Only Think!

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A University of Memphis law professor has banned laptop computers from her classroom and her students are passing a petition against it.

Professor June Entman says her main concern is that students are so busy keyboarding they can’t think and analyze what she’s telling them.

Students have begun collecting signatures on petitions and tried unsuccessfully to file a complaint with the American Bar Association.

Student Cory Winsett says if he must continue without his laptop, he’ll transfer to another school. Winsett says he won’t be able to keep up if he has to rely on hand-written notes, which he says are incomplete and less organized.
Globe and Mail Technology, March 29, 2006

I know how she feels.. It’s a dispiriting thing to be banging away up there with a hot argument or some controversial notion designed to hook the gallery only to look out on a sea of bent heads and flying fingers busily recording every syllable as though that were the point. That’s when you know that the profession is fully staffed with literalists and the world will surely end.

Mind you, ’twas ever thus, whether the fingers were working keyboards or pushing pens. Time and again I would tell students to put down their pens, look at me, and listen to what I was saying — that we were going to think about it, discuss it, and then, maybe, have something to record for posterity the exam. There was always a Cory Winsett or six, who just could not do that, who were incapable of being in the awful moment.

Of course, laptop tapping might just be email, or text messaging, or solitaire, in which case it’s a little different from the old days, when reading the newspaper in class was a dead giveaway.

All in all, the best solution is to refuse to hold forth in class, saving your information/data/wisdom for print, preferably online, and to use the precious classtime to make students work at solving problems together — that is, things that can’t be done online or from a book.

I hope Professor Entman has tenure.


  1. I’m with the student who wants to keep the laptop. Before the laptop, I was already a prodigious note-taker. You see, I learn in a number of different ways but especially by writing something down. If I don’t take notes, the words are gone as is often the meaning. I may never look at my notes once having taken them, but that is how I learn. I am thinking about what I am writing, and I am quite often paraphrasing what I hear which requires some thought process along the way.

    And while I rarely transcribed my handrwitten notes, if I type them in originally, I can do a wide range of things with them.

    At the office I once had a lawyer ask me to “put away Connie’s doomsday book” and listen to him, eye to eye. After he explained what he needed, I had to ask him to repeat everything so I could get it down into my notes since I had already lost some of the details necessary to do the research he requested. Woe is me the day I don’t have pen and paper close at hand!

    Two advantages of the keyboard: I can type faster than I write, and I can look up and watch the speaker most of the time. I try to make a point of catching the speaker’s eye now and then if I am close enough so I can show I am really listening. Couldn’t do that so well when I was scrambling to take my handwritten notes.


  2. Understood, Connie. People learn in different ways, and kinesthetic learning is a common one. I make copious summaries that I never looked at but kept for many years after I graduated, so I know what you’re talking about. I suppose what used to bother me was conspiracy, of which I as a teacher was too often a part, to turn the course into an exercise in comparative stenography. If the prof is saying something that can be written down more or less as it’s given, then I think things are probably going wrong; retailed knowledge should be written (or spoken onto a disk or videoed) and given away without errors of transcription. The precious time when everyone is gathered should not be wasted with too much one-sided talking, but should be put to use in more creative active learning — of all kinds, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

  3. Yes, that makes sense. The sessions I really remember are the ones where I had to participate by moving around the room, contributing discussion and the like. Which is why I would much rather be at a session “live” than watching it via a feed.

  4. No slight intended Connie, but the doomsday book line is a classic! :)

    This debate is currently raging here at Dal. My response to the professor who is upset about students not paying attention in class is to make your classes more interesting so that they will pay attention (as you might imagine, that doesn’t always receive a favourable response). As has been noted, over time students have used whatever technology was available, be it chalk, pens or PDA’, to otherwise occupy themselves in class. But I think Simon hit the essential point, if the class is oriented so that they are able to act as stenographers then something is wrong to begin with. I believe that the trick is to seize control of their desktop by taking advantage of the possibilities of delivering information to the students via their laptop in the class. Then they would not be as able to chat, play solitaire, read the online globe and mail or surf the web while someone is yammering away at the front of the class.

    WWSD: What Would Socrates Do with present day technology?

  5. We had this debate about laptops last year at UVic – the faculty was considering a laptop policy, and we looked at a number of institutions that do this, but in the end decided against this and left it up to the individual instructor to deal with this in the classroom, although left it open to ban them in seminars when participation is important. So far we haven’t had many problems, although the use of laptops or even recording devices to record everything the instructor is saying is hard to understanding. I acknowledge Connie’s point, but think Mark is closer to the target – most instructors here put their notes on the course webpage before the class, and the goal of the class is to get the students to listen and particpate. So, in a way it is a contradiciton – because of technology, legal education is moving away from note taking, lectures, and one big exam, to a variety of delivery and evaluate methods, yet the use of the technology is running counter to this.

    I don’t think Socrates would use present day technology (at least not the classical Socrates, as opposed to the Socrates in “Bill and Ted’s excellent Adverture”). The best form of education still comes human interaction. Indeed, the Bricks n. Bytes conference that Nick and I attended last week, was to a large extent about designing space to encourage this kind of interaction in law schools.