School Supplies:

With horror, I'm beginning to realize that classes (at my law school, anyway, and at many others as well) are actually starting up again this coming week, bringing summer '09 to an end, alas. Time for my annual plug for my "Writing Guidelines" -- if you're a beginning law student, or a returning law student, or just someone who writes, you're encouraged to download a copy and look through it. I've put much of what I've learned about writing well over the years in there, and, from the reaction of people who've downloaded it in the past, I think it's a decent guide to the art. (Not, incidentally, as a replacement for Eugene's terrific book on "Academic Legal Writing," but as a supplement, looking at the craft of writing from a somewhat different perspective).

And speaking of classes, I've made the decision this semester to ban computers from my classroom(s). It's something I've been thinking about for a couple of years, and it's not something I've come to (I hope) without giving the matter some serious thought. This is particularly so because this semester one of the courses I'm teaching (and in which I'll be implementing this new rule) is a course on "Cyberspace Law" -- I know it's going to strike some students as bizarre that they won't be allowed to have their laptops in a Cyberspace Law class, but I'm prepared to defend the decision. Simply put, I think they'll learn more without them because they will be forced to engage with the material being presented (or at least they will have fewer alternatives to engaging with the material being presented -- you can lead a horse to water and all that). Several years ago, I sat in on a Law and Economics seminar taught by a colleague of mine at Temple Law School, Dave Hoffman, in which he forbade students from using laptops during class. It was pretty clear to me that the quality of student engagement in the class discussion benefited immensely from the decision. The computer is a powerful distractant -- when the discussion gets messy or difficult (indeed, especially when the discussion gets messy or difficult), it's awfully tempting for students to check out for a few minutes to check their Facebook page, or send out a few emails, or organize their files, or do a little Lexis/Westlaw research, or check the baseball scores, or . . . and then, 9 times out of 10, they're lost for the whole class. I want confused students to tell me they're confused -- to put their hands up and say "Excuse me, but what exactly are you talking about?" They don't need good excuses not to do that.

I completely support your decision. When I was in law school, I never brought my laptop into a lecture (even though it was allowed in all classes) because I knew I did not have enough self-control to fight off the temptation to use the laptop for non-class purposes.

I also rarely took notes in class. My belief was that by actually paying attention and absorbing the discussion, I would benefit far more than if I mindlessly transcribed every word the professor uttered. To that end, I believe law school classes would be more beneficial if the professors encouraged the students to not take notes and, at the end of the lecture, handed out an outline to the students covering the topics covered in that day's lecture.
8.21.2009 4:42pm
Kudos to you. I got more out of the law school classes where I didn't use a laptop, even though I rarely had the willpower to go without unless the professor forced me to.
8.21.2009 4:49pm
Ben P:

I also rarely took notes in class. My belief was that by actually paying attention and absorbing the discussion, I would benefit far more than if I mindlessly transcribed every word the professor uttered.

1. Proper note taking does not necessarily (and should not) mean merely transcribing every word the professor utters. the students who note take obsessively will still be furiously scribbling in notebooks, the students who don't take many notes will still not be taking many notes.

2. Perhaps that method works for you, but I strongly prefer to take notes, particularly if the material is going to be tested in a closed book final. (The majority of seminar classes I took had either a paper or an open book final as the majority or all of the grade). On the whole I would much much rather take notes in typed form than in handwritten form because typed notes are only only easier to read, they are much easier to rework and add too or highlight and modify when it comes time to study later.

3. My own personal opinion is that Professor Post is being almost embarrassingly naive about confused students engaging or not engaging because of the presence of a laptop. It may be true that a laptop provides an easy "out," but it realistically won't have any effect on a student who may be confused actually being willing to admit that in class. Students become engaged when the class draws them in, not necessarily because of the presence of an outside distraction.
8.21.2009 5:07pm
I know you've given this a lot of thought, but I have to disagree with your decision. I did better in classes where I could take notes on a laptop. I type much faster than I write, and I can do so without looking at my hands. This allowed me to spend a larger proportion of the class time focusing on what the professor was saying, rather than trying to record what they'd just said. If a professor looped back to a point, I was easily able to insert comments in the appropriate section of my notes. And at the end of the semester, I had notes that were legible and useful.

Your decision will probably give a good nudge to folks who don't have the self-discipline to pay attention in class when there's a laptop in front of them, but it will be at the expense of those who do have that discipline and benefit from using a laptop. It could be that you're totally comfortable with that tradeoff--after all, you benefit by maximizing the number of students who are listening and interested in what you're saying. But to achieve that you are harming some students who've done nothing wrong.
8.21.2009 5:09pm
John Jenkins (mail):
If you need to ban laptops in class, you're not doing your job well enough. It should be engaging enough that the laptop is not a viable alternative.

I would not have taken a class that did not allow laptops when I was in law school (and did not), and greatly appreciated the haven they provided from blowhards who thought they were so brilliant they didn't need to actually add any value to the text for me to want to listen to them.

Stop making rules for the lowest common denominator in the class. If someone can use the laptop and do well, kudos to them. If someone uses the laptop and can't do well, it's a tough universe.
8.21.2009 5:10pm
Great tips on writing. What's strange is that the basic rules are eerily similar to what my 10th grade English teacher taught us in AP Language. Somehow most people never learn these basic rules and I've never understood why they don't.
8.21.2009 5:20pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Give me laptops in class, or give me death!

I'm always amused by the people who pay good money (or maybe their parents' good money) to sit in class while they surf the internet.

Professor's class, professor's rules. If attendance is mandatory (and it is, thanks to the ABA's accreditation committee), then it is entirely appropriate to require that one pay attention while acquiescing to that mandate, whether one considers the professor a blow-hard or not. If you can't actually write because of some learning disability, ask for an ADA accomodation.
8.21.2009 5:21pm
Cardozo'd (www):
Those who wish to "check out" will check out and those who will ask if confused will do so with or without a computer...also, people taking notes will lose out this way, it takes far longer to write than to type...and it is far less clear...and will discourage studying at the end. Those who take notes will have less time to pay attention/ask questions because they will be focusing more on writing as opposed to typing which most can do while barely focused on the computer. So in the end you will have people who don't wish to pay attention, still not paying attention, and those who wish to pay attention are pre-occupied with writing.
8.21.2009 5:25pm
Greek Geek:
Give the students a reason not to check out, and they won't. Unfortunately, most law schools still have the ridiculous system of one test per semester, at the end of the semester. There is no reason to pay attention until the end, because you will not be held responsible for the material until the end.
8.21.2009 5:33pm
You should ban ballpoint pens too. They'll be forced to engage if they can't doodle.
8.21.2009 5:36pm
blog fiend (mail) (www):
Several of the professors at my school banned laptops this term. My take is this:

Why shouldn't the professorate compete in the open market for attention? Law professors should:

(1) pump up their lectures,
(2) stop reading Powerpoint slides to me,
(3) stop reading verbatim the same twenty-year-old notes, and
(4) realize that kids of my generation can multitask like none other.

Banning laptops doesn't help law students. But better lectures sure would.

Compete or perish.
8.21.2009 6:07pm
Adam Kamp (mail):
Man, as a 3L, I have some real mixed feelings about this policy. In many ways, I LOVe my laptop in class. I'm an efficient typist and diligent student, so every week I come to class (I'm in a weekend program), I have all my notes and briefs on my laptop and can swiftly annotate, correct, and add to my notes with the classroom discussion, most certainly without copying every word that the professor says. Near the end of the semester, I can go through again and cut and paste everything into an outline, and from there to flash cards, and can use those to efficiently memorize what needs memorizing. It's a heck of a tool.

But boy oh boy, can it be a distraction too. I'm pretty good, I think: I don't use Internet chat in class (unlike at least a quarter of the group), I don't do anything that takes active thought. But even passive reading or glancing can suddenly take your attention away just long enough that suddenly a fast-paced professor can be on to another point before I've taken my notes. At the same time, I have attention deficit disorder, and my weekend classes are three hours long, often with just one break. Without some sort of distraction, by the end of class you'd see me burst from the room screaming. Having some sort of quick, one-minute distraction actually helps me focus more in the long run, a trick I've learned both in classes and in the workforce.

I wonder if I'm in the minority, though. Many are the times I've seen people simply not look up from their Internet for an entire class session. And while the "survival of the fittest" paradigm has some attraction here, I think that taking steps to make sure people are attending by preventing laptops isn't such a bad thing either.
8.21.2009 6:28pm
Ed Unneland (mail):
How about if the student is writing on a tablet computer?
8.21.2009 6:34pm
I am amused that every mention of no-laptops-in-class policies brings out the same comments from Gen-Y (or whatever they are called now) students: 1) we are awesome and you guys are, like, so boring, and 2) the problem is boring professors, not tuned-out students. Or something like that. I will now lurk and wait for the rest of the "we are so awesome and with it" comments.
8.21.2009 6:41pm
matt (mail):
I think I agree with the pro-laptop group here. I graduated from law school a year and a half ago and I took my laptop to every class. I did hand write my exams the first year and typed the next two years, with no real difference in quality. You cannot nor will you ever be able to make people pay attention, so you really just harm the people with sloppy handwriting, or who learn better by typing their notes. Yes, I can write my notes, then go home and type them into my computer, but isn't law school busy enough?

My brother took a class in college called Logic. He received As on all of the exams, but received a C in the class for poor attendance. Besides the obvious lack of logic in that event, I think the point is valid. If I can pass your class or even do well without paying full attention, you either need to make your tests harder, or quit complaining. I loved the intellectual nature of law school, but some students don't and that is entirely their choice, especially when they are paying the exorbitant law school tuition in these economic times.
8.21.2009 7:21pm
Tom Tobin (mail) (www):
I'm quite skeptical of banning laptops; I honestly consider my laptop to be part of my brain that just happens to be outside my skull. I don't think the ban is that onerous, however, provided that the professor doesn't expect students to take notes. Thinking back to my college days, I was happiest in classes where I've sat up front and engaged the professor and class while absorbing the gist of the lecture directly, without a notebook (paper or electronic) in sight. This, however, requires that students not be penalized for "merely" paying attention versus continuous note-taking. If something is covered in the lecture that's detailed enough to require notes, either provide them separately (via handouts or online) or allow students to use whatever note-taking method they prefer. I find writing on paper to be both excruciatingly slow and physically painful, and I doubt I'm alone in that regard.
8.21.2009 7:28pm
KS 2L:
Last year, one of my professors banned laptops in class. She had written an article about her decision. I handwrite into my tablet PC, but couldn't for that class (though I never asked her for an exception). I liked the ban.
I don't think it matters how engaging or interesting the professor is in some classes. The people who are going to surf will still do it. I've never surfed the web in class. But I still can be distracted by other students. It is hard to give full attention to a professor when the person in front of you is watching a tv show. The moving images distract and annoy me to no end. Since seats are assigned the first day, it's not always easy to avoid that situation. I like being able to take notes on my computer, but don't like being distracted by others. I don't know that there is a good solution besides being able to put the people who won't pay attention into a different class.
8.21.2009 7:51pm

Those who wish to "check out" will check out and those who will ask if confused will do so with or without a computer...

Naw. Sometimes I wanted to check out, but I couldn't cuz I didn't have my laptop so I had to listen to the prof.

@blog fiend, why should they have to compete for your attention again? Somtimes you have to sit through boring lectures to learn stuff. At least, that's how it used to be.
8.21.2009 8:21pm
Roger Ford (mail):
Good writing tips, but this sentence made me stop and cry a little on the inside: "The original passage has 99 words; the revised version has 66 -- exactly 33% fewer."
8.21.2009 9:54pm
For those who say "Classes are too boring! I can't pay attention all the time!," I say wait until you are a lawyer and opposing council gives a longwinded, boring opening or closing, but making an important point in the middle of it. Will you tune it out because it was boring and then miss refuting the important part?
8.21.2009 10:21pm
Cornellian (mail):
Simply put, I think they'll learn more without them because they will be forced to engage with the material being presented

That's your call to make, I'd just ask you to make that clear well in advance of the deadline for course selection. Many students will regard your policy as obnoxiously paternalistic and wish to avoid your course as a result.

I took notes on my laptop in every single class in law school, never suffered from a lack of engagement, so far as I could tell, and did very well academically. I would have never knowingly signed up for a course that didn't allow taking notes on a laptop.
8.22.2009 1:35am
happycynic (mail):
Regarding the writing guidelines. Practically, they are good advice. Philosophically - God I hate legal writing. It takes all the beauty out of prose and puts it into the cold gray world of the scientist. By way of example, here is how the Gettysburg Address would look after being edited by a law professor.

"87 years ago this country was founded and dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality. Currently, we are engaged in a civil war which will determine the fate of our country. Today, we are present at a battlefield of this war to dedicate a memorial to those who died here. The sacrifice of the soldiers who fought here consecrates this ground far more than any of our words. Our goal, rather, should be to continue to fight for the cause of the Union so as to give meaning to the deaths of these soldiers."
8.22.2009 3:37am
Wisconsin Lawyer 5 (mail):
Two points:

1. iPhones, Blackberries, and other internet-surfing cellphones. It seems as if 50% of students these days have one.

Banning laptops just means that the students who would have goofed off on a laptop are now going to goof off on their iPhones or the like, where they can play games, surf the internet, chat with their friends in class, and do all sorts of things. Are you now going to ban cellphones?

2. Laptops bans hurt students who can't handwrite quickly. They help professors who cannot maintain the attention-span of their students. I'm sorry but, most "good" students in law school realize early on that most law school classes are basically about learning what cases are about and learning the law to derive from them. It's why after 1st year law school is pretty easy.

If you can do this from your reading before class, then class becomes 90% filler as the professor regurgitates what is already in your notes you're bringing to class. If the professor runs the class differently and less like a 90-minute case briefing session, then students would be more likely to pay attention. This is completely on the professor.
8.22.2009 9:45am
ttre (mail) (www):
Ban cell phones too. I've seen people playing on them in no laptop classes. call on people and make them stand up, they'll do the reading better if they will be forced to humiliate themselves if they don't. Throw them out of class if they can't answer your questions. Don't allow them to discuss the class outside of class or with anyone who has taken the class in the past, they won't have crutches like premade notes to rely on. All tactics my law school professors used to enhance the learning experience.
8.22.2009 11:46am

I will now lurk and wait for the rest of the "we are so awesome and with it" comments.

Similarly, I will wait (actually I no longer have to wait) for the obligatory "damn kids and their fancy computers and short attention spans" crowd to appear and tell others how disrespectful and lazy young'uns are today.

Professors can justify these rules any way they wish, but I have yet to hear a good explanation over several years of posts on this topic for why they can't just shut off the wireless in their classroom and still allow students who type their notes to do so.

I'd like to believe it is a pedagogical stance, but I now tend to believe it is mostly an ego thing.
8.22.2009 3:49pm
As a highly devoted web surfer, I have mixed feeling about this. I think it's mostly for the benefit of the professor, as it removes an easy route for people to tune him out. But I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing.

Professors can justify these rules any way they wish, but I have yet to hear a good explanation over several years of posts on this topic for why they can't just shut off the wireless in their classroom and still allow students who type their notes to do so.
--Simple, cutting off the university's wi-fi in the classroom will not prevent internet access through other networks. Some people pay for access on their laptops, and in some places other wi-fi networks are freely available.
8.22.2009 5:29pm
Randy R. (mail):
"(3) stop reading verbatim the same twenty-year-old notes,"

When my sister was in law school, she bought a used text book for a class. In the margins, the previous students wrote all the 'jokes' that the professor said in class. Turns out, they were the exact same jokes in her year too.
8.22.2009 6:54pm
Randy R. (mail):
tarheel: "Similarly, I will wait (actually I no longer have to wait) for the obligatory "damn kids and their fancy computers and short attention spans" crowd to appear and tell others how disrespectful and lazy young'uns are today."

When I was in law school, we had a professor so bad that students openly read the newspaper in class, holding it up high enough to hide their faces from everyone else. Others merely put their head down on the desk and slept. None of us had any idea what the class was about (something about the stock market), but no one ever asked a question either.
8.22.2009 6:56pm
jc851 (mail):
this is very simple... given that cyberspace law is in no way required, I would simply avoid the class given your decision.

Additionally, as far as being engaged in the class, it comes down to how good the professor is. I have been in classes (with laptops) where the professor was so engaging that all you saw on the screens were Word and OneNote and people taking notes and paying attention. I have been in other classes where all you see are games, blogs, and espn. What is the difference? The good professors get students to pay attention, no matter if they have a laptop, a doodle pad, or a feather ink blotter.
8.22.2009 7:21pm
The Mojo Bison (mail) (www):
Meh. A man's classroom is his castle. (Or hers.) But I've never been able to shake the suspicion that what ultimately drives the decision to ban laptops from the classroom is ego. Some professors cannot stand being ignored. Listen: if they're paying the money and they come in and ignore you, is that skin off your nose? Unless you're being held accountable for attrition/failure, the answer ought to be no. So devote the energy to the ones that do pay attention and turn them into outstanding students. Occasionally hit the slackers, by all means, but don't pretend that by banning laptops you'll be doing them some sort of huge favor and making them into the next Insert-Favorite-Great-Litigator's-or-Theorist's-Name-Here. More likely you'll be remembered as the pompous horse-hiney that wouldn't let them take notes properly. But tenure trumps all, so mazel tov.
8.22.2009 11:48pm

There is nothing more important in the practice of law than your ability to put together quality written work.

As someone who made the rough transition from clerk to document reviewer a few years ago, I wish this was true, but I don't believe it. Far more important are your ability to manage your time, your ability to interact with people with massive egos who don't care about you, your ability to work for weeks with little sleep, and your ability to determine whether a document is privileged and/or responsive. Unless you're writing a brief for the Supreme Court, quality written work is something most practicing lawyers claim to care about, but few actually do.
8.23.2009 12:19am
I guess I'd have to get a medical waiver of some kind in order to take your class. I physically can't write for more than a few minutes at a time. I have tendonitis.

I hope that you make it easy for students to get such dispensations. Needing a doctor's note (since I don't see a doctor for the condition) or to jump through some other hoop would probably dissuade me from taking the class.
8.24.2009 1:59am

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