I have received some very interesting comments in response to my recent Computer-Free Week post. (Look for them at the end of that post.) The general gist of most of the comments is that some people find it disconcerting not to be able to take notes by computer in class. Some are not used to writing by hand in class and feel lost without their computers. So they think computer bans generally are a bad idea.
I sympathize with that view. A lot, actually—notwithstanding that I am the one who did not allow computers in class last week. Which is why this week in my class we will start with a recap of last week’s materials.
I also have sympathy for (and agree with, in many ways) the libertarian view of computers in the classroom—that what a student wants to do is largely the student’s decision, and if the decision hurts that student’s performance and/or grade, then that is that student’s problem. Yet I do not agree when such libertarianism interferes with other students’ learning by distracting them, or by reducing the quality of classroom discussion (which is part of the educational process). And I believe both sorts of interference occur regularly.
But let's sidestep that issue for a moment and just talk about computer use that does not interfere with others’ learning. In other words, let's assume, for sake of argument, that computer use only hurts (or helps) those who engage in it, without harming others in the class. What then?
One of the commenters to my previous post made the very astute observation that professors sometimes have an “I must save them from themselves” attitude toward their students, especially in 1L classes. This is often characterized as misguided paternalism, and things like computer bans and other rules are derided as autocratic. I concede that this may well be the case, but I also think that sometimes such guidance, paternalistic though it may be, is justified and even desirable.
Think of it this way: the professors are there to teach, and even the most junior professors have more practical and academic experience in the law than their students. Maybe, just maybe, some of the paternalism is warranted. Maybe sometimes students do need to be "saved from themselves," as negative as the connotation of that phrase may be. And if I have a choice between erring on the side of being too blunt (or even paternalistic) in the classroom versus not making a very important point, I'll choose the former error over the latter.
That same commenter also made the following very interesting statement that is worth discussing further:
“If I am made to come to class by the ABA (and subsequently the school) and choose to spend my time unproductively, my $2300 per class buys me that right. If I don't want to participate or think "fantasy" football statistics are more interesting, the only person hurt in the long run is me. And that is what most would call an adult decision.”
Hmm. On the one hand, I do understand and to an extent sympathize with this statement. And let me very clearly state (at the risk of sounding paternalistic, I suppose) that I very much appreciate both the substantive nature and professional tone of that comment. Seriously--read the whole comment at the end of my previous post. This blog is, after all, a dialogue, and I appreciate well-drafted and well thought-through input. I learn from it. But on the other hand I disagree with this statement fairly strongly, and from a number of angles. Here's why.
Neither the ABA nor your law school makes you come to law school. Yes, there are ground rules if you choose to attend a law school and be a lawyer, and class attendance is generally one of them. But law school is not junior high; you are not legally obligated to be there.
Law school is not a consumer product. There is a “consumerist” mentality common amongst current higher education students, and it is troubling to many in the teaching profession. Having said that, many in higher education also take this view--and schools certainly compete for students--but that is problematic too (and a good subject for a future post).
According to the consumerist student view, colleges and universities are largely institutions of credentialization, not of learning. I think many students subconsciously buy into this presumption without thinking too much about it, because in a way it is very attractive. A consumerist student naturally seeks to do the minimum necessary to obtain the degree. While I think efficiency is valuable—and I think the workload in law school helps teach efficiency to an extent—if a student is only (or primarily) looking for a degree, that serves to disengage the student from the educational process. A student might say, Well, I will come to class because I am required to, but I am not going to pay much attention if it does not engage me more than the Internet. But of course, the Internet is always going to be more interesting than, say, subject matter jurisdiction, or expectancy interest, or proximate cause.
The result is less attention paid, and less learned, and a lesser lawyer on the outflow end of the educational pipe. On the one hand, what was not deeply learned may have no negative impact. On the other hand, you never know when knowledge will come in handy. I was constantly amazed in practice by how arcane points from class ended up being a relevant way to make myself stand out from the pack—be it in researching an issue, writing a memo, or talking with clients at a cocktail party. Arcane knowledge can be a great conversation piece; you never know what people are going to be interested in.
Law school is not primarily entertainment. This is closely related to the previous point. Material that is technical, and sometimes boring—like economics, or accounting, or contract law—does not compete well with other distractions, as I already have said. The appropriate standard for deciding whether to pay attention in class is not necessarily whether the material is more interesting than your e-mail account, fantasy football, online shopping, or a crossword puzzle. I am not saying that teachers have a license to be boring; indeed, they have an obligation to teaching engagingly. I am also not suggesting that teachers should ban computers because the class material is hard. What I am saying is that “Class v. Internet” is a comparison of apples to oranges. And while it may seem objective on the surface, the result is preordained.
Your tuition buys you the right to do whatever you want in class, at least as long as you don’t distract others. I have a strong libertarian bent, and generally speaking I agree that if someone chooses not to pay attention in my class that is less of a concern than if she or he is distracting others. But the proper characterization is that this student has the power to do what she or he wants, not the right. Your qualifications and tuition dollars buy you the privilege of attending law school to obtain an education and a degree—which is a very different thing than buying the right to come to class and discretely do whatever you like.
Plus, in my class the syllabus expressly prohibits non-class use of computers in class. So it's part of the contract you have agreed to, if you will. So in that sense too, it's a power, not a right.
I will end with two observations. First, current educational research suggests that there is a difference between multitaskers in class (with computers) and those without computers. Repetitive tasks and memorization can be accomplished well when multitasking. But deep cognitive thinking appears to be hampered by computerized multitasking. A student surfing the web during class may simultaneously win the online fantasy football league and memorize the basics of restitution in contract law, but that student is less likely to see and grasp the subtle connections between, say, expectation damages, specific performance, and service contracts. Not that this alone justifies a computer ban in class. But it does suggest that the libertarian computer user in class is taking a greater risk than might be supposed.
Second, my week-long computer holiday in class was an experiment that I think was useful on several levels, notwithstanding that it probably cost me some popularity or goodwill points with some students. For any readers in my class—any readers anywhere, for that matter—bear in mind that teaching is a creative process. (And not a popularity contest.) If there is no experimentation, teaching is stagnant and does not grow or improve. There will be people who think the ban was helpful, some who think the ban was not, and others who are indifferent. That’s fine, and in fact good—there should be dialogue on these subjects, because there is no easy or absolute answer. But there are multiple viewpoints to be considered and weighed.
Just like in my classes. And just like on this blog, as the comments to my posts so helpfully show.