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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Praise of "Maniacal Stenographers"

Rick becomes the latest to weigh in against laptops in the classroom, specifically because of the problem of student notetakers becoming "maniacal stenographers, transcribing every word without trying to understand what is being said." I agree 100 % with Rick's comments and his solution to that problem.

But let me rise in brief (if facetious) support of maniacal stenography:

Last week, class was interrupted while I was in the middle of making a point. By the time the interruption passed, I had forgotten what I was saying. Fortunately, I was able to turn to a laptop user and say (as we all have wanted to do), "Could you read that back to me?" Which, of course, the student did--verbatim. Can't do that if everyone is taking notes by hand.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 16, 2008 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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I think you should be commended for your insistence on doing what you feel is best for your students as a whole. While I might not agree with your methods in their entirety, it strikes me that what you are doing and your rationale for doing it reinforces why we professors teach in the first place.

Way to go!

Posted by: Len Rotman | Apr 17, 2008 1:01:26 AM

I appreciate everyone's thoughts on my "laptop" ban. Here are some responses:

1) "A student" remarks on the paternalism of the policy. Why should not students decide what's best for them? But the premise of conveying information by requiring students to sit in the same room at the same time must be that learning in a classroom is a local public good, akin to a concert or a park. The student who diligently takes notes but does not listen to what his or her fellow students are saying undermines this public good, by creating an atmosphere of inattention and indifference.

For this reason, I adopt a variety of other "paternalistic" devices, because those who shirk in their attentiveness and participation spoil the learning atmosphere for everyone else (in the same way that people who eat crunchy candy at a concert ruin the musical atmosphere). For instance, (a) I cold call students; (b) I do not permit students to pass; (c) when students ask me questions, I require students sitting near to the questioner to take the first stab at answering the question, to insure that everyone pays as much attention to the questions being asked as to my lecturing; (d) I occasionally ask a very difficult question and then tell the class that they must talk among themselves to figure out the answer. (To insure that they do so, I leave the room for two minutes, warning them that I plan to cold call them in quick succession for answers when I return).

All of this is paternalistic -- but libertarianism simply does not work when you are providing a local public good. It might be that each student would be better off individually if they could take their own notes. But the class as a whole does better if students focus on discussion.

(2) I find that having students' post their notes provides a good opportunity for me to review their note-taking. Students write the oddest things in their notes, often because I speak too fast or too carelessly. By reading their notes, I can catch these problems and see where I've been unclear. Since I have four students taking notes per class session, I can also determine when the error was simply a single student's transcription error and when it was my own misspeaking.

(3) Business schools frequently hire stenographers to transcribe classes. Given what students pay in tuition, I think that this would be a good idea for law school classes as well. I'm thinking of raising the issue with Ricky Revesz, my dean.

(4) The designated note taker can also act as "surfer-in-chief": I can call on them to "google" some obscure fact or look up the statute or actual judicial opinion, when an issue arises requiring the information. But there is solid empirical evidence that, despite your assiduous policing, many students surf the web and check e-mail during class time when they are allowed to use laptops. This leads to their glazed expressions as they stare blankly at their screens. I'd much rather them become restless and bored, fidgeting or yawning, so that I have a signal that I am being unduly repetitious. Surfing undermines the public good that is classroom energy (see (1) above), and so I want to keep it to a minimum. Only an outright ban on laptops can kill the beast.

(5) I teach two mandatory classes -- Administrative & Regulatory State and Constitutional Law -- and I ban laptops in both of them. So what, if my policies are forced on the students against their will? That's true of any pedagogical choice that I make (e.g., in class versus take-home exam). This business about not being paternalistic with students strikes me as bizarrely misplaced: The whole institution of law school, from mandatory attendance to grades, is a gigantic exercise in paternalism. Students pay for my pedagogical judgment, and I'm prepared to give it to them -- good and hard.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Apr 16, 2008 3:02:55 PM

As a law student I saw notes from previous years' classes and had a good chuckle when I discovered that one professor (Steve Gey) used the same jokes every time he taught a particular case. Luckily they were were funny jokes, for example:

Suit was filed by The Alabama Free Thought Association – Not a Large Group.

Michael Nedow is an atheist, a doctor, and a lawyer. Everybody hates him.

A zoo turned away kids with Down’s Syndrome because the zoo keeper was afraid the kids would scare the chimpanzees.

Mr. Constanteneau's concrete injury was sobriety. . . a fate worse than death.

Posted by: Jim | Apr 16, 2008 12:36:28 PM

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