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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Laptops, Internet, and Other Issues of Deportment

Fiddling with my fall syllabi for my Securities Regulation and Agency, Partnership & LLC  classes this morning, and here's the current draft of the text on these subjects:

The use of laptop computers in class for things other than taking notes or looking at the statutes has consumed many electrons in the law school academic blogosphere and elsewhere.  (The University of Chicago Law School cut off its wireless access to classrooms.)  Images8 Consistent with my pedagogical philosophy generally, I think it is futile to stand in the way of the technology tsunami.  It’s also anachronistic and, honestly, beneath me to do anything so draconian as to force students to write instead of type (I work almost exclusively on a keyboard). I am going to work very, very hard to teach this complex material in a way that makes sense and highlights the theory and practice in a digestible way. I hope you use your electronic window to the world responsibly while in class. 

The only point about misuse of the Internet in class that has had much traction with me is its ability to distract others in the class who see what you are doing over your shoulder.  I would consider it well within the range of acceptable behavior to say politely “would you mind not surfing where I can see it?  It’s really distracting.”  The nature of the response may tell you something about your classmate's future as an effective lawyer (at least in my view).

That brings me to a more general point about deportment. As far as I’m concerned, you are lawyers now. That means you are fully accountable to your classmates, yourselves, and me as adult members of the legal community. As you may have heard, I like to have a lot of fun in class (yes, I wore a costume to class on Halloween last year and sang a song about one of the cases to the tune of the Theme from the Beverly Hillbillies). But that doesn’t subtract from the overall seriousness (not solemnity) of the enterprise. I spent many years supervising lawyers as a partner in a law firm and as the general counsel of a large company. I don’t have much patience for the bureaucracy of enforcing compliance even with my own rules, like on-call and Internet-surfing; in my prior life, that behavior always struck me as infantilizing my colleagues. This is not the place for me to expound on my view that an internalized sense of duty and obligation is as much a civilizing influence as laws and regulation. If you need a more immediate incentive, however, I can tell you that what we say and do in class is a central part of what I test on, and you miss it at the peril of your own potential grade.

Talk about futility!  This is an example of "pragmatic idealism" (cf. Posner's pragmatic skepticism) which means that sometimes (but not always) you refuse to abandon reasoned moral conclusions even though you can justify, from others' misbehavior, your own conduct contrary to those conclusions.  A corollary is the "sucker conundrum."  Back in the late 1980s, when my law partners were claiming 90% of their cars for business use tax deductions even though they didn't have the required mileage records, I had to choose between compliance with the rule and being a sucker if I didn't do the same thing.  The consequence of being a sucker here is the possibility that there will be students who say, in effect, "stick your morality and your norms and your guilt trip someplace where the sun never shines; I'm paying for the education and I'll do what I want."   Yeah,  I know.  Been there, done that.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on June 17, 2008 at 11:14 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I thought anonymous' comment was thoughtful, but do not think professors are overthinking this at all -- if anything, the opposite. It would be helpful for some place like this blog to host a concentrated symposium on this question, which is being rehearsed in an overly piecemeal way here and elsewhere. Perhaps focused on a series of questions that the issue raises (e.g., distinguishing between internet and laptop, various rationales, critical differences between first year and upper-level or required and elective courses, etc.). These are difficult and close questions for many of us.

If nothing else, I think some more focused conversation could dispel the impression that those who are concerned about the issue, and who have taken steps to deal with it, are necessarily draconian/infantilizing or just anachronistic/Luddite/old fogies. I'm sure some taking steps do it for the wrong reasons, or because they haven't thought it through carefully; I also think many professors and students have great counterarguments against the various kinds of bans (like futility, for better or for worse). But if motive is in play, I bet an average professor's incentive when faced with these kinds of questions is almost certainly to *do* less than he or she should: doing something rather than nothing, stepping out of the ranks, and adopting measures that pose a decent risk of being wildly unpopular (at least initially) all cut in favor of staying the course, so to speak. (So does information gathering, which is more or less my posture, but one should be earnest about that.) As to student motivations, incidentally, I imagine the return on *publicly* advocating internet or laptop-free classrooms pales in comparison to taking a stand against regulation and for typing and surfing.

To return to the original post in light of what I just said, perhaps it's possible to explain your policy in the syllabus while dampening the implied criticism of those who've done differently, even if doing what they did is beneath you.

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Jun 19, 2008 11:28:50 AM

As a new law prof, I have thought seriously about how I would handle the "laptop issue" in my first year class. I have also talked to friends--other young law profs--both those who have chosen to ban laptops and those who have not. I disagree that the controversy over banning laptops devolves from the cultural or technological gap between professors who didn't enjoy wireless access in their law school classrooms and students who expect to. I think professors are concerned about laptop use because we genuinely want to create the optimal classroom environment for our students. As Yamamoto's article in the Journal of Legal Education notes, several studies do report a correlation between lower grades, poor informational recall and carte blanche classroom laptop/wireless usage. There are also other concerns with laptop use besides distraction--the effectiveness of laptop note taking (transcribing vs. reflective summarizing) being chief among them.

My own approach, I think, will be to spend a brief amount of time advising students how to take notes most effectively on their laptops. And about that idea of a quick google search when the professor uses a term that goes over a law student's head--that's not such a hot idea. The best tactic is to do things the old-fashioned way--raise a hand and ask a question!

Posted by: Jody | Jun 18, 2008 8:46:26 PM

Professors overthink the laptop issue tremendously. My surfing habits are completely unrelated to my in-class performance, and I take diligent notes in any case. I suspect it does negatively affect some students' performance, but I don't think it's significant enough to justify a the credibility hit a prof takes in the futile attempt to control the situation. Prof. Lipshaw is right; the attempted regulation is completely infantilizing, and outright bans are patently offensive given most of us went further into to debt to purchase the laptops that law schools REQUIRE us to have. Distraction is an issue, granted, but law students (especially in the first year) are obsessed with what each other is doing at all times no matter what, and really isn't your average 1L more terrified at seeing her neighbor type thorough notes than she is distracted at the occasion Drudge peek?

What's most interesting to me is that this is one of the few bona fide culture gaps between most contemporary law students and their reasonably tech-savvy professors: you guys didn't have the internet in class when you were in school. Isn't that 99% of what's going on here? In my experience, the reason why most professors experience friction in the classroom when they take laptop action is because usually it's painfully obvious to their audience that they have simply not communicated with any students about the issue. This is not something most of your students are struggling with; wireless internet everywhere is an educational fact of life for most of us. As a law student who has academically grown up around perpetual wireless access, I've learned to adapt my study habits accordingly; as someone who has worked various office jobs within and without law firms, I anticipate the constant ability to surf the web will follow me from my educational to my professional career. And it absolutely should be permissible for students to run quick google searches in class when a prof (often unwittingly, I'll grant) makes a reference that goes past a student's head.

Posted by: anonymous student | Jun 17, 2008 10:24:45 PM

My colleague, Kevin Yamamoto, has an article on this topic in the hot-off-the-press issue of the Journal of Legal Education.

Posted by: tim zinnecker | Jun 17, 2008 5:51:12 PM

Bill, I think we are violently agreeing. I just like to try to write with panache; sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail.

As I said privately a few minutes ago, the message to students is this: act like adults; act responsibly; be considerate of others; I'm not going to B.S. you by telling you that surfing the web leads to psoriasis and the death of your career. And I'm your professor, not your mother or father. So don't expect a whole lot of rules and enforcement here - just decide what kind of person you want to be. That was also my management philosophy.

On the other hand, I find most of what is done on this point - banning laptops, cutting off the internet, etc. - to be sheltered, paternal and ivory tower. Obviously, I didn't get that across. And I completely agree with you on the idea that how you behave when there's no consequence at all (like when you are sitting in a classroom) that is the test of character.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 17, 2008 5:13:41 PM


Your right. I meant C. Zorn. But your analogy is not on point. How many lawyers are doing that in front of their best clients? How many associates are doing it in front of senior partners during a meeting they were specifically asked to attend? Are these lawyers the most successful partners and associates? Attending to your Blackberry is, at least sometimes, about client service. I see the room for tradeoffs and multi-tasking. But there is nothing of similar consequence taking place among law students sitting in a law school classroom. In that environment, we are observing peoples' character.

And I agree -- no point in banning laptops or the Internet. I just point out the obvious (obvious to me anyway).

Posted by: Bill Henderson | Jun 17, 2008 4:56:22 PM

Bill, I think you are with C, not Chris. Chris just corrects my typing. C criticizes my verbosity.

I was thinking about this, but I don't really agree with the consequential thrust of it:

"See Spot run.
See Jane read the syllabus.
See Dick play Tetris and iChat with Sally.
See Jane pick up on all the clues the professor leaves.
See Jane get an A.
See Dick have no clue on the exam.
See Jeff say 'I told you so.'"

If you saw how many Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers are playing under the table with their Blackberries during most meetings, you'd rethink the empirical basis of your assertion on bad deportment and success! Katie is right - coming up with consequences to bad behavior is just rationalization.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 17, 2008 4:34:28 PM


I am with Chris--what the hell are you talking about? All those years of practice, and you obscure a simple issue with Kant and Posner.

Tell them the truth--that bad work habits and bad deportment among colleagues lead to less-than-stellar opportunities in the future, starting now! You have a perspective that so few academics have; you can clutter up your academic writing with esoteric philosophy, but don't forget 25 years worth of experience when you are dealing with students. That would be a very bad thing.

Posted by: Bill Henderson | Jun 17, 2008 4:14:20 PM

You've probably noticed it by now, but the word "use" is missing at the end of the first paragraph ("I hope you *use* your electronic window...").

Posted by: Chris | Jun 17, 2008 2:58:33 PM

Jonathan, a number of states (most, I believe) now allow students to type bar exam answers, although many charge an additional fee for them to do so.

More generally, I've never been convinced by the distraction argument. Anything - from uneven cracks in the ceiling titles to the clothes and hair of other students - can be distracting to people who are looking to be distracted. And if you're consciously trying to pay attention, some flickering out of the corner of your eye on someone else's computer screen shouldn't be worse than anything else. I can't help but think that the focus on distracting others is our way to find something objectively wrong with behavior that seems subjectively wrong (web surfing in class) but which we feel we need a rational reason to actually ban.

Posted by: Katie | Jun 17, 2008 2:10:51 PM

You might also note that the majority of bar exams used to (in 2005, and I assume still do) have taker handwrite the exams. From what I understand, handwriting and typing are very different in terms of how the information is learned. I wonder if students have more difficult in bar exams because of this...

Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 17, 2008 2:00:42 PM

I agree that interference with others is the only real issue with laptops in class. As an avid game player (my highest grades this year were in the two classes where I played old-school tetris during class) I try to sit in a place where my own antics won't disturb others. When I noticed in one class that a neighbor was easily distracted by my own browsing, I was quick to minimize the playing time for his benefit (and, alas, to detriment--I was unable to score better than a B myself).

Posted by: LawStudent | Jun 17, 2008 1:48:57 PM

Good lord! Is the rest of your syllabus that verbose? I'm amazed that the students read it (assuming they do).

Posted by: C. Zorn | Jun 17, 2008 12:10:10 PM

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