Is attention personal or professional?

A law professor’s New York Times op-ed, “Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom,” prompted lots of discussion on blogs and Twitter. Should law students be told and required to close their screens and (to the extent this is even possible) pay attention in class?  Or should they have the freedom to decide whether to engage in behavior that may (or may not) hurt their learning, disrespect classmates, and create a distraction?

I think a hard question here is this:

Is attention personal or professional?

 

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Flickr/UTC Library/CC by 2.0

 

If attention is personal, then the student should have the freedom to decide whether and how to use a laptop. It’s the culture of American education to wax nostalgic about daydreaming, note-writing, talking to one’s neighbor.  The teacher takes countermeasures, seizing notes and flashing the light switch on and off. But there’s something heroic about the student’s personal quest for autonomy and freedom to think and stage whisper about . . . whatever. And even more so in law school, which is a professional school for grownups who (opponents to Rosenblum’s position argue) should be able to make the decision when and how to pay attention, and when and how to take notes.

If attention is professional, then law professors have a better argument on laptops. What is a law school? I googled this question and came up with a law review conveniently titled the same, by Prof. Stephen Wizner of Yale. Granted it’s from 1989, but this still seems like a decent answer for today:

What is a law school? That is a question that ought to have a fairly straightforward answer: a law school is a professional school for the education and training of lawyers. If we know what lawyers do – or ought to do – we should be able to design a curriculum that will prepare law students to carry out that professional role in a competent, ethical, socially responsible manner.

Paying attention is part of being competent and ethical. And, I would argue, seeming to pay attention is also part of being competent—or at least part of being able to attract and retain jobs and clients. Judicial ethics rules officially sanction “the appearance of impropriety.” On a far more unofficial level and a far more pervasive scale, potential employers and clients sanction “the appearance of inattention.” They don’t give jobs to candidates who don’t seem to be listening and paying attention in an interview. They don’t return more work to an associate who doesn’t seem to be listening and paying attention when meeting with a partner. And they don’t give their legal business to lawyers and law firms who don’t seem to be listening and paying attention in a “dog and pony” show to demonstrate their desire and ability to take on a new case.

This connection of the law school classroom to what lawyers actually do is part of Professor Rosenblum’s argument for banning laptops:

Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and as professionals: listening and communicating. We must listen with care, which requires patience, focus, eye contact and managing moments of ennui productively — perhaps by double-checking one’s notes instead of a friend’s latest Instagram. Multitasking and the mediation of screens kill empathy.

Likewise, we must communicate — in writing or in speech — with clarity and precision. The student who speaks in class learns to convey his or her points effectively because everyone else is listening. Classmates will respond with their accord or dissent. Lawyers can acquire hallmark precision only through repeated exercises of concentration. It does happen on occasion that a client loses millions of dollars over a misplaced comma or period.

The importance of these skills leads him to the following conclusion:

My students need to learn how to be lawyers and professionals. To succeed they must internalize an ethos of caution, care and respect. To instill these values and skills in my students, I have no choice but to limit laptop use in the classroom.

The reaction of the legal and broader education communities varied quite a bit, from cheers to jeers. Personally I haven’t banned laptops. I like being able to ask people to quickly look something up as part of their interaction with my writing class, and I share materials on my course site that students can download and take notes on. This is a writing class—not a pretrial lit class with interviewing skills—so listening and paying attention are an implied but not explicit part of the class goals. If I were teaching an interviewing class, listening and paying attention and not looking at a screen would be very open and transparent parts of the evaluation and grade. But I’m not, and neither is Prof. Rosenblum as best I can understand. (He mentions a stilted, unproductive discussion in his class on sexuality and the law as the catalyst for his decision to ban laptops.)

So one way to ask the question is, how much does a professor assume the responsibility of teaching and valuing soft skills relevant to students’ professional success? This is both a question of traditional professorial autonomy and preference (how much does each professor actually want to do so) and of institutional decisions (should soft skills be pervasively taught and modeled; or cabined within certain dedicated classes and domains)? For example, a career services adviser should certainly be giving a student feedback on focus and perceived attention level during a mock interview. And any student who gets distracted by a smartphone in the midst of interviewing a simulated client—or heaven forbid, a real client—should be given a bad grade.

It’s perhaps ironic for a listening blogger that my decision arguably diminishes the value of listening in my own classroom. I don’t think—I know—that paying attention and listening will help students get jobs, get better assignments, and get clients. And paying attention and listening will help them do their jobs, exceed expectations on individual assignments, and lead clients to want to give them more work. I guess I want them to have the freedom to take notes and encounter the world of information necessary for my class using their laptops—while also developing the mental agility and personal willpower to appropriately switch back and forth from computer use to personal listening. Those who can do this are more likely to thrive professionally, and those who cannot are more likely to . . . not thrive.

So there is no clean answer and thus no single approach. Attention is both personal and professional. How law professors teach and train new lawyers will continue to hover delicately over that line.

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