Paul L. Caron

Monday, January 2, 2017

NY Times Op-Ed:  Let's Resolve This New Years To Finally Ban Laptops In The Law School Classroom

No LaptopFollowing up on my previous posts (links below): New York Times op-ed: Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom, by Darren Rosenblum (Pace Law School):

When I started teaching, I assumed my “fun” class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students. One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back. The screens seemed to block our classroom connection. Then, observing a senior colleague’s contracts class, I spied one student shopping for half the class. Another was surfing Facebook. Both took notes when my colleague spoke, but resumed the rest of their lives instead of listening to classmates.

Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning. And yet, education requires constant interaction in which professor and students are fully present for an exchange.

Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and as professionals: listening and communicating. We must listen with care, which requires patience, focus, eye contact and managing moments of ennui productively — perhaps by double-checking one’s notes instead of a friend’s latest Instagram. Multitasking and the mediation of screens kill empathy.

Likewise, we must communicate — in writing or in speech — with clarity and precision. The student who speaks in class learns to convey his or her points effectively because everyone else is listening. Classmates will respond with their accord or dissent. Lawyers can acquire hallmark precision only through repeated exercises of concentration. It does happen on occasion that a client loses millions of dollars over a misplaced comma or period. ...

Focus is crucial, and we do best when monotasking: Even disruptions of a few seconds can derail one’s train of thought. Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts. Laptops or tablets can undermine exam performance by 18 percent. Other studies reveal that writing by hand helps memory retention. Screens block us from connecting, whether at dinner or in a classroom. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that just having a phone on a table during a meal “is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people.”

For all these reasons, starting with smaller classes, I banned laptops, and it improved the students’ engagement. With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not. Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material. I broadened my rule to include one of my large upper-level courses. The pushback was real: A week before class, I posted the syllabus, which announced my policy. Two students wrote me to ask if I would reconsider, and dropped the class when I refused. But more important, after my class ends, many students continue to take notes by hand even when it’s not required.

Putting aside medical exemptions, many students are just resistant. ... To them, I’ll let the Rolling Stones answer: You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. My students need to learn how to be lawyers and professionals. To succeed they must internalize an ethos of caution, care and respect. To instill these values and skills in my students, I have no choice but to limit laptop use in the classroom.

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

Legal Education | Permalink


You don't see such conduct in most real grad programs.

Posted by: Jojo | Jan 2, 2017 11:29:36 AM

Huh, what?

- On my laptop

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jan 2, 2017 3:16:17 PM

Wut iz "Pace Law School"?

Posted by: Anon | Jan 2, 2017 8:17:41 PM

First year I hand wrote a lot of my notes. Beginning of second year I broke my right wrist (I'm right-handed) and had to rely on a note taker and typing my notes (one handed!) while I had a cast. Even after the cast came off, I could not hand write very well anymore, so I had to stick mostly to typing. I would say I noticed a definite change in my attention span and retention when I switched to using my laptop. I also noticed a lot of people on Facebook, etc. during class. As someone who would have done very poorly during second year if relegated only to hand writing, I would be fine with this as long as medical and other such needs are accommodated.

Posted by: Camille EB | Jan 3, 2017 10:23:45 AM

So actually teach stuff that matters. Unless you go into appellate practice or teaching, 99 percent of law school is complete rubbish, from the theory-heavy material to the arbitrary and random grading. The vast majority of lawyers only start to learn anything useful once they graduate. I know I certainly did.

You could safely compress law school to a one year curriculum followed by two years of residency/internship and nothing of value would be lost. In fact, the lawyers would be better practitioners because they'd already have a few years of real world experience under their belts.

Posted by: Jim W | Jan 3, 2017 2:05:21 PM

I love these articles

"It's not the content of my class or my teaching style, it's the computers fault students are not engaged in my class."

Posted by: taxtaxtax | Jan 4, 2017 9:04:47 AM

Mr. W: 99% of law school is not complete rubbish; I will assume you are exaggerating for effect. Maybe 25% is complete rubbish, along with another 10-15% that is partly rubbish. The main problem is the professoriate, most of whom have little or no experience in anything other than academia. Fine academic model for all of the folks who want to be law teachers (all 17 of them), but not so good for the rest of us. The course content certainly is a problem and should be debated, but I would be very uncomfortable with a one-year doctrinal, two-year clinical curriculum. Two years of academic study, followed by a year of clinical study. But what kind of clinical study? One size fits all, or transactional v. litigation tracks?

Posted by: Publius Novus | Jan 4, 2017 9:19:41 AM

Only slightly exaggerating. Honestly, once you've gone through the standard 1L fare, you're ready to be an intern. I'm not above going back for more education once you settle on a specialty, but the best way to learn about law is to practice it under the supervision of an experienced attorney who works in the area you want to learn. You don't need Philosophy of Law or International Human Rights Law for any field of practice.

And even if you find a class in the field you'll eventually practice, it's almost never taught by someone who actually practices in that field. When was the last time you heard of a crim law class taught by a professor who knew what a sentencing scoresheet was? Had actually seen one filled out in real life? There's a lot of stuff that dominates actual practice that never comes up in school- not because it's boring or unimportant or trivial, but because the people teaching have no clue. And crim law isn't some obscure subject, it's a core feature in every 1L curriculum and it's a sizeable area of practice in the real world.

Regarding internships, I know a lot of people are going to say "but all those lawyers are getting free labor, it's so exploitative!" Compare that to paltry salaries most starting attorneys make upon graduation after three years and the six figures of student loan debt that hang around forever. I'd gladly have traded 2/3rds of my student loan debt for two years of unpaid or minimum wage internship.

Posted by: Jim W | Jan 5, 2017 11:19:04 AM