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Sunday, October 17, 2010

On Boredom

I am very bad at being bored.  I change casebooks often to avoid boredom, I rarely write an article that builds directly on a previous one, and I sometimes "multitask" in meetings when I should be paying attention.  As a result, what I'm about to say is hypocritical.  However, I'll say it anyway.  Learning to deal with boring tasks in an important professional skill, and it might behoove us to let our students in on this secret.

There's a common misconception that students only become bored when they are not being intellectually challenged.  While it is true that boredom often results when one is not intellectually challenged, boredom can also result from being asked to learn challenging but important (and mind-numbing) minutiae.  Although as a student I was able to find intellectual pleasures in the most unexpected legal places (tax!),  certain material has the potential to be boring no matter how engaging the teacher and no matter how practical the material.  This contention should in no way be construed as an excuse for bad teaching.  A bad teacher can make the most exciting material dull.  But teachers shouldn't feel (as I sometimes do) that they have to apologize to students for not making every second of every day absolutely scintillating either. 

I've sat in the back of my colleagues' classes--classes which I thought were engaging and well taught--and watched students throughout the classroom on the Internet.  It pains me, because I am sure the same things is going on in my classes.  I worry for the students who can't go a class period without being on the Internet because they haven't developed the ability to be bored.  Practicing law is not always exciting.  Who wants to listen to a client drone on and on?  And sitting in a courtroom for any length of time brings one face-to-face with just how unrealistic courtroom dramas on television are.  For every dramatic moment, there are hours of deadly dull arguments or testimony, but the lawyers involved have to pay absolute attention during these hours nonetheless. 

How do we convey this lesson to students?  Is it something they must learn on their own?  Once, as a summer associate, I was asked to do research on nuclear regulatory issues for a good bit of the summer;  I thought I might slit my wrists from the sheer tedium of it, and yet the topic required every bit of my intellectual ability to understand.  I was shocked by the experience, because it ran completely contrary to my fundamental faith that learning new things is always exciting.  Should my law professors have warned me?  Would I have been able to benefit from the warning?  What should I say to students that won't scare them from the practice of law entirely?  As it currently stands, I tend to address the issue only obliquely.  I am fond of saying to students that I love my job so much that I would do most of it for free, but grading exams and attending committee meetings is something I have to be paid to do.  I also tell them, when we're in the midst of a particularly detailed and tedious topic, that lawyers get paid well (did get paid well?) because they are willing to wade through complexities few people are willing or able to understand.   Is it my place to do more?      

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on October 17, 2010 at 11:29 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I really appreciated this article. I happen to find it reassuring since I'm in the midst of adjusting to working long hours, many of them spent on not-so-scintillating document review. That being said, I think you underestimate yourself because I never once found myself bored in your classes and I don't think that’s because I have any special interest in Torts or Media Law!

Posted by: Katy | Oct 28, 2010 3:47:00 PM

When someone brags about professional responsibility being boring to them, I get a queasy feeling, and one not solved by "of course I follow all those rules that bore me to tears." Law is all about judgment, and someone with good judgment would recognize there is no upside in announcing publicly that they find professional responsibility to be a huge turn off. It may be true, it may even be common (although it shouldn't be if the course is taught well), but bragging about it in a signed comment is kind of like publicly admitting that you really enjoy picking your nose.

It was, however, interesting, albeit in kind of a watching a train wreck way.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 18, 2010 9:06:07 PM

Professor Lidsky,
I strongly believe that everything worth learning is interesting... luckily several professors before you have also made the point that that's a fairy tale, and I oh-so-reluctantly concede it. I think it's something my generation struggles with a lot (I'm sure other generations have too, but I read an interesting article awhile back that recent technology has been greatly furthering this cause). I did really think Lee's comment was very applicable to our web surfing tendencies. I have a hard time focusing in general, so I've found that if I let myself 'zone out' at certain times (When classmates ask extensive, complicated, or irrelevant hypotheticals) then I focus better when the real substance is being delivered. I wonder if the issue is really whether we (at least we being Section 3 UF 1L's) shouldn't play on our computers, or whether we really understand just how much mastery of the material is actually required of us. I used to do homework during my classes in high school, tuning in whenever the teacher introduced a new concept, and returning to my work when they got side-tracked or tried to catch a student up that wasn't understanding things. particularly in math and science classes, which I didn't find interesting. I tried to do that in AP chem, and the first test I got back changed my habits immediately. In law school, I feel like the same could be true- I've noticed less and less people playing on the internet in property class, especially after he put the old tests online and we were able to measure our levels of understanding. I suspect that after we get our 1st semesters grades back, most of us will adapt our attentiveness accordingly.

Posted by: Frances | Oct 18, 2010 6:52:16 PM

As a current law student I am guilty of this type of behavior, even in the classes that I enjoy. I felt a little guilty reading this post. Here is a simple truth. Any class will have students who learn at vastly different rates. This makes it virtually impossible to teach the material and be engaging to all of them. Sure, a gentle reminder to pay attention might help, but in the end (most) students will succeed in school (and life) in proportion to their efforts and abilities, and that is O.K.

Posted by: Lee | Oct 18, 2010 4:17:03 PM

Great post - I couldn't agree more. But I also think the misconception about boredom starts much earlier. Though my kids are too young still to be bored in school, I often hear friends complain that their young, elementary-school-aged children are bored and unchallenged in school. I seem to recall that I myself was bored and unchallenged through much of elementary school and high school, and I often offer to these friends the idea that perhaps this is part of what kids are supposed to be learning in grade school: the ability to learn despite or through boredom, as well as self-control, the ability to concentrate, and maybe the recognition that sometimes you will learn something from those peers or teachers who at first seem to have little to offer you, if you approach the task with patience and humility.

Posted by: Jessie Hill | Oct 18, 2010 1:31:38 PM

The same thing can sometimes happen with client interviews that drone on and on with extraneous information. When listening to a boring presentation, it becomes even more critical that we listen carefully in order to prevent the bits of important information from being buried in the boredom.

Posted by: Rebecca | Oct 18, 2010 12:23:10 PM

Prof. Lear gave us a very similar speech a few days ago! ;)

Posted by: Stephanie | Oct 18, 2010 9:19:09 AM

I hear you Prof. Lidsky, but some classes are just impossible to make interesting. How is one supposed to be enthralled by Professional Responsibility class (minus the brief discussion about Rule 1.8(j) - I believe that being the sexual relations rule)? Add no use of computer in that class, and you better believe that students are learning how to survive boredom.

This comment is not me saying that adhering to the Rules is not important or necessary. As a young attorney, I feel that disclaimer is necessary.

Posted by: Darren | Oct 18, 2010 8:27:38 AM

While not a professor, I can attest to the need to develop the professional ability to be bored. As a family physician, much of the day is repetitive and unoriginal: sore throat, abdominal pain, joint pain, low back pain, anxiety. All genuine complaints for which patients seek assistance but day after day, year after year, it lacks challenge. There is no excitement. At least in family medicine ANYTHING can walk through the door.

What you say it the core lesson, though. The material (the complaint) is extraordinarily important for the person who has sought your advice. They come to you for your cognitive skills and knowledge based. I am sure if a PC could talk it would tell you that getting loaded with Windows 7, Quicken, Adobe and all those other programs is boring. Evening running them most of the time is boring...but occasionally you get to perform original work, think big, stretch the mind and be intuitive. The clinical hunch or its legal equivalent is a finely developed skill obtained through years of learning EVERYTHING. But you have to have all the programs loaded and updated.

Posted by: Lisa | Oct 18, 2010 6:01:10 AM

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