Sunday, October 14, 2007

Computer-Free Week, Part 2

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.

16 comments:

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Should I Trade Peyton? said...

I strongly contest the argument that "The result is less attention paid, and less learned, and a lesser lawyer on the outflow end of the educational pipe."

Law school, from my experience, is about teaching yourself. The students who tend to do the best are the independent learners.

My Dad always tells me, "just go to class, pay attention, take notes, and you will get an A." I wish that were so. The back-stretch of the semester would be a lot less stressful. I had two roommates who adhered to this philosophy, sadly, they are not ranked so well. I think it is more of a bottom feeder problem. As I have posted before, if law school doesn't let them sink, the real world which does not employ mediocre students will let them sink in their own debt.

There are many other elements of classroom learning that are much more disruptive to the deep cognitive thinking (e.g., "gunners"). While "gunners" may be "contributing to classroom discussion," they are actually disruptive to cognitive learning. As well is the student who likes to play the "what if _____?" game.

I had a professor put it in prospective this morning. He was venting his frustration over being added to a listserv that discusses this very issue. He finally concluded, "Do you not know how to doodle?"

Distraction was around long before the laptop.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Perhaps you can contest the statement, but let's not implicitly suggest that the less attention a person pays in class, the better lawyer that person will be. I hope you're not suggesting that, but I'm not sure.

The point is that paying attention really doesn't hurt, but not paying attention can. If you are an independent learner and class was not illuminating, then OK--block it out, go home and independently learn. But maybe you will have learned something.

And I do have to ask why "gunners" would be disruptive to people who are not paying attention in class. I understand your point--some students think that classroom discussion is not conducive to learning. But if you're not going to pay attention anyway--if it does not improve learning or professional success--then so what?

As other commenters on this blog have aptly noted in the past, the trick to getting something out of classroom discussion is to compare yourself to the person asking the question (or being asked questions by the professor) and think about how you would ask the question differently, and how you might answer it differently. Or why you wouldn't ask a particular question. Or what that person's question (or answers) might suggest you need to look at more closely. That's actually a good exercise for an independent learner to undertake in class.

Anonymous said...

Professor Bowman

Everyday when I sit in class the people around me are taking notes, checking email, logging onto facebook, etc., this is very distracting to me and the others who are here on our own dime. I have thought about the problem and come up with a solution...Let them use their computers in class as long as they sit in the back of the room. This way the only people distracted are the ones doing the distracting......

Gregory W. Bowman said...

I've actually thought about that solution. It's attractive--and yet, what about a really serious student who wants to sit up front and use a computer? Does this system disadvantage that student?

I've also thought about having students in the class vote on this issue. But is a majority vote always right?

Any way I cut it, a decision I make--by inertia or otherwise--is going to cut against someone in the class. Which leaves me in a quandry. And if none of the solutions are attractive, then perhaps things stay as they are, at least for now.

As for you, I encourage you to sit in the front of your classes, so that the computer users are behind you. In my class I don't have a seating chart; it's first come, first served. I suppose that system not inherently less fair than any other system.

Anonymous said...

I thank the distinguished gentleman for his reference and kind words to my discussion of the first blog on this subject. I have to say we agree more than we disagree. As far as distractions are concerned, the person who cannot block out their surfing neighbor has little chance of succeeding in a profession where they will have to perform in an environment that is loosely defined as chaotic. Perhaps the wayward internet surfer is preparing the rest us for life outside the pristine environment of the perfect classroom. Distraction is a part of life after all, and the ability to work through it must be mastered somewhere. But, I can appreciate your reluctance for that somewhere to be your classroom. You certainly lost no respect from me by the experiment. I find it refreshing that someone cares enough to think of such things. And the fact that this is anonymous allows me to say that without being a suck up.

If I may, there is one aspect of the further discussion that I think deserves more treatment.

I do feel strongly that my tuition dollars buy me a right to several things in the classroom. Among these are competent instruction, engaging dialog (which I agree shows our own weaknesses of understanding), and contextual competence in the law (just apply the facts ma'am). It also buys me the right to completely waste that money and ignore the instructor all together if I am so woefully inclined. My $750 per credit hour does not grant me simply a privilege to such things, the thought of such makes me shudder. (Perhaps free tuition would, now there's a concept!) The person who seeks true education in the process of meeting the defined prerequisites for certification is the person with true wisdom, and is rarer still than fine gold. That is a lot to expect (far too optimistic to expect?) from those with an average age of 23ish. It is those who look back and say, "If I had it to do all over again" who see the value in the pursuit of knowledge versus credentials.

I will agree that there are "rules" of the classroom, as defined by the syllabus, that are there for a purpose, and though I think some are more self serving than didactic, it is not my class to lead and teach, it is my time to submit and follow.

[I also believe that tuition should buy simple respect and freedom from condescension and oppression, which far strip the benefits of a controlled (but terrified) classroom. This is NOT applicable to your class, but not uncommon in law school). A discussion for a future blog perhaps. :)]

The person who is "prepared for class," to coin the phrase, who has read and made some attempt to be able to discuss the material is the one who will be the better student (by the definition of those in academia) but not necessarily the better the lawyer. All teachers want students to conform, even if it is subconscious. But the truth is, some students will just get it. They will never brief a case or do more than simply skim the material. Some will read the material multiple times, take copious notes, and still find themselves clueless. Most will be between these extremes, but that is not for me or the faculty to define. If a person can pass the final and answer "I don't know, I didn't read it" to every question ever asked in class, or not show up altogether, that should be their prerogative. Eventually you would simply ignore this person in class. You would not call on them and would simply brand them as one who has chosen to let the chips fall where they may. Now, the fact that their ability to do well while seeming to not care would aggravate the tar out of the rest of us, but whose fault is that?

It does not diminish their right to choose their level of involvement in pursuit of the required certification for their desired occupation. I can sense your need to jump into paternal mode here, and while I understand it in theory, I think it is counterproductive in practice. Here is why.

There is a standard for lawyers, it is the BAR exam. Were it not for this standard, I would agree fully that it is the professor's job to ensure that those who leave the institution are prepared to serve their clients. But in truth, the best law professor does exactly what you suggest, provide that little extra bit of knowledge that only a few will appreciate and fewer take advantage of. That does not in any way decrease its value. It is the nugget to be prized by those who do the digging.

So, failure to take classes seriously that are not always the most interesting topic in the world will show its effects in the long run by those who can't see the long run. The student who cannot see that expectancy interest should be absolutely engaging after paying $2300 for a class on contracts, will ultimately meet their demise on the alter of the standard. Dare I say natural selection. And even though pure competence will pass the bar, secure a job, and manage not to get sued, it will yet be a life spent doing, as you say, just enough to get by. I personally see that as a wasted and fruitless life. But I will never see it as my place, or that of a well-intentioned law professor, to force upon another the willingness to always push the bounds of one's potential. As in contracts, we must give people the right (not simply the privilege) to make a poor decision.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

It's not my job to FORCE students to push their boundaries, but it certainly is my job to try and get students to think and pay attention--including when they do not think they need to. And sometimes that does mean pushing students in ways they might not voluntarily be pushed.

As for the bar exam, please do not place blind faith in it. It has its uses, but it is not a substitute for careful study. And it is most decidedly NOT a test of whether you will be a good lawyer.

Which gets me to my third point: part of what I am trying to teach in class--aside from the subject matter--is professionalism. It's important to pay attention in court, or in a meeting with clients, and those situations can be boring and technical--so why don't you practice developing that skill in class? Why not develop the skill of always being prepared for every meeting (or class) and always being prepared to contribute? No sports coach worth her or his salt would say, "OK, this is just practice, so don't worry about it, and don't participate if you choose not to. Just play hard at game time."

The analogy holds in law school too. Students might get away with coasting for some of the semester and then cramming at the end. But part of what they learn is that they can get away with this. They might say that when it "really counts" they will behave differently, but their habits are ingrained otherwise. And we are creatures of habit. So this behavior carries over into practice. Believe me, I have seen it in practice--and I have seen the devastating consequences. People say they know how important it is to stay on top of things, but they behave otherwise. And they get in trouble--sometimes they even get fired. Again, I have seen it happen. They are smart, and they have faith (based on their academic track records) that they can pull things out in the end. But sometimes they do not.

If you fail a class, you generally can retake it. But if you mess up a project or a case and lose a client--whoops.

As for the "right" versus "privilege" debate, it sounds like we need to agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

The irony is not lost on me when I read last month's issue of that free law magazine which has a big quote on how to deal with the pressue of work in last school, " 'You have to learn to cut corners.' -Greg Bowman, Northwestern [Class Year Omitted]"

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Touch� Neither the irony nor the humor is lost on me. Nor the effective legal advocacy. Well done.

Of course, the larger context needs to be kept in mind here. Should you agonize over every single fact in a case, or should you look for the bigger picture? At some point, do you continue briefing cases, or do you "brief" them in the casebook margins? Because as you may have noticed, law school can be a lot of work.

Law schools strive to teach critical thinking and practical skills. Which gets me back to my point about paying attention in class and the importance of developing habits of professionalism. You want those habits to be second nature--just like you want to be able to read a case or a statute efficiently, manage your time well, etc. If the only benefit to law school were taking and passing tests, then let's be done with it--all we would need is the bar exam. (Previous commenters on this blog have advocated just that.) But having been through the law school pipeline and then in practice, I don't think that's the only benefit. And I don't think that suggesting that law school teaches people to be more efficient--to cut corners, as I put it--is inconsistent with expecting people to pay attention in class.

But again, nice point.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

"Touch" with a box after is of course supposed to be "touche," but the font apparently is not supported in blogger comment mode.

Anonymous said...

After reading my previous comment again, I did not mean that to be a jab at you, Prof. Bowman. (So much context is lost through written word, perhaps I should read civility in the blogosphere again). I managed to pick it up this week and got a chuckle to find you in there. It's worth a good smirk to see a prof. to tell you to cut corners.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Well, it was funny, and ironic too, and no offense was taken. No worries. Shame on me, perhaps, for not choosing my words more carefully.

Anonymous said...

While we're talking about tools for law students (laptops), I ran across this article again, which discusses the huge benefits of exercise on brain functioning --

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/sports/playmagazine/0819play-brain.html?_r=1&fta=y&oref=slogin

I was amazed at the number of law students who thought exercise was optional.

I was a solid computer user -- every class, every day, every test. But if, as a law student, I was forced to choose between giving up the computer or giving up exercise, it would have been easy (give up the laptop).

Anonymous said...

I agree with the person who posted that since they paid their $2300 they had the privilage of not paying attention in class if that was their choice, but does that person have the right to steal my education? If this is the case maybe all the lawyer jokes are right....Comming from a small town I thought that lawyers were supposed to be better than that. I was under the impression that the law was an honorable profession.

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Anonymous said...

I am a 3L and have to say that most of law school to be a waste of time. I agree with one of the earlier posters that law school is about teaching yourself.

I want to be a lawyer. To become a lawyer I must pass the bar exam. To pass the bar exam I must graduate from an ABA accredited institution. To pass an ABA accredited institution I must pass the classes. To pass the classes I have to attend 80% of the classes. Doesn't matter what is taught or how I answer the questions (other than 1 final per class per semester) I just have to attend.

The cost of becoming a lawyer is my $130K of law school and 3 years of my life. Did someone make me go to law school? Well ... if not for the state bar requirements I wouldn't have gone.

Do you want teach the black letter law? Then lets just have everyone take BarBri and pass the exam. They teach the entire subject of law in 6 weeks.

If you truly believe that there is something to be gained by students paying attention in class... then prove it the student. So us, the students, how these nuance will affect us when we practice law day-to-day.

Where I have gotten that knowledge has been from my internships and externships. Those have been real lessons in how to be a lawyer. I can't space out on a computer when I am presenting before a judge or interviewing a client. My own ego, as well as my desire to do a good job, keep me focused.

You want to be paternalistic? A classroom of 70 people often covering 'bad' law that is overuled in later cases is not the best forum for developing young attorneys.

You want to create good attorneys? I think a process of mentoring and practical application will show both the student and the professor/attorney who will be a good attorney and who won't be. And, if there are shortcomings, to correct them.

It appears to me that all of the learning on being a good attorney takes place after law school. When we get jobs and start to learn at the feet of practicing attorneys.

After 2.8 years of law school I can say that I learned a lot about how to write, legal reasoning and research in the first year. And that the rest has been a grind so I can get my ticket to sit for the bar exam.

So how does this relate to computer use in the classroom? I focus in class when focus is demanded. When I am being lectured on overuled cases or on nuances of personal jurisdiciton... I may be checking the New York Times site or checking my e-mail.

I know enough to research these issues when they come up with my clients. And to ask other attorneys with more experience what their opinion is.

I am not going to graduating knowing all there is to know about the law. Teach me enough that I can teach myself and know what to look for ... and then mentor me going forward.

Lecture me ... and I'll be surfing the net waiting to get me ticket punched.