Distraction and Dromocracy in Learning

Debates about media in academic institutions are as old as academic institutions themselves. Is handwriting better than typing for learning? This article indicates that the answer is yes, specifically in terms of classroom learning. I would disagree. Part of the argument is that handwriting is better because it makes you slow down. I like the point about slowing down. The current obsession with speed—Paul Virilio’s dromocratic society—is very much a problem that should be addressed, and presumably it should be addressed very quickly. Slow down now! However, taking typing out of the classroom is not the solution.

A lot of things in this article set off my hermeneutics of suspicion. First of all, it talks about “laptops” in the classroom, which simply seems out of touch. My students use laptops, but to be fair, many of them are typing on other mobile devices like tablets and phones. It’s not an irrelevant point, since typing on tablets and phones is not as fast, if you can even call that typing, considering its dissimilarity with eight-fingered home-key-oriented typing. Typing on a phone precludes anything like a verbatim transcription and would require the sort of critical thinking that this article attributes solely to handwriting—thinking critically about what words to write or omit in your notes.

Second, contrary to the author, “a skilled typist” is not “also known as an American millennial.” Generational thinking is some of the laziest thinking, and the general propensity for talking about millennials is misguided more often than not. Boomers and GenXers have plenty of typing skills, probably even better typing skills than millennials, since millennials are so colonized by autocorrect that phones and tablets are doing the majority of the typing. Why is the challenge of learning situated so squarely on millennial shoulders? Are millennials the problem children of occidental civilization? With their sensitivity to the multiculturalism, uncertainty, and complex networks of global civilization, they learn better than any other generation. Why do Boomers and GenXers love talking about millennials so much? Are they the problem? Is that who can’t learn right now? Why not address the failure of learning among Boomers and GenXers, who have sat idly by while globalization ran amok across the biological and cultural diversity of the planet? Whatever Boomers did in the classroom clearly didn’t work, and they didn’t have laptops.

Third, the article mistakes the purpose of typing, assuming it is for verbatim note taking, which is so wrong as to be quite funny. Verbatim notes don’t allow the student to selectively discern noteworthy material. Between verbatim notes and selective notes, selective is better, but almost nobody is trying to take verbatim notes with their computer. One of the reasons I allow computers in my classroom is precisely so that students can let their attention drift in and out of my lecture, occasionally finding something to do that is worthwhile, and social media or kitten videos might very well meet that criterion. If you honestly think that everything in your lecture is indispensable to a person’s education, you are vastly overestimating your own importance, and you have failed to realize the tremendously volatile ecological and sociopolitical dynamics in which millennials are learning. Keeping up with the Black Lives Matter hashtag on Twitter could be much more important and more educational than hearing me lecture about the difference between the concepts of nature in Plato and Aristotle or any other group of very old white men. Reading a Wikipedia article on climate change while I’m lecturing about climate change is not necessarily counterproductive. In fact, it might help make sure that my lecture is not just a slightly more sophisticated version of information readily available online. I understand that computers can be distractions, and that’s what I like about them. Distracting from the sovereign power of the teacher is a good thing, and it even opens up opportunities for collaborative learning. For instance, I was lecturing about new food products that use cricket-based protein, and I had a student who was looking up info about it while I was talking about it, and she was able to add more information about specific companies involved with the new cricket food phenomenon.  The distraction slowed down the lecture, challenging the dromocratic desire to cover more material and fill young heads with more knowledge as fast as possible.

The thing that really gets me is the sheer irony of this article. The article communicated so much about the value of slow, deliberate note-taking, and I learned that information without using handwriting at all. In fact, I heard about this article through a listserv. Not only did my access to a laptop not impede my learning process, it provided the conditions for it.

What’s best for learning in the classroom? I suggest asking students what works for them and not assuming that you as a teacher know what’s best for anybody. A little respect for the youth might be a good idea. I mean respect for actually existing humans, not respect for easily-categorized statistical quantities called “millennials.” I did some of my best learning without taking notes at all. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t taking notes when I learned how to respect other people and respect multiple ways of learning.


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