Old Technology In The Classroom

In a general way, Mike and Sherry are right about laptops in the classroom. (Mike’s post; Sherry’s column.) A technology that helps a student record what’s happening in class--even when used for that purpose--can leave the student less engaged with the material. More focused on getting it all down than on thinking it all through, the student learns less from the class, and contributes less to it. To blame one particular technology, laptop computers, misses the mark, however. The note-taking technologies that laptops replace--pens and pencils--have the very same deleterious side-effect, and roughly to the same degree.

Whether it’s ever done in a law school classroom I don’t know, but as a graduate student in another field I studied with a professor--a really excellent teacher--who discouraged his students from taking notes at all. I don’t remember any express “policy” on note-taking; certainly he didn’t ban writing utensils in his classroom. Instead, he kept the scribbling to a minimum by an occasional ostentatious display of exasperation--throwing his hands into the air, he would exhort us to “Stop writing!” I don’t recall whether he ever told us his reasons, but I imagine he felt that we couldn’t be paying full attention to what he was saying if we were also writing down what he’d already said. If so, he was correct. It’s true, as both Mike and Sherry suggest, that good note-takers try to figure out what’s important in the discussion, so that they can get that down at least. Students who don’t take notes at all, however, can also try to figure out what’s important--and they’re more likely to succeed, because they aren’t multitasking.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate a no-note-taking policy in a law-school classroom. That’s not because of the potential benefit of class notes at exam-prep time. Better notes could be e-mailed around by the instructor after class (or, as Sherry arranges, by one or two students designated as note-takers for the day). It’s rather because of the cultural context. My best guess is that the anti-note-taking professor I refer to above was influenced by his own experience studying in a very different setting, one in which formal knowledge was typically transmitted orally, and stored mainly in human memories, rather than in writing. Whether I’m right about that influence, the material he was teaching us was traditionally studied in such settings, and to some degree still is; and he himself was a great memorizer of texts. A total focus on listening and speaking somehow fit with the material. Modern U.S. legal knowledge, in contrast, is a decidedly literary tradition, in storage and transmission (despite oral argument, the so-called Socratic method, and other pockets of talk). So is most of everything else that most law students have previously studied in high school and college (although in some fields video and other non-literary forms may be gaining ground). Banning writing from the classroom could seem incongruous--inappropriate to the material and disorienting to students. Literary though it remains, however, law is fast becoming, more specifically, a digital literary tradition. If that trend continues, laptop bans may begin to feel strangely out of place as well. When you add it all up, there’s a good argument for banning all note-taking tools, and a good argument for allowing them all. The only really strong argument for allowing pens and pencils but not laptops is that laptops come with all kinds of entertainment that have nothing to do with what’s happing in class.