more regularly in scare quotes. If we encourage the same kind of sneering disdain for free speech that some reserve for ideas like colorblindness, meritocracy and the “American dream,” we will be in deep trouble. Our democracy will be impoverished and so too will our minds. Taking any kind of stand that undercuts free speech is like launching a vendetta on the air we breathe. If it’s successful, we will all suffocate.
Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is an assistant professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College.
I’ve been asked for years why I start many of my higher education talks with equity. Today, the word is trending, even among those who advised me against using it. While that is progress, we have to be careful not to confuse talk with change.
Historically, we in higher education have been really good at producing reports on inequality and explaining these inequalities away, but really bad at making equity a priority. And we haven’t made changes in the classroom that are necessary to really make a difference.
The fact that unequal outcomes are such an enduring characteristic of higher education -- especially for Latino, black, Native American and underserved Asian-American students -- is evidence of our poor record of both talking about andproducing equity.
In California, for example, we tend to view numbers that show fewer black and Latino students admitted to public flagship universities like the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley, and fewer blacks and Latinos earning a degree, as unfortunate but inevitable. Between 2007 and 2015, the higher education attainment gap between whites and Latinos actually grew by 2.2 percentage points, from a 22.1 percentage point gap to a 24.3 percentage point gap. The gap for blacks grew by 0.3 percentage points.
Closing that gap is not going to be easy. Most of these students are poor and the first in their families to attend college. They were deprived of opportunities to be ready for college. But when they don’t do well, they are blamed for being underprepared, for not seeking help and for not taking advantage of faculty office hours. Despite having been failed by segregated and underresourced schools, such students are seen as the authors of their unequal outcomes.
Some states seem to get the scope of the challenge and are beginning to show the nation how to move from talking about equity to making it a priority. For instance, California’s last three state budgets have included significant financial support for community colleges to help diminish the equity gaps in student success. Those funds are part of a plan to close equity gaps in five indicators of student success: access, basic skills, course completion, degree attainment and transfer. The budget for this equity work has increased from $70 million in 2014-15 to $155 million this year -- and the same funding level has been proposed for 2016-17. Community colleges are using these funds in a variety of ways that increase support to students of color. For example, East Los Angeles Community College is using a portion of the money to create the Latina Completion and Transfer Academy Program. San Diego Mesa College is sponsoring professional development for all faculty members on training and teaching college men of color.
Colorado’s higher education master plan offers another example. Goal No. 3 of the plan is “Enhance access to, and through, postsecondary education to ensure that the system reflects the changing demographics of the state while reducing attainment gaps among students from underserved communities.”
But here’s the truth: just as plants in an untended garden will fail to take root and then wither and die, so, too, will these policies.
I don’t say this to be cynical. Nor do I think higher education leaders and practitioners are willfully ineffective or don’t want to do the right thing. But these polices will fail unless we engage faculty members and administrators in changing themselves and their own institutions. They must ask why their practices or teaching methods work better for white students than for students of color.
To me, this is the untold story of “first-generation equity practitioners” teaching in higher education. For example, I view the 62 percent of California community college faculty who are white as first-generation equity practitioners who need to learn how to be equity minded. Nationally, 79 percent of full-time faculty members are white, while 6 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Higher education faculty members everywhere must recognize and concede that their practices are failing to create success for too many students. They need to see that their implicit biases about race and ethnicity often prevent them from viewing students who are not like themselves as college material.
And it can be done. With the right training and support, faculty members engaged in this work take actions to identify and reverse patterns of failure -- their students’ and their own. We are seeing progress firsthand in our own work, which focuses on remediating colleges so they are able to educate Latinos and blacks as well as they educate white and more economically privileged students.
James Gray, the chair of the math department at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, for instance, changed practices after looking at math data by course and instructor, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. It was clear that some faculty members were successful and others were not. With guided support to help him observe instructor-student interaction, he saw how faculty members talked to and greeted students, whom they paid attention to and whom they ignored, and whether feedback to students was supportive or alienating.
Through peer-to-peer conversations, math instructors became collectively conscious that their behaviors, particularly toward students of color, conveyed indifference, lack of caring and even fear. On seeing the contradictions between their behaviors and their professional values as educators, all but one faculty member made changes to be more responsive to students of color. Instead of being color-blind they became more color conscious; rather than waiting for students of color to seek help they developed help-giving practices.
Those small changes helped faculty members forge validating relationships with students of color. For example, using our Equity Scorecard’s Syllabus Review protocol, faculty members became aware that their syllabi, rather than supporting students’ success, taxed their self-worth by screaming rules and telling them all the ways in which they could fail the class. The review of syllabi was a catalyst for deeper discussions about teaching and reflection on how instructors’ language and everyday behaviors influence classroom racial climates.
Gray, in his role as department chair, now looks at mathematics course-level data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and by instructor, discussing results with faculty individually to come up with strategies to resolve disparities of up to 35 percentage points. Instructors have adopted equity goals and they know how many more students by race and ethnicity need to succeed to close the gaps. After the implementation of the Equity Scorecard that we at the Center for Urban Education use to track progress, the college algebra pass rates for blacks improved from 66 percent in 2014 to 77 percent in 2015 and from 66 percent to 83 percent among Hispanics.
He also realized that in 10 years as department chair, he had never hired an African-American to teach a college-level math course. He even realized his recruiting strategies put candidates of color at a disadvantage. He now asks job candidates how they would explain their course syllabus on day one of class in order to see if that candidate’s approach is conducive to an equity-focused classroom.
The Community College of Aurora is part of a growing effort to translate high-level policy goals into campus- and faculty-level goals that can be implemented and measured by race and ethnicity to improve retention and graduation results. The improvements achieved at Aurora suggest that structural changes such as course redesign or acceleration are necessary but insufficient. The success of such efforts depends greatly on the motivation of faculty to take action. The Aurora story makes clear that math faculty who engage in a structured race-conscious examination of data that is close to their instructional practices can develop agency for change.
The combination of underprepared students and underprepared faculty members is the perfect storm. When campuses change the way they serve students of color, however, a fundamental shift in thinking and approach occurs that moves us beyond talk and closer to real equity.
Estela Mara Bensimon is a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School Of Education. Her Twitter handle is @ebensimon.
So, with all the controversy swirling around students’ use of laptops in the classroom, have you decided to prohibit them or not?
Advocates of allowing laptops took a took a punch in the gut with a recent study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding that students -- unable to resist the Sirens of the internet during class -- performed better when laptops were not permitted in the classroom.
Of course, as with critical-thinking courses and outcomes assessment, everyone and their dean has a theory on the subject. As a longtime advocate of permitting laptops, my intuition has been that we who took notes by hand back in the age of pens and paper simply can’t appreciate that keyboard note taking is more efficient for today’s students weaned on computers. I concede the high distractibility quotient of laptops and can accept the MIT study’s claim that they depress performance. I’m just not persuaded that our students are scampering around cyberspace at a much higher rate and to a significantly worse effect than in the days of yore when we daydreamed, doodled and passed notes in class.
And I’m not convinced that, at the level of higher education, efforts to enforce attention aren’t a bit too paternalistic. Perhaps banning laptops deprives the internet surfer of the important life lesson that, in the end, cutting corners has consequences.
Given that, why have I now changed my mind and defected to the opponents of laptops in the classroom?
Because, almost without fail, when I call on a student who’s been clacking away taking notes during class to apply a rule or concept under discussion, their eyes instantly dart down to the laptop screen in front of them as they scroll through the notes they’ve just taken to find the answer. One would have thought I’d asked a court reporter to read the last sentence back. Since the question normally requires the student to use, rather than simply repeat, material they’ve just typed into their machine, they do not find the answer and set off on a futile treasure hunt through all their notes to locate it.
My best guess is that today’s students’ keyboard skills are sufficient to allow them to mindlessly record what’s said in class, like a secretary too hurriedly taking dictation to think about what’s actually being said.
I haven’t been a student myself lately (as the allusion to secretaries taking dictation makes pretty clear), but I don’t recall being able by hand to record verbatim what was being discussed in class. Instead, I believe we were forced -- due to the relatively slow rate at which one can take handwritten notes -- to grasp, paraphrase and summarize in more or less outline form the information we were taking down. Laptops may, in other words, convert students into tape recorders whereby learning is postponed till whenever the transcript of a class is reviewed, corrupted by imperfections in the transcripts and impeded by the resultant inability to ask questions in class. Paradoxically then, inefficiency in the speed of note taking may help infuse an understanding of the subject matter into the notes.
I will break the news of my defection to the dark side of the laptop issue to future classes in the following way: effective note taking is not a one-step process where classroom content travels directly into your laptop via your hands, which, it appears to me, is the natural route of laptop note taking. Instead, it is a two-step process where the material must first travel through your mind, to be inspected and rewrapped, and only then recorded via your hands.
A neuroscientist may well cringe at my explanation. On the other hand, without the benefit of the better of the two note-taking methods, he or she may have had a harder time becoming a neuroscientist in the first place.
Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law.