Pay attention in class

I’ve been swimming a lot recently — and, no, thankfully not in Brodie. This behavior has perplexed me, as it’s not because I enjoy swimming (I don’t) or that I’m particularly good at it (I’m not). But, as I mentally composed this piece while completing my decidedly mediocre laps, I realized my urge to go to the pool is not about the physical act of swimming — nor the five kudos I will receive on Strava after — but rather the necessary detachment from the less-than-waterproof world inherent to being in a pool.

I used to go on walks to plan out pieces of writing in my head, but lately it’s hard to fully disconnect. I mean, I have to maintain my 100,000 minutes of annual Spotify listening somehow; plus, the pollen is atrocious this year. In our age of connectivity, arguing that it’s hard to concentrate is not an original thought. However, the spaces in which we are forced to fully be alone with our thoughts — or ours plus those of other people — are diminishing. Heck, even Taishoff, the pool in Wilson Gym, recently installed a giant screen so that now being alone with my thoughts includes wondering why “Learn to Swim” lessons are advertised to people already in the lap pool. Needless to say, if they ever invent waterproof earbuds for the pool — or even if they already have — please don’t tell me.

I don’t like swimming, but I do like being present. Hence, being in the pool forces me to either entertain myself with my thoughts or face unending boredom — and I know what I’m picking. Yes, paying attention to my surroundings is something I — and honestly most of us — need to improve in general, but there’s one activity in which our attention seems to particularly wane: class.

I previously wrote about the lack of attendance in Duke’s undergraduate courses. This surely remains an issue, but, while reflecting on my four years of education here, I noticed a trend in their staying power, almost so simple it’s stupid: The classes I got the most value from tended to be the ones in which I paid the most attention.

I’d like to ascribe this to a moral failing, but that’s only part of the issue. Simply put, when professors ban or discourage laptops in class, I am forced to pay attention — which, despite it all, is what I would like to do — and thus I learn more. When computers are allowed — as someone who would never type notes, partially because it’s less effective and partially because I’m not a big note-taker in general — I’m basically choosing whether I want to listen to the lecture or if I want to do all the New York Times games, check my email, answer Ed questions and read book reviews. Suffice to say, these are activities better done on the toilet, between sets at the gym or while waiting for a meeting to start.

Upon reflection, the only place where a laptop makes sense in the classroom is in a discussion-style work session in which you are either referencing assignment problems, directly coding or filling out a lab. Otherwise, the majority of students are just going to be putzing around — myself included. Having the directive to unplug can be freeing. For lectures and seminars, the goal should be engagement with the material, not to get a perfect solve of the Connections to send to your three friends who also do it — hopefully I can internalize that one in the next half month.

Using iPads is a bit more nebulous, since I’d like to believe they are mostly used for actual note-taking or solving along with examples. But, then again, I have looked over in a CS lecture to see a classmate watching Instagram reels, so I digress. Regardless, tablets are largely contained in their distraction potential to the user. Laptops by nature allow anyone sitting behind you to view your activities — or at least know that you’re doing something. Often, I’m able to resist the urge to use my own electronics in class only to find that my peers are, and I am unable to prevent myself from getting distracted by looking over at what they are doing on their computer. Hell, in-class distraction via web surfing is so prevalent it caused someone to make a startup.

The same arguments for going to class can apply to paying attention, most significantly, the amount of money we pay to be here, the disrespect to our instructors and the number of people who wish they could be here in our places. I have only two and a half weeks of class left — probably ever — and I find I’m a little disappointed in myself that my attitude about a particular course often determined how mentally present I was — and, by dint, how much value I got from it.

I sincerely respect my professors who have either discouraged or outright banned electronics in class — it simply makes for a better experience. It’s embarrassing how tough it can be to get through a 75-minute period without the internet — I couldn’t even write this whole article without checking Instagram and watching several Netflix episodes — but when it is a communal agreement of mutual respect of each other’s time, there’s no internal struggle. You just have to follow the rules.

I miss the days of elementary and high school where I could just turn in handwritten assignments and we’d only have the Chromebook cart in the room if we were doing Kahoot or working on a research report. I regret the disdain I placed on my school’s no phone policy. I love technology, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing. What I really want is permission to unplug and dial in when it isn’t necessary. That’s what swimming gives me, and, in almost every other situation, I’m going to have to develop abundantly more willpower if I want to make the most of my immediate present.

If we want school to be about school again, effort must be made on both sides of the equation. Professors should limit, if not ban, laptops and potentially other electronics in class sessions when they aren’t immediately useful. Because let’s face it: Even in a CS class, you’re probably not coding along with the instructor. As students, we should strive to not abuse technology use and be honest with ourselves about our levels of active attention. Because if we are not here — at least most of the time — to learn things, then we’re really just swimming in circles.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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