…is what Debra Cassens Weiss would’ve titled her ABA Journal post instead of, “Are Laptops Too Tempting? Most 2Ls and 3Ls Doodle for More Than Half the Class, Study Finds,” had she total workplace autonomy and a ribald sense of humor. Her post reminds me of one of my favorite Kids in the Hall sketches in which Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald play “greys” who abduct humans and anally probe them because their distant alien leaders will it.
Why is this relevant? Read on.
Consider St. John’s School of Law professor Jeff Sovern’s study of laptop use in law school, “Law Student Laptop Use During Class for Non-Class Purposes: Temptation v. Incentives.” As we should expect, Professor Sovern determines that students with laptops don’t pay a whole lot of attention in their classes. He concludes that laptops should be banned in upper level courses because students realize that their job prospects are less tied to their grades than when they were 1Ls. (2)
As always with law professors wishing to declare laptops in class odious to legal education, we’re required to assume the following argument is valid without question:
Laptops distract students from otherwise necessary classes. If you take away the laptops, students will focus more on the lecture and get more out of class.
Recognize, though, that we’re not talking about student performance—just whether the students are distracted. They could very well be getting the same grades had they not shown up at all, provided they’re evaluated on a term paper or final exam. Sovern notes that conundrum yet elects against pursuing it.
“St. John’s has an attendance policy…Consequently, students who are unwilling to miss class but who are not interested in paying attention may show up and surf the web, thus inflating the level of distraction when compared with other schools where uninterested students may simply skip class.” (5)
The “whys” here are important, so let’s follow them:
Why are students watching Kids in the Hall YouTubes in class?
Because they’re bored.
Why are they bored?
Because they have no incentive to pay attention.
Why do they have no incentive to pay attention?
Because by their 2L years—to say nothing of their 3L years—employers no longer care about them because they weren’t top5%mootcourtlawreviewrequired after their first semesters, but the school requires them to show up anyway.
What should we do about it?
Ban the laptops.
It’s unfortunate that Sovern adopts a rational choice approach to the laptop problem yet still impliedly condescends to law students as though “adults” wouldn’t behave similarly, e.g., “Allowing students to have laptops is like placing beer in front of alcoholics.” (22). True, law students are rational, but not because they’re lazy, gluttonous millennials following the path of least resistance by reading the AV Club’s “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?” series instead of pondering Dillon’s Rule vs. the Cooley Doctrine, which, incidentally, is relevant to those concerned about the constitutionality of Midwestern state governments taking over financially distressed municipalities, purging their elected officials, laying off their workers, canceling their union contracts, and then terminating their services. Rather, law students are rational because their classes are formalities. Such is the bizarreness of the law school tuition bubble. With the DotCom bubble, buying tech stocks didn’t take three years; with the housing bubble, homeowners enjoyed living in Las Vegas McMansions before tearing out the copper pipes and selling them for cash the week before their evictions. With law school, students borrow money to sit in classes employers don’t care about, unless they rally academically in their 2L and 3L years.
Law professors wedded to rat choice theory are stuck with two solutions to the bored student: either become an engaging lecturer (which worked with my local government law adjunct) or alter the incentive structure of law classes. The Scylla: learning to teach when one lacks the energy or dramatic flair; the Charybdis: changing how students are evaluated, i.e. more Socratic method, quizzes and papers, which require more grading and takes effort. Is there no other option, Odysseus? Sovern shies away:
“This study has found that many students are significantly distracted in law school classes. If educators required upper-year survey classes to meet the 85% attention threshold established by the creators of Sesame Street, the upper-year classes studied in this paper would have been cancelled.” (23)
“Resisting the temptation” of the goldmine comparison between legal education and the Children’s Television Workshop, why NOT simply cancel the classes? I return you to our Canadian comedians:
Alien McDonald: “Do you have a better plan than our great leaders?”
Alien Foley: “Yes I do. I do have a better plan. My plan is that we don’t travel 250,000 light years, we don’t abduct any humans, and this is the best part: We don’t do any anal probing.”
Alien McDonald: “Oh, great plan! Do you realize how many people Intergalactic Anal Probing employs??”
Let’s contextualize the dialogue:
Rat choice prof: “Do you have a better plan than the ABA?”
LSTB: “Yes I do. I do have a better plan. My plan is that we don’t require students to sit through 45,000 minutes of classroom instruction, we don’t force them to show up because of mandatory attendance policies, and here’s the best part: we don’t charge them excessive tuition for doing so.”
Rat choice prof: “Oh, great plan! Do you realize how many people law schools employ??”
LSTB: “Thousands, but if they can’t do a better job than apprenticeship programs and distance learning, then they should be eliminated.”
Rat choice prof: “Commence anal probing!!”
LSTB, upending the table: “CRAP!”
Rat choice prof: “My minions! Stop him from reaching the escape pods!”
LSTB, firing as he flees: “Eat laser, you damn dirty greys!”
**Sound of escape pod releasing**
Let’s replace the typical law professor’s anti-laptop argument with what’s really happening:
Students allow laptops to distract them in class because they realize the marginal benefit of rapt attention is too small to impact their employment prospects. Without laptops, they would find other ways to entertain themselves through 45,000 minutes of ABA-mandated classroom instruction. The LSTB recommends doodling.