As an ambitious first-year student, I put in a lot of energy into finding the best learning techniques for myself after high school. I have also always used a computer to take notes in my non-math courses – except for the ones where professors have banned the use of digital devices. This was the case for three of my classes in my second semester at McGill, where I had to change my carefully considered work habits to suit my professors’ preferences. Instructors’ justifications for banning laptops in classrooms are almost always of the following variety: there’s research that shows students who take manual notes perform better academically, and students use their laptops for purposes other than note-taking, which is distracting to other students. Or, in translation: “I’m going to use my position of power as the instructor of your course to make paternalistic decisions for you, an adult, because I don’t trust your ability to use a laptop responsibly.”
One of my professors that subscribed to this idea had included in his syllabus that laptops would be permitted under exceptional circumstances, only if the student had “documented disability [from the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD)] that justifies its use to facilitate in-class note-taking or learning.” This may look like a reasonable accommodation, but in a class of 300 there was not a single soul using a laptop, and I highly doubt it was the case that no one actually needed one. Firstly, who would actually feel comfortable outing themselves as the “disabled kid” in the ableist environment that the professor had promoted in that classroom, especially when the professor continued to shame those who were not aware of the no-laptops rule in front of their peers for the next month? Furthermore, not all students with disabilities are registered with the OSD. OSD wait times for advising appointments can sometimes be longer than five weeks. Further, some people may not have a disability, but have a learning style more suited to typing notes. That semester, I had to run to a library immediately after a lecture to type up my illegible handwritten notes – a complete waste of time that did not aid my learning in the slightest.
What’s clear to me is that it shouldn’t be on students to alter their learning strategies to suit different professors’ dictatorial rules.
Instructors’ paternalism in the classroom is not limited to the banning of laptops, but extends to the general liberty granted to them with the format of their lecture materials. Some professors post lecture slides online before class, some post them after, some never do, and some don’t even use slides. Some post notes, some post outlines, some record lectures. Although professors accommodate students with diverse learning methods inconsistently, I managed to complete my first three semesters at McGill by adjusting to my instructors’ random and bizarre rules about how I was to learn. However, during my fourth semester, I missed weeks of a higher-level economics class for mental health reasons. My instructors did not record lectures, and only one of them posted her incoherent notes online. Since McGill places the onus of requests for extensions on students already in vulnerable positions, as deadlines rolled around I had to send emails begging my professors for extensions and explaining my mental illnesses to them – a very uncomfortable thing to do, to say the least. I was unable to catch up with my courses, deferred my finals, and finally decided to withdraw from them in August.
At the beginning of every semester, I receive emails from the OSD looking for note-takers. However, the responsibility of providing notes shouldn’t be on fellow students, but on instructors. Classrooms shouldn’t be about the convenience of teachers, but about that of students who pay thousands of dollars to be taught by them.
I have heard from instructors over and over that if they release their lecture materials, students would no longer attend lectures. This is obviously an exaggeration – many students find that they learn best by attending lectures, and even enjoy them. Even if it were true that “no one” would show up, classrooms should not be structured around instructors’ fragile egos, so easily crushed by low lecture attendance. Students have many reasons for missing lectures. They may not be in the right place of mind to meaningfully engage with a lecture at a given time. They may learn better by watching recordings in the comfort of their home, or by simply reading from the lecture slides. Or (shocker, professors), students have many commitments in any given day other than attending a particular class. And (another shocker) some instructors are simply incompetent teachers. I have only attended lectures for two of five math courses that I have taken at McGill, as the other three had lectures so useless that I was better off teaching the material to myself using textbooks, notes from other students, or notes posted online.
I’ve sat through enough lectures in Leacock 132 to be familiar with the countless Facebook screens floating everywhere. I know that sometimes people just slack off in class, or skip for no reason. But maybe the solution to maximize learning for students who want to learn is for professors to introduce them to different studies and information in support of manual note-taking, and then give them the power to make their own choices instead of unilaterally making decisions for them. Students who use laptops can sit in the back of the class. Professors who are so worried about the impact of laptop note-taking on learning could record their lectures so that the ‘distracted’ students can learn at a later time. What’s clear to me is that it shouldn’t be on students to alter their learning strategies to suit different professors’ dictatorial rules, but rather on McGill and its instructors to make classrooms more accessible to the variety of abilities and learning strategies that students have. At the end of the day, when I was faced with an inaccessible learning environment last semester, I had to withdraw from two six-credit courses, send thousands of dollars down the drain, and delay my graduation. I dare my professors to tell me that the restrictive rules of their classrooms were for my benefit.
Paniz Khosroshahy is a U2 Women’s Studies and Computer Science student. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.