I was in a seminar recently, sitting around a wooden table with eight other people, discussing cultural icons and performativity—I know, how pretentious. But everyone around that table had chosen to take the class, so you’d think we would all be on the same page. That’s why I was surprised when I glanced to my left and my eyes fell on a screen full of trendy spring dresses. The woman next to me was online shopping. I chuckled to myself, but as I looked around the room I started to frown. Except for the professor, we were all on our laptops. And although in that instance, I didn’t know for certain that those screens weren’t filled with diligent notes, the darting eyes and smiles told me otherwise. I see this all the time, and I’m guilty of it, too—we attend class physically, but our thoughts are on the world wide web. This trendy division of attention hurts both our ability to learn from our classes, and our participation in whatever it is that we value doing online. When we’re in class, we should be paying more attention.
Online shopping is a particularly entertaining example. Usually it’s Facebook, iMessage, or articles from the New York Times or the Onion. Often, it’s an essay for another class or an important email to a professor. My critique is not that we spend too much time on the fluffy, socially fraught interweb, but that we do it during our classes.
I’m not saying that every moment of class time you miss is a lost nugget of precious knowledge that you’ll never get back. Classes can be boring, difficult, or absurd. But every moment of class is an opportunity. In every other aspect of college life, you pretty much get to make your own choices. You choose your major, your classes, your friends, your lunch spot, and most importantly, you choose how to allocate your own time. Maybe you spend your days in your college library until the wee hours, or maybe you devote most of your time to extracurriculars, or maybe you’re still trying to figure out what you care about. But no matter who you are, you’re spending a relatively small portion of your days actually sitting in class—it’s not a huge commitment to just listen up.
I don’t mean to blame all of our vices on technology—I have no doubt that before laptops were a regular fixture in classrooms, students of all ages still found ways to distract themselves. And such distractions are defensible, within reason. It’s probably impossible to pay attention one hundred percent of the time, and we shouldn’t be expected to. But we should be expected to try. When you’re sitting in class with a notebook and a pen in front of you, your mind might wander, you might doodle or zone out. But your laptop is a window into a whole world of distractions that are accessible, take up no physical space, and can be quickly swiped away to make it look like you’ve been taking notes on Dostoevsky that whole time, even though you were actually describing your professor’s ugly tie to your friend over iMessage.
All this might seem obvious—of course we should each get our money’s worth for these classes that, if you take thirty-six during your four years, cost over thirteen hundred dollars each. And yet, judging from my own experience and that of peers I’ve spoken to, that isn’t the case. One friend who took a poetry seminar told me that although the class was composed of thirteen students and the professor was world-famous, discussion tended to take place on just one side of the room. The other half of the class would spend those two hours elsewhere, on their laptops. This sort of behavior is not reserved to students who are bad at time management or those who don’t care about their grades—it happens across the board, and it’s completely normalized. Our professors all expect it. A few weirdos might institute computer-free zones, but most just grin and bear it. Our technology should never be the center of our focus during class; we owe our teachers and peers the respect of our attention.
Regardless of what the class is, we shouldn’t be seeking out distractions. If you’re in a terrible mood or you have too much to do, I’m an advocate of skipping class. That way you’re present for everything that you’re doing, whether it’s writing an essay, talking with friends, or just lying in bed scrolling through your Newsfeed. I’ll admit it—I wrote part of the script for this article while sitting in an art history lecture. We are all works in progress. But the quality of our classes, and therefore of our education, would be immensely improved if we all made an active effort to engage, instead of giving in to always being in two—or ten—places at once.