Professor June Entman contacted me following my earlier post on the AP story about her decision to ban laptops in her civil procedure class, and she offered to share the e-mail she sent to her students that presents a more accurate and complete explanation of her thinking. Here is the e-mail, reprinted with Professor Entman’s permission:
I have received a handful of emails from Civil Procedure II students arguments for why the policy is either unwise, unfair, or both. This email to all Civil Procedure II students is a response to those emails and my final word on the subject.
Students give one primary reason for needing laptops in class: because typing is faster than writing, students can take more complete and detailed class notes with a laptop. This proposition is no doubt true for some. It entirely misperceives the purpose of class attendance, however.
Civil Procedure class sessions are designed primarily as a practice session for students to develop the skills outlined in the “Course Objectives.” Your job during class is to participate actively in the discussion in order to develop your ability to articulate, to evaluate, and to apply your knowledge of the law. When you focus primarily on transcribing everything said, you are not making good use of the class as a practice opportunity. (It would be a good idea at this point in the semester for each of you to review the Course Objectives and Requirements, which are on TWEN under “Course Requirements and Information.”)
There is much truth to the notion that people learn in different ways. It is equally true that no one ever became skilled at playing the piano by copying sheet music or by watching someone else play. One cannot learn to play the piano without playing the piano. You will learn to analyze only by analyzing, to articulate only by articulating, to evaluate only by evaluating. Transcribing is none of those things. Class time for practicing essential skills is limited. It is not too late in the semester for those of you who have been transcribers to make better use of class time.
Civil Procedure class sessions are not designed to feed information to students. The Civil Procedure course materials already contain virtually all of the information you are expected to acquire, as well as many of the problems and hypotheticals used in class. Problems not in the text are usually quite brief and I almost always draw a diagram of the problem on the blackboard. The time it would take for you to write down by hand whatever I have written by hand on the board cannot be so great that you need a computer to get it. On those occasions when I actually do “lecture,” i.e. didactically present new information, you certainly can and do ask me to repeat, during or after class, anything that went by too fast.
Notetaking is an important skill. Indeed, attorneys need to take useful notes, often in situations in which they are unable to use computers. Notetaking is not, however, the same as transcribing. Effective and useful notetaking involves exercising judgment about what to write down, so that one is still able to listen and to think. Class notes should be triggers for later study and review of the course materials; they should not be a substitute for studying the course materials.
My opposition to laptops, which I find confirmed by what several of you have written in your emails, is that using laptops diverts many students from thinking and participating because they are so intent on transcribing. I hope that the transition from typing to writing will have the effect, not of slowing down your transcription efforts, but of changing altogether the way some of you use your class time.
Laptops also adversely effect class discussion in other ways. The wall of vertical screens keeps me from seeing many of your faces, even those of some students who are only neighbors of a laptop. The wall hampers the flow of discussion between me and the class and among the students. Also, by giving students a sense of anonymity, many are encouraged to feel that they are present merely to listen in. Laptops and their accompanying noise also create a distraction that is unfair to other students and prevents them from engaging in the sort of reflection that each should be doing.
Finally, a word about what some of you supposed is my sole reason for this new policy. Of course I am unhappy about students signing on to the Internet to play games, check email, and instant message during class. This activity is both dishonest and inconsiderate. It is annoying and distracting to other students. Before reaching my decision to eliminate laptops entirely, I tried to get the WiFi turned off on the third floor of the law building. I was unsuccessful in securing the cooperation of those on campus who control the system. For the reasons explained above, however, I believe that a no-laptop policy will not only eliminate misuse of computers, but will also improve the way many students approach the time they spend in class.
I do appreciate the sincere and respectful emails I received on this topic. I hope that I have addressed your concerns. Of most importance, I hope that eliminating laptops and having this discussion will enhance the extent to which each one of you masters the skills needed to become a competent attorney.