February 2, 2014

OH | Student or Stenographer

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By DON OH

It may have been a meager 10 days since classes began, but living up to its reputation as a pressure cooker, the University has been blatantly bestowing piles and piles of work upon us. To avoid the work overload that comes from switching in and out of classes, I finalized my schedule before last week. I still attended about a dozen classes in the process and realized how oddly similar all the classes were, despite their divergent subject matters and different instructors.

A typical Cornell classroom consists of a professor talking in front of his or her PowerPoint slides and seated students pretending to listen while their laptop screens indicate otherwise. The fact that we’re in the early phase of the semester can certainly contribute to students’ dispersed attention, but the presence of technology in the classroom is not a new syndrome –– nor is it confined to the early phase of the semester.

About seven years ago, the iPhone and Facebook began to gain momentum. Laptops, on the other hand, have been widely distributed for much longer. As educators have adapted to new technology by incorporating projectors and PowerPoint slides into their teaching, it somehow has become natural, normal and sometimes even expected for students to bring their personal electronic devices to class with the alleged purpose of taking notes. And some students do take avid notes, living up to their declared purpose. But too many of us deviate from that intended goal, and the consequences affect the entire classroom.

When you lift your head and look around your classroom at any given time, you are bound to spot at least a few people with their computers on. If you are “lucky” enough to sit in the rear end of a large classroom, you are greeted with a wide array of colors beaming from laptop screens.

Compared to around 2009, when Facebook was at the height of its expansion, the number of blue screens in classrooms indicating Facebook usage has noticeably decreased. I am told this is mainly due to a shift in social media focus, with users increasingly opting for more “hip” outlets like Reddit and Vine. The specific websites that distract us may have changed, but our fickle nature with electronics hasn’t changed much. Since so many of us still struggle to keep our attention focused on class material, why not ban electronics as a whole, preventing us from falling into that temptation?

When it comes to taking notes, the laptop’s greatest advantage over writing by hand is its speed and clarity. This is not a matter of opinion: It’s a pure fact. Very few human beings, if any, can manage to write legible letters at the speed of typewriting. This is precisely why stenographers in courtrooms use machines with special keyboards, instead of trying to dictate all dialogue by hand. Therefore, the use of the keyboard in fast-paced environments calling for extensive writing is justified and validated. But since when did our classrooms turn into courtrooms and our students become relegated to stenographers?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stenography is an admirable profession; few people are capable of it, and thus, they are well paid. The fundamental difference between students and stenographers is that the latter are individuals who are trained to merely listen to court dialogue and type it down. It’s a pure communicative transition from the auditory to the visual. Absolutely no input by the intermediary is encouraged –– nor is it permitted.

A college student’s role, or at least the ideal version of it, should be anything but that of the stenographer. It should be about learning how to examine information with a critical lens, to interpret in our own way and to muster the courage to raise our hands and say “no” when the proverbial ship is headed in the wrong direction. When our classroom experience doesn’t reflect this academic ideal, but rather that of the one-way speaker and 100 typists, there isn’t the forum in which to raise the next leader, whistleblower or pioneer.

So I urge faculty that are in the position to ban laptops in their classrooms to do so. And if their class format requires such heavy note-taking that an electronic device is preferred to writing by hand, I think they should reconsider what they are teaching.

Don Oh is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. He may be reached at doh@cornellsun.com. Bi the Way appears alternate Mondays this semester.