What Laptop Covers (Not Screens) Tell Us About Students

Dr. Kisha G. Tracy
Associate Professor, English Studies
Coordinator, Center for Teaching and Learning

Fitchburg State University

In recent years, there have been a spate of news articles and more informal posts such as this one from a variety of higher education instructors discussing the role of laptops in the classroom. These range from decrying their presence, even banning them, to outlining methods of leveraging them to contemplating issues of access (the latest from The Chronicle here). One way or another laptops are a presence either as ubiquitous tools or spectres of their forbiddeness in our classes. Here, I don’t want to enter into the usual discussion, which has more often than not become an endless argument, about laptops, but rather I want to consider them from another perspective: the part we most often see – their covers. 

Standing in front of the classroom, a familiar sight to many of us is a sea of laptop covers. Such a sight is often described at the beginning of the aforementioned articles. Memes and cartoons play on the image. Yet generally speaking the focus in these verbal or vocal descriptions, especially when anti-laptop, tend to be on what we don’t see – faces, eyes, screens – rather than what we do – the choices students have made in how to represent themselves in laptop cover art. 

As I’ve switched my classrooms over to active learning in the last decade, one of the benefits I have found is that it provides me the opportunity and time to get to know students individually. , Such “informal student-faculty interactions” (see, for instance, Thompson, 2001) have been noted for years as positive influences upon learning, although how they are facilitated by active learning strategies has been less studied. One of the ways I have begun to take advantage of these opportunities, besides conversation, is in studying students’ self-representations. 

First, it must be noted that laptops are expensive items, even the cheaper versions, and semi-permanent, unlike, for instance, notebooks. To choose to place anything on a laptop cover denotes some thought. In addition, they are far more visible, sitting in front of a student like a nameplate, than the inconspicuous and easily hidden notepad. In the classroom, they are declarations of personality, a stamp of individuality on the students’ presence and, thus, education. What can we learn from them? 

Like more artistic expressions, the medium and the use of space are significant. Has the student chosen a laptop skin – a product designed for such use? Or have they adapted regular stickers for the purpose? Are they organized or more haphazardly applied? The former of each might indicate a more formal approach to learning. The latter a more creative. 

What is the content? Quite often, this will be the way a student declares identity even when not doing so verbally. For instance, I have had several students with laptop art that supports LGBTQ+ issues or raises awareness for domestic violence or eating disorders. The presence of such art does not necessarily mean that individual identifies as such, but they are causes that are close to their heart for one reason or another. Knowing this allows the instructor to start conversation, to be aware of what might interest (or turn off) a student. In some cases, it can even affect curriculum. I have changed or added readings after assessing the interests in a room – one way of which is an evaluation of their expressed art. 

It is a mistake also to devalue humor. Students willing to display humorous messages or imagery give insight into their personalities. Are they sarcastic? Irreverant? “Geeky”? Can you find a fandom to which they belong? Are they a Potterhead? A player of Dungeons and Dragons? A local sports fan? Rapport with students has been proven over and again to have an effect on positive classroom environment (Frisby & Martin, 2010). Nothing surprises a student more than an instructor who can talk their interests, who brings them up and has something to say about them – extra bonus points if you can work them into the classroom material. 

For those of us who work on campuses or departments that allow you to see the same students in multiple classes across multiple years, the changes in or additions to laptop art tell a narrative. I have been able to detect a change in focus or a change in experience through these alterations. Is there a new interest in broadcasting a cause (this might even indicate a crisis in the student’s life)? Have they changed their favorites? And, more importantly, if you can remember those changes and converse about them, students feel seen. 

The latter is what I want to emphasize. Students are not just an empty laptop cover, staring at a screen. As Michael Gundlach states, “Every single one of my students is a person, a human.” Students are people. With interests and concerns. With pasts and futures. Laptop art may be only a small piece of that, but it is a piece we are allowed to see. We should be cognizant of it, be aware that it denotes the individual behind the screen. 

Frisby, B.N., & Martin, M.M. (2010). Instructor-student and Student-Student Rapport in the Classroom. Communication Education, 59(2), 146-64. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03634520903564362

Gundlach, M. (2016, February 24). Students are people, too. Inside Teaching MSU. Available at http://insideteaching.grad.msu.edu/students-are-people-too-supporting-students-academically-and-personally/

Supiano, B. (2019, February 6). Should you allow laptops in class? Here’s what the latest study adds to that debate. The Chronicle. Available at https://www.chronicle.com/article/Should-You-Allow-Laptops-in/245625

Thompson, M.D. (2001). Informal student-faculty interaction.Community College Review, 29(1), 35-57. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009155210102900103