IOWA CITY -- With their Hawkeye football team off to a so-so season, students at the University of Iowa have other victories to hail. They are winning the battle against the severest curse on this, or any other, campus: boring professors.
Some 1,500 undergraduates are paying $18.75 a semester to a local company that supplies class notes. The note-takers are graduate students paid $7.50 per class by Lyn-Mar Enterprises. With someone else absorbing the boredom, undergraduates who find themselves stuck with a deadhead prof have several options, all worthy: read a book for another course, sleep in class or skip class altogether and go use the library.
A debate rages at UI, a public institution with 27,000 students. The Daily Iowan, the lively student newspaper, took note of the note business the first week of school. A month later, the Des Moines Register, scooped by the students but catching up, put the story on the front page. It reported that the ''note-taking service has students smiling and UI professors outraged and threatening legal action.''
Instead of shouting ''sue, sue,'' the affronted professors ought to learn to teach, teach. If a course is taught by a professor skilled in opening minds, rather than closing them, students will be too intellectually engaged to be bothered with notes.
The students of Plato, who lectured at the Academy without a text, thrived on that kind of atmosphere. The master's thoughts were imprinted on the heart. ''When the mind is thinking,'' Plato wrote, ''it is talking to itself.''
Not every teacher is a Plato, nor every student a Dionysius. But all students have a right to a classroom environment that, to start, doesn't put them at the mercy of a hack professor who thinks that prattling words equals sharing knowledge. If that right is being denied students, why should they have their minds abused and time wasted through note-taking? A university isn't a secretarial school, nor should professors be allowed to cow students into taking dictation.
The debate isn't only about note-taking. It's about passivity and coercion, the longtime enemies of learning and the permanent assaults on students. Professors in front of a group of scribbling freshmen aren't teaching. They're ''covering ground.'' And yardage can't be gained if students want to be more than memorizers, ventriloquists or secretaries. For the professor to take time for questions and debate, and try to get minds rather than fingers working, would threaten the schedule of the course syllabus. Besides, mid-terms are next week, and students are responsible for every utterance or mumbling of the professor. There's ground to be covered.
Students, fearing a professor's power to give low grades, are coerced to cooperate. But not if they have the luck of a local note-taking company. In ''Crap Detecting,'' the first of 13 memorable chapters in ''Teaching as a Subversive Activity,'' Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner describe teachers who forget their calling and go into the ''information dissemination'' business. Others think they are transmitters of our cultural heritage. In that confined context, note-taking proves the success of the education business. It's all there in black and white, in the students' own script. And thrown away after the final exam, with the course and dull professor forgotten by the first dorm party.
While visiting the University of Iowa, I was invited to speak with a journalism class. After a few minutes, I noticed that many of the 40 students were taking notes. Alarmed, I asked if they would join me in an experiment. Get up, I said, and go outside the building. Stand on the curb for 15 minutes and count all the red cars and green cars that pass. Any shade of red, any shade of green. For 15 minutes. Then come back to answer questions.
Obediently, every student rose and went for the door. When they were halfway down the hall, I called them back. My questions were these: Didn't anyone think it was stupid to be counting red cars and green cars? Why didn't anyone ask what was the purpose of the experiment? Do you let professors push you around this way? Worse, it was raining. Why did no one say he or she didn't want to get wet?
The purpose of the experiment became clear to the students: you're in school, first, to learn by questioning and, second, to get your questions answered. Begin by questioning oppressive authority and go on to asking whether you are getting your money's worth at this university.
If not, tell the professors to go stand in the rain and count the red cars and green cars. Let them take notes too. There's ground to be covered.