Monday, April 27, 2009

Meeting of the Laptops

From the comments on a conference-themed post last week, it is clear that there are various opinions, some of them fierce, about the use of laptops by audience members during a talk. I wonder if one's opinion for or against syn-talk laptop use by the audience depends on the specific situation. For example:

Does it matter whether the laptop is being used to take notes about what the speaker is saying or whether it is being used for activities unrelated to the talk being given at the time?

Does it matter whether the talk is interesting or extraordinarily dull and/or poorly presented, or is it always impolite?

Is the issue the distraction of the type type type sound of a keyboard or the flashing graphics of some websites or would it be OK if someone just stared silently at a screen of unmoving text?

Does it matter where the laptopper is sitting? Even if you think that laptop use by someone sitting in a prominent place at the front of the room would pose a distraction, but would it be OK if someone sitting at the back of a large-ish room quietly read something on their laptop?

I personally prefer to take notes on paper, so I don't use my laptop for taking notes during talks, and I don't take out my laptop if I am sitting in a crowded room or near the front of a room. If I am in a long session and can't zip in and out of the room easily, however, I have been known to sit in the back, take out of my laptop during a talk of little interest to me, and do some quiet work, mostly reading and perhaps some editing, in what I hope is a non-obtrusive way.

During one conference this year, two of my grad students who were not at the conference sent me frequent emails and things to read for a looming deadline. During spare moments, I read, edited, and sent comments back to them so that I would not delay their progress despite being away. Some of these spare moments were during conference sessions.

In each case, I was sitting near the back of the room and did not have people sitting next to me. Perhaps any form of lack of attention is disrespectful to a speaker, but at a big meeting in a large room, the audience will be composed of individuals whose attention will wax and wane depending on the specific topic of each talk. It is unreasonable to expect that there won't be some people flipping through the schedule (if there is one..), closing their eyes, making brief whispered comments, and, as long as it is done reasonably quietly so as not to disturb the speaker or others in the audience, I think this is acceptable behavior. You cannot expect every member of an audience to give every talk their full attention; you can, however, expect a respectful and reasonably quiet audience in which speakers and listeners are not disturbed by ancillary activities.


Anonymous said...

I think it depends on the size of the conference. If it is a narrow-field-specific meeting with only a few hundred participants, and only one room with talks, I think it is not rude. The room is likely large and well populated, everyone stays together mostly anyway, and not all talks will be specifically relevant to everyone.
However, at a huge (thousands of people) conference, with dozens of rooms where people travel around to see the talks they want and some rooms are much emptier than others, I could see why it may come across as rude.

Anonymous said...

I would say exactly the opposite to anonymous - I think everyone at a small meeting should be keenly interested in the whole meeting, or otherwise they have chosen poorly; in contrast, at a huge meeting, it's easy to imagine someone sitting through a talk they don't care about to hear the next one, and you have to find something to do in the interim.

In general, I find the noise of the typing mildly annoying; however, the length of time someone types is the determining factor for me - if it's through one talk, fine. However, I was at a small conference last year where one of the speakers spent literally the entire time (aside from his own talk) checking email. I was embarrassed for him.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure some one can come up with a formula based on 'distance from speaker', 'size of room', 'distance from other people', 'sounds / flashes from laptop' etc. I don't think there is a definitive answer, more a case of being polite and sensitive to the people around you.

Moira said...

I was at a conference where a speaker gave a talk on research included in a paper accepted for publication in a journal that requires their authors to keep their results under embargo.

She did not warn the audience of the embargo until the end of her presentation--this announcement was too late for the audience member who had been live-twittering throughout the talk.

James said...

I think Miss Manners would say that the key thing is whether anyone knows it's happening. If you can do something in the audience (play the drums, roast a pig,...) in such a way that no one notices that you're doing it, then it's impossible to object, simply because no one knows you're doing it. On the other hand, if someone does know you're doing it, then you're probably distracting that person, and so you probably shouldn't.

Of course, in reality it's impossible to do many things (e.g. eat) without other people noticing. Therefore...

Anonymous said...

I think that laptop use during conference presentations is going to become "normal" in the future but that we are probably in a transition phase. I was originally going to say that using a laptop to check e-mail is inappropriate but then I reflected on the number of times I've seen people reading papers or notes (possibly in preparation for their own presentations), looking through the program, etc. during a presentation. I think that the key is ensuring the speaker is not distracted. Some laptop keys are louder than others, but most are quiet enough to be lost in the din of a conference room.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes talks are just really awful. Usually this isn't because the research is bad, but because the presentation is extraordinarily poorly planned and executed such that it is impossible to follow the content of the talk.

I think it is perfectly acceptable to do any of the following when presented with such a talk: think about one's own research/other talks, make a shopping list, check one's email/blogs, read a paper, write a paper, or stare blankly into space. Sadly, I ran into such a talk recently and brought NOTHING with me to read or write on/with - I was stuck with the blank staring option.

On the other hand if a talk is well presented, even if the topic isn't of particular interest, I think an audience should pay more attention than in the above scenario. The speaker has done their job, so the audience can do theirs. (Obviously it's OK to leave in the first 2-3 minutes of a talk if it's a clear it's not going to on a topic of interest).

Unknown said...

I'm of two minds on this one - I'm a frequent laptop user at conferences, and usually do so for one of two reasons. Either I'm doing work (and therefore not paying attention), or I'm taking notes.

On the taking notes bit - often it's easier to see than a piece of paper, it's easier to read later regardless, and I type a bit faster than I write. I also find that I can transition from "looking at presentation" to "looking at laptop screen" much easier than looking at a piece of paper in my lap (most times).

That said, if there's work involved - I'm not paying attention. Regardless of how interesting the talk is or how engaging the speaker is. Sometimes the deadline is more pressing, and sometimes I'd just bored. I try not to leave my talk until the last minute (e.g. putting it together during the session), but sometimes it's inevitable - or useful to put in a slide that acknowledges a previous talk. If I really have a pressing deadline, I usually try to find a place to sit outside the sessions - if I'm not paying attention anyway, then why be rude and be distracted from what I claim is more important anyway?

I've been to small meetings where the convener has banned laptops to try and avoid the sea of uninterested observers - not sure if it works or not, though (not paying attention doesn't require a laptop and there's always someone who ignores the ban because their talk is so important that they didn't finish it before the conference...)

Anonymous said...

I think it is very disrespectful to the speaker. If you have deadlines and work to do then go somewhere else, get your work done, and then return to the talks.

Anonymous said...

In a smaller conference where there is only one program set, I see no reason why everyone should be paying full attention for every single talk. I think what the 2nd anonymous said is kinda ignorant. Even at smaller conferences the range of topics can be quite wide and generally about 10% of the talks either don't spark my interest or are poorly presented. If someone wants to sit in the back on the lecture hall and do some other work, as long as they are not being disruptive it is totally acceptable to use your laptop.

Maybe the person is giving a talk later that day and wants to make sure everything is perfect. Maybe they were invited to give a talk but has a very important deadline that same week? Maybe they need to keep in contact with their family?

I see no reason why an attendee shouldn't be free to sit in the back and use their laptop.

Dr Spouse said...

I have recently started knitting in conference talks - unless I really need to take notes, easy knitting allows me to pay just the right amount of attention and to concentrate well. I only knit out of view of the speaker and preferably very near the back.

Anonymous said...

And I think knitting at a conference is setting women in science back about 4 decades.

Honestly, nothing pisses me off more than seeing a woman knit at during a scientific talk.

Alyssa said...

As long as the action isn't distracting to the speaker or other members of the audience, then I don't think it should be an issue. Working quietly on a computer, reading notes or the program would be fine; fussing with noisy wrappers or constant whispering to your neighbor is not.

Even if you are super interested in the whole session, your brain just shuts down after 15 talks on the same subject.

I agree that the clicking of keys can be annoying on certain laptops, and users should be aware of that. Watching movies is perhaps a little over the top as well - at that point, just leave the room.

Anonymous said...

I think screen-brightness is a major component of how rude you're being: If you properly modulate your screen brightness so that it is not distracting I think it's much more polite. But really bright-screens in dark rooms are very annoying -- like people texting in a movie theater.

John Vidale said...

As I posted after the last entry, I think disruption of other people is the only criterion for objecting to laptop use. Distractingly graphic screens, noisy keyboards, cackles and shrieks can disrupt.

At meetings ranging from 3 to 1000s of people, it is becoming the norm to participate as one sees fit, and peer into the laptop the rest of the time. Sometimes meetings of just 2 people degrade to both just using their laptops.

Maybe disincentives would also include failing eyesight and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The point of a meeting is not to have a captive audience to torture, but rather to offer information and a chance to discuss it to those who wish to do so.

YoungMathProf said...

I would be curious to know FSP's thoughts on students using laptops during her lectures.

For the first time in 6 years of teaching math at the university level, I had several students using laptops on a daily basis in my classes last term. Some of these students were using these to take notes; others were playing poker on the internet, etc. I find the latter rather rude.

In general, those who used laptops - even those taking notes - did poorly in the class. I wonder if a corresponding statement is true for conference attendees using laptops - do they, in general, get less out of the conference?

On the other hand, there were situations (albeit few) where a question arose which required additional information in order to be resolved. It was nice to have a student quickly access the needed information quickly (using their laptop), allowing the class discussion to move forward.

Anonymous said...

With the advent of netbooks as well as tablet PC's I would say many in the audience are taking notes with their computer. I like using OneNote or since I use a tablet pc even the journal tool to scribe notes. If I am boarded I switch to checking emails and reading pdf's on the tablet PC similar to using Amazon's kindle device. I find this is less noticeable because tablet computers are held similar to paper notebooks. I have even written notes on the conference proceedings (digital) while actually sitting in the session, or marked up particular paper with notes generated during the conference session.

I have been taking notes with my computer since I was an undergraduate in the mid 1990's but am still shocked that some groups are not keen on the technology; this includes my own grad and undergraduate students. I am looking forward to taking hand notes on my phone but for now find the screen too small and not sensitive enough for writing...eventually I hope to never have to carry my moleskin notebook because my phone will fully suffice.

The only thing that I find distracting is when others around me ask questions about the type of computer I am using to take notes with, but that depends on the type of audience that the conference attracts and since netbooks have become so popular I experience less of it. I feel bad when this happens because I know it must annoy the presenter, so I try and limit the chatter by suggesting we talk tech after the session.

Rosie Redfield said...

Activities unrelated to the seminar can be done much more gracefully on paper. Stare thoughtfully in the direction of the screen, add another item to the shopping list, stare thoughtfully at the screen....

amy said...

Anon at 10:18 -- that's funny, I always like to see women knitting during talks. It seems empowering somehow. As if to say: there's no contradiction between high-powered intellectual activities and traditional women's activities. I would LOVE to see a man knitting during a talk!

Anonymous said...

How about playing knitting games online?

Unknown said...

I always sit at the back near a door so that I can leave if I am not interested. I just somehow feel it is rude for me to use my laptop while someone is presenting. If I have to take notes I prefer to do it by hand...I remember what I've written more efficiently if I actually undertake the physical act of putting pen to paper.

Anonymous said...

So I sure hope that anyone who thinks it's okay to dink around on a laptop during a boring talk does not then get all upset at students who do the same thing in the classroom. It's rude as hell!

I once was at a fascinating talk (really -- it was about sex), sitting next to a professor who had forced his students to attend the talk for their edification and education. He banged on his laptop the entire time, very fast, very hard, writing a paper. Tappitytappitytaptaptap. Pissed me off -- he forced his students to come to something he had no intention of hearing himself, and *then* he did something that distracted the people within a ten-foot radius.

I totally agree with Rosie Redfield.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the anonymous post regarding how bad knitting looks like. I recently substituted a colleague in a graduate level class with ~10 students and one of the female Ph.D. students didn't stop knitting for the whole class. I was really upset, but didn't say anything because it was not my class. However, the most surprising aspect of the story was that she seemed pretty engaged, asked questions, and participated of discussions. All this while knitting just a few meters from me.

Anonymous said...

Timely post, I was at two conferences this weekend, and one had wifi available everywhere (MIT Stata center). For the first time I took all my notes entirely electronically using evernote, and often looked up website/product as they are mentioned during the presentation. It was extremely productive.

I believe good etiquette is good etiquette. Do not distract the speaker nor your fellow attendees is the right thing to do. People usually can tell if you are taking notes or doing other things.

John Vidale said...

It's ok with me if the students have their laptops at my lecture, as some will in my next lecture in an hour. I like the idea that they can check whether they should believe what I say, look ahead to the material I'm covering next, or entertain themselves other ways if they already know the material.

So long as those around them are not disturbed.

It's my job to get their attention, the same way it is the Chair's job to keep my attention at faculty meetings.

Isabel said...


So long as those around them are not disturbed."


Some of the people around them are disturbed. You can count on it.

As far as conference attendees sitting in the back, perhaps it is appropriate in some cases, if you really are inaudible and discrete...

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with PK. I use my tablet PC to take notes (I am horrible at keeping anything on paper, so I need an electronic way of taking notes), and also I find it extremely useful to check things online during talks (technical details about instruments, or just basic info about a protein or enzyme I know nothing about). Being online during a talk helps me get the most out of talks that are not extremely close to my field.

John Vidale said...

"Some of them are disturbed."

Compared to the distractions of basketball stars, gymnasts, and Laker Girls when I was teaching at UCLA, a laptop need not make a big fuss.

Today's class had a glorious vista across Lake Washington visible when their eyes wanted relief from the screen and their didact in their token science class.

Zero disturbance tolerance is hard to enforce, and isn't a realistic goal.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

One of the decisive moments for me when I discovered the notion that you could be a scientist and a woman, too, was being in an extremely technical and scientific talk at a conference as a student. I didn't understand much of the talk at all.

Up front a woman sat in a red dress and knitted furiously. During the discussion she raised her hand, was recognized, put down the knitting, gave an exquisite, sharp, and witty statement on the topic, sat down and resumed knitting.

I asked who the woman was, someone noted that it was Prof. X. Wow - you can wear red dresses, knit, and still be a scientist-professor? I had thought that was all mutually exclusive.

So here I am, I do wear dresses but not red ones, and I don't knit during a talk any more, but I do quietly check email, surf, edit, whatever, when confronted with a boring talk. Oh yeah, and I'm a professor :)

Anonymous said...

Count my vote for back of the room okay- Quietly, not frantically typing - emails nothing. It's distracting.
Some of us scrape money and out of pocket it to go to these things and if we can't hear the talk because of a laptop, it's no different than sitting there talking through it.

But please don't sit anywhere in a group of people at the talk while pounding away on the keyboard. The sound can be much more disruptive than the glow of the screen or anything. And most of the time we are straining to see the talk, hear the talk, whatever. It's plain obnoxious in the manners book.

Digger said...

This is the first semester I have taught where a significant number (about 1/4) of the students pop open their laptops during class and tappity-tap away.

I find it disconcerting, but it may well be my age showing (late 30s, but still... my youngest sisters are almost a full generation younger than I, and 'tis a different reality). I also cannot go research notes to rough draft to final edit entirely on the screen (apparently, paper is passe).

I recently read about live conference-tweeting/large class-tweeting, and as a speaker/lecturer using the tweet-stream as a means of fielding questions, clarifying points, etc. I think it might be very interesting!

After some consideration, I think I find laptops less objectionable than texting on cellphones. At least with laptops, I can pretend you're taking notes...

undine said...

In the humanities, I rarely see people using laptops to take notes at conferences. I tried it once about 10 years ago but felt so self-conscious that I never did it again.

Isabel said...

"At least with laptops, I can pretend you're taking notes..."

Digger, you and John V can pretend that the students are taking notes, and as a TA who sits in the back of the room, I can assure you that that is in fact the case - about 0.01% of the time.

The other 99.99% of the time the students are on Facebook, youtube, emailng or whatever. Often they are working on other assignments.

I have no objection to people getting up and leaving if they are not interested in the talk or lecture.

Tom said...

My ASUS EeePC is so small as to avoid being conspicuous. I have no qualms about typing down notes while listening to a talk. It's not as if I'm typing continuously ... just when an interesting point is made.

No talk is going to be given in absolute silence. Expecting such would be unreasonable IMNSHO.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the ideal conference attendee takes pictures of the talk and then immediately downloads them into his/her laptop while knitting.

Ms.PhD said...

sent me frequent emails and things to read for a looming deadline. During spare moments, I read, edited, and sent comments back to them so that I would not delay their progress despite being away. Some of these spare moments were during conference sessions.Yet another reason why I say you're one of the best advisors ever.

My advisor is perpetually traveling, and yet never seems to have time to attend to anything via email. Very strange since I know the laptop is perpetually present and open, even at conferences.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is because my experience is primarily at engineering conferences, but the papers and schedules are handed out on CDs. Most people sit there with their laptops and have the paper open while the talk is going on, and there is almost always typing. The best solution is to make sure that the room is well-covered with cloth so that the excess sound is absorbed.

And now that I know people knit during talks, I'll have to try crocheting. I do it all the time while talking with people or watching TV (which I seldom do). I feel the need to do something with my hands but that doesn't require any significant amount of concentration.

So if you ask me, I think the knitters are just slightly understimulated and the knitting provides some physical stimulation. Unless you're working on a really tough pattern, a lot of it can be done while mentally being somewhere else.

Isabel said...

knitting is fine unless the needles are clicking! :)

It occurs to me that using laptops during class lectures is an incredible waste of precious energy as well.

Go, Green!

As far as smaller classes, meetings, seminars (or 'journal clubs', where everyone is following along reading a paper), laptops can indeed be useful for these.

But for they are worse than useless for large undergraad classes and I will always, Always hate the sound of typing when I am attending a talk. Just as I still get annoyed by people yammering on their cell phones in certain situations. Those of us on the sensitive end of the scale are doomed, that's all there is to it.

The tablet someone mentioned sounds promising though, and probably uses less energy.

Anonymous said...

It is rude to be using a laptop as an audience member - even if it is to take notes on the talk. Just as it is annoying to hear someone talking on their cell phone in a movie theater, similarly, the sound of your typing and the brightness of your screen are distracting to other audience members around you so it is inconsiderate. How frickin hard is it to just go somewhere else to use your laptop?? well at least if you are in the back corner of the room you will be less of an annoyance so I think that is more acceptable.

I'm just amazed at how selfish people are that they feel they have the right to be disruptive just because they are too lazy to go somewhere else or too impatient to pospone their laptop use to a time when it won't be a public annoyance. Even if the laptop is being used to 'take notes' on the talk, it is still selfish to expect other people around you to deal with your disruption just so you can take your own notes.

Katie said...

Having a laptop open while you're sitting alone in the back row is fine, anywhere else is obnoxious. I find it really distracting when the person in front of me has their laptop open - and it's disrepectful to the speaker (and - sticky-beak that I am - I can report that they're never taking notes). One possible solution is a tablet-style laptop - much less distracting for anyone sitting behind you, and presumably easier to take notes on.

zoe said...

In the last large undergrad lecture I took, there was a student who played a FPS game with flashy visuals sitting near the front. You could see the entire column of students behind him tipping slightly with him as the screen veered. Needless to say, this was very distracting. I feel similarly about students using FB in class - particularly because the students around them lean in to see.

At conferences, quiet typing in the back of the room on a text based (or perhaps with the occasional science figure) doesn't bother me. But if I were a professor in a class that did not go so fast that typing was superior, I would ban laptops.

John Vidale said...

We're not in the seventies anymore.

Mentally active people do not sit on their hands for an hour listening to a droning lecture anymore, and taking notes by hand is largely a waste of time - no electronic version is captured for editing, unreadable handwriting, can't easily share to compare notes.

Also the level of presentations expected and delivered has risen with available tools such as powerpoint, video clips, and video conferencing.

Fighting the use of laptops is akin to fighting the printing press.