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Laptops in Law School

Orin Kerr is hosting an enlightening conversation about the wisdom of law professors banning laptops from their classrooms. Dan Solove’s perspective probably comes closest to my own, but the discussion (and the comments come from law students as well as faculty) reveals a number of interesting divisions. I use a little primitive law-and-economics to illustrate. More after the jump.

Rules v. standards: Should the professor have a single policy and enforce it across the entire class? Easy to pronounce, easy to administer, and therefore cheap at the front end, but perhaps both over- and under-inclusive with respect to the problems being addressed, and therefore costly, or at least wasteful, at the back end. Or does the argument that students have different “learning styles,” handwriting skills, and genuine disabilities mean that the choice of laptop usage should be customized to the student? Costly at the front end, but perhaps less wasteful at the back end. And what about the distributive effects? Laptops are cheap enough these days that an earlier objection — not everyone can afford a computer — has largely, if not completely, disappeared. Still, do laptops-permitted or no-laptop policies differentially affect certain types or classes of students? Should our brand of laptop law-and-economics focus on wealth or welfare?

Costs and benefits. Or more precisely, whose costs, and whose benefits? We teachers think that we’re imposing classroom policies for the good of the students, for the good of the class, and ultimately for the good of the legal profession. Inevitably, to a large degree we impose classroom policies for our own good. It’s easier (and usually more fun) to teach a class of students whose heads are up, eyes bright and forward. Put differently, to a large degree we externalize the costs of classroom policies, and internalize the benefits. Students may think that they are best situated to internalize both costs and benefits (so that the individual student should have the power to use a laptop if the student so chooses), but students sometimes underestimate what might be called “demoralization” costs, which include both the keyboard tapping and game-playing and surfing that distracts some students, as well as the dispiriting effect that distracted students have on the energy of those who want to focus on the subject matter — even if the class is genuinely dull. Put differently, students, too, may externalize the costs and internalize the benefits of classroom policies. Is this a case where we want to leave the externalities where they lie, or does good policy require internalization?

The baseline problem. Assessments of the ban-the-laptop policy depend heavily on the diagnosis of the problem. What do most laptop users actually do with the laptops in class? Do they furiously and mindlessly transcribe everything that the professor says? Do they judiciously and carefully integrate pearls of professiorial and collegial wisdom into existing outlines? Do they IM and surf and bid on eBay auctions and play videogames? The truth, of course, is that usage is heterogenerous. In the face of a heterogeneous community, what’s the optimal regulatory scheme?

Why take notes at all? Almost all of the student commenters at Orin’s place assume that it is necessary, even imperative, to take notes in class — even if the class and/or the teaching is redundant of the reading, or just plain dull. Yet it is always possible, of course, to gather with a group of fellow students after class (at the end of the day, over lunch, once a week) and have a conversation about what happened, and even to create a coherent written record that synthesizes the discussion and the readings. Is there a marginal benefit associated contemporaneous individual notetaking, compared to study groups that create outlines after class? Not that I’m aware of. (But see “the baseline problem,” above, for a framework for further discussion. Of course, law professors are notoriously ignorant of the social mores that obtain in their own law schools.) I have had the occasional student over the last few years simply come to class and not write anything down for the entire semester. One in particular comes to mind: regularly prepared, eager to participate, always on point with a question or a comment, never trying my patience or that of the rest of the class. I have no reason to suppose that this student’s final grade was better or worse for not having taken notes in class.)

Why come to class? The email that Orin posted makes a plea — a romantic plea, to be sure, but a plea nonetheless — for the place of the classroom in modern legal education. I like the plea, and I agree with it; a lot of law professors, including me, see law school as a way of teaching new lawyers to talk the talk and walk the walk of the legal profession. Learning the rules isn’t as important as internalizing the norms and habits of the discipline. To be a successful lawyer, you need to be the ball, as Chevy Chase said in Caddyshack. Active engagement in class is all about being the ball. Classroom notetaking, whether transcribed or not, isn’t being the ball.

The problem, then, is that the vast majority of students simply don’t look at the world of law school this way. (But cf. “the baseline problem,” above.) The supply of legal education and the demand for legal education intersect only in the most tangential ways, and rarely at the point where the romantic law professor’s “be the ball” vision kicks in. Students know that employment depends almost entirely on grades, and they’ve internalized the assumption that good grades depend on regurgitation of the professor’s material. There is more than one sense in which law school is said to resemble high school; this is another one.

Is there a way out of this dilemma — from the faculty’s perspective, to shift the demand curve; from the students’ perspective, to shift the supply curve? That’s the problem that I see lurking behind the laptops, rather than distracted student faces. I think that there is, but this post is long enough already.

1 thought on “Laptops in Law School”

  1. Prof. Madison,

    Your post offers a lucid analysis, thanks. As one of your former students, yes, I almost never took notes because I found it a less than efficient use of my time. I used a laptop briefly, but found it an obstacle for the reasons you noted. I had you for Contracts in my first semester; this was before I became jaded with respect to the large-class experience of the core curriculum. Your class, and the late and magnificent Prof. Welsh White’s class are the only classes that I’ve seen any form of the socratic method used effectively. In both, there existed much more of a lab feel, as I had experienced in my BFA/MFA Writing and Literature programs. If only this type of interplay was the norm; quite the opposite is the case, in my experience. Although Prof. Lobel’s Con Law had a very effective structure. The Profs are brilliant and knowledgable, but faced with far too many students, and a self-perpetuating tradition based on what I believe to be antiquated leaning theory.

    In response to many factors, students either transcribe or tune out, in large numbers. Banning laptops doesn’t cure the underlying problem: too many students in one room, coupled with very little benefit gained from engaging in risk-laden participation (as in ego-stomping criticism from peers). This goes to your externalities discussion.

    My suggestion is to offer 20-30 minutes of lecture every class, with no questions. Then open up the floor to debate. I know this sounds crazy and possibly disrespectful, but I’m an old man. Additionally, I’ve seen this format work extremely well for English Lit. II, Form and Theory of Poetry and many other worthy subjects.

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