My Problem With Laptops
Professors often complain about students using laptops in class. Chief among the complaints is that students send e-mail and surf the web when they should be paying attention—and this is bad for the particular student and a distraction for others who can see this activity going on.
I’m not persuaded by that complaint. I can do more than one thing at once so I’m sure other people can too. Even before laptops students divided their attention between the professor and other activities—a newspaper, a crossword, reading a note. I also figure that if a student, especially in graduate school, isn’t paying attention then I’m not doing a very good job of teaching.
I also happen to like laptops.
So why this semester did I ban my first-year students in Constitutional Law from bringing laptops to class?
I came to the conclusion that serious and attentive students suffer when they use laptops in class. First year law students don’t know how to take notes effectively, particularly in a difficult course like Constitutional Law. Their strategy, therefore, is to record every single word uttered in class. Their hope is that even if they have no idea what anything means at the time, so long as they get it all down they can look it up later on and they’ll be OK.
Laptops, I found, turned the most diligent students into scribes.
I spoke—they typed. I spoke again—they typed some more.
But law schools train lawyers not court reporters. Learning to be a lawyer requires hands on experience: tussling with the cases, articulating arguments, reflecting on what others have said, offering quick reactions, presenting rebuttals. This is the whole point of attending law school rather than just reading about the law in a library. And you can’t do these things if you’re busy typing. There is a good reason lawyers are not the ones asked in the courtroom to produce the transcript of what has transpired.
I think my students suspect that because I am an historian of the early American Republic, my laptop ban is motivated by some kind of phobia of technology. It’s not. As an historian, I love all of the primary materials available now on the Internet—historical research has never been easier. If I thought there was value to having a written record of a class, I would happily encourage my students to pool their resources and hire a professional reporter to transcribe the conversation. But that’s not what law school is for.
There is a place for everything.
Pen and paper produce good lawyers.