Sunday, January 13, 2008


A reader sent this letter to me and I think it is more of a moneylaw than classbias issue and almost certainly something about which people have different views.

Prof. Harrison,I'm a reader of your Class Bias blog, as well as your posts on Moneylaw (which is where I found you first). After searching the Class Bias blog for the word"laptop", it appears you haven't discussed the issue of the never ending debatein the legal blogosphere about whether to ban laptops in the classroom or not.It recently occurred to me that the topic might interest you because of an intersection with your general theme. That is, why do professors always propose to solve the problem of student inattention by banning laptops, thereby forcing students to do more work -- handwriting notes is harder, and then creating outlines at the end of the semester requires more time because cuttingand pasting isn't available? Why don't they put the onus on themselves?Instead of kicking laptops out, professors could integrate them into their teaching. Or they could just make their lessons more interesting. (I've used laptops and handwriting in the classroom -- I've found that I'm engaged in engaging classes and inattentive in boring classes regardless of how I'm taking notes.)I hope the new semester is treating you well.

Dear Student;

I do not permit laptops in the first year but do in upper level courses. I do not claim to have figured this out and my analysis may be a bit too general because I am sure there are big differenes among laptop users. My reasoning is this. In a first year class as soon as sound comes out of my mouth most of the students with laptops begin transcribing. Buzzing like a swarm of stuttering bees. Sometimes I say complete nonsense and the buzzing, rap-tapping does not let up. My assumption is that since they are fresh out of undergraduate programs they have the impression that taking and memorizing notes will get them what they want. In addition, I am pretty sure people cannot do two things at once. They cannot transcript and evaluate, form questions and counter-arguments, and think about nuance and fuzziness in the law. It hard to be interactive when someone is typing. Conventional note takers tend to wait and take "notes." So, when you say "more work," that is not what I am after, it is about "different work." I want the students to listen, evaluate, and then record things in their own words. In the upper level courses, I think the students understand. Certainly the humming and buzzing of note taking is less. During the last millennium when I was a law student, all my outlining took place on the weekend with the use of hornbooks and treatises. Class notes provided general guideline only.

I guess I also disagree with the idea of integrating laptops simply because they are there. In some courses they may be useful and in others not so useful. Of course, as traditional casebooks become obsolete, the laptop will be the casebook.

I disagree on one other matter that some students suggest and which comes through a little in your note. It is true that I spend time complaining about faculty shirking. Not shirking does not mean giving students what they want. And, it definitely does not mean entertaining them. In a public school like mine at which (the last I heard) 80% of the University's cost of the program is paid by taxpayers, I view both teachers and students as having an obligation to earn their "pay." I do not regard the salaries of the professors and the subsidization of the students as different in any important way. A student sitting there surfing the net because the teacher is not making it interesting deserves to be "fired" as much as the ill-prepared professor.
Of course, when to comes to private schools, they are free so sell whatever they want and if I were paying full cost of tuition I'd expect a floor show every single day and a latte waiting (non fat milk please) for me.


Anonymous Person Who Asked the Original Question said...

Let me make a few responses:

I'm not sure it's fair to blame transcription on undergraduate programs. I went to college pre-laptops, and many of my fellow law students did as well -- some of those use their laptops to take transcription-type notes, and some take more "note"-type notes.

I vehemently deny that I asked for professors to "entertain" me. I asked for them to be interesting. Interesting courses are ones in which I am forced to, as Prof. Harrison requires his students to do, evaluate arguments and form questions and counter-arguments. Non-interesting classes aren't the ones in which the professors aren't funny; they're the ones in which they force-feed me the material and then (tying this into a topic from earlier) ask me to regurgitate the holdings of the cases on a multiple-choice exam.

1/13/2008 2:26 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

You are right. You did not say entertain and your correction is well-taken. Obviously, you know the difference between entertain and efforts to make the material interesting. By the way, it is not always an easy thing to do.

With respect to the laptop matter, it's not a matter of having used laptops in the past. It is a believe, I think cultivated in the undergraduate context, that knowing information is sufficient to do well. And, that my a be true in the undergraduate context.

1/13/2008 9:05 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Martel said...

As a part time prof., I wonder if there is a libertarian approach here. In the first class, the prof. explains the teaching philosophy for the course, making it clear that the purpose of class is to create a dialogue about the law that will help the students think about it more critically. If successful, mastery of this type of critical thought will better prepare students for responding to exam questions and the sort of thinking about the law that good lawyers need to do in order to give good advice or be a good advocate.

In addition, a lot of what lawyers do is very much like class participation--asking a brief but critical question or making a short but incisive observation in a group setting. I tell my students that class is a great way to practice this, and that a lot of their effectiveness will depend on their mastery of this sort of small group dynamic.

Students can be told that transcription and net surfing are a poor use of class time and not very effective for preparation for finals or lawyering. If students choose to do these things anyway, they lose out and will gain less from the course.


Charlie Martel

1/14/2008 4:11 PM  

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