PROFESSORS VIE WITH WEB for class’s attention. We have what’s claimed to be the biggest wireless network anywhere — it covers our whole campus, indoors and out, and all of the classrooms. I’m sure that we get this, too. I don’t worry about it much. Students who don’t pay attention in class are likely to do badly on the exam. That’s their problem, not mine.
I also tend to wander around the room a lot (I’m one of those don’t-stay-behind-the-lectern professors), which may discourage some of that behavior. And I tend to call on the students who don’t seem engaged. But I don’t make any particular effort to ensure that students aren’t surfing or IM-ing or whatever. They’re grownups. If they’re willing to risk their grades, and to look dumb when they’re called on, well, I’m willing for them to do that too.
Finally, students—especially first-year students—should not underestimate the impact that failure to pay attention in class may ultimately have. I’m now in my seventh year of teaching, and I’ve noticed that over time student comprehension of material covered in class has declined as laptop use has increased. In particular, the results of last year’s exams showed that large numbers of students failed to grasp and retain points that I emphasized in class. Time after time, students memorized the so-called black letter law but failed to understand any of the subtleties of application. It’s those subtleties that make up much of the practice of law, and it’s those subtleties that provide fodder for classroom discussion. It’s possible, to be sure, that I’ve become a worse teacher, although I like to think that’s unlikely, given that both my command of the material and my comfort in front of the class have improved dramatically over time. More likely, I think, is that students simply aren’t paying attention as they used to—and they’re paying a price.
I’m not sure I’ve noticed such a steady decline — and at any rate, it may be related to many years of good job prospects even for students not at the top of their classes — but he’s right about overreliance on black-letter law. One side-effect of computers, in and out of class, is that they tend to discourage focus and encourage flitting around. I think that law students need focus when they study.