Paternalistic Professors and Banning Laptops in Class. That really grinds my gears.

October 14th, 2009

You know what really grinded my gears? Professors who banned laptop usage in class. That is, using a laptop for something other than taking notes.

The Volokh Conspirators have discussed this topic at length, but a recent post by Mason Prof J.W. Verret as a guest-blogger on Volokh brought incited this post:

“As a longtime fan of The Volokh Conspiracy, it’s a particular honor to join you today.  I admit spending much class time in law school surfing Volokh rather than taking notes, and it was often a wiser investment (not true for my students of course).”

Anyone who ever sat in a class with me would recognize the familiar site. I take no formal lecture notes, and occasionally scribble notes in the margin of my textbook. Most of the class, I am ferociously blackberrying, texting, surfing, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Frequently I am researching case law dealing with a tangential topic to the lecture, but usually I’m just futzing around. Yet, I usually participate more than anyone else in the class. I am not saying this to brag. I mean it sincerely. In every class I ever sat it, I was always one of the top participators. I have the freaksih ability to multitask very efficiently. I can follow what a professor is saying, relate it to the assigned reading assignment, think of and recite thoughtful answers to a socratic dialogue, all while surfing, blackberrying, and facebooking.

In my mind, banning laptops in class is overly paternalistic. If a student has a particular learning style, and does not need to convey undivided attention to the professor and fellow students, why should the student be penalized? Further, any sort of attendance requirement, especially those imposed by the ABA, are paternalistic. Students pay an absurd amount of money for school. Contrary to what the ABA may think, students have lives outside of law school. It is not always possible to attend 85% of classes (or whatever the required percentage is). At Mason, if a student did not attend a certain number of classes, he would not be alllowed to sit for the final exam, despite his ability to acquire the information. Why? Why should a student be punished without having an opportunity to take an exam, merely because he did not go to classes he paid for.

Some people have told me that when a student surfs the Internet in class, it is distracting to sit behind them. Umm… How bout you don’t look?

Now, if a student’s Internet use results in poor class participation, I have no problem with a professor penalizing that student. An effective socratic dialogue is an essential aspect of any class. But if a student can keep up with the pace of the class while indulging in his personal Internet exploits, a flat-out ban on laptop usage seems incongruent, disproportional, and in my case, potentially cruel and unusual.