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August 28, 2008

Scholarship and Wilderness


Legal scholarship, at its best, is a creative endeavor.  Even when the writing is largely technical, the best articles and books are based on big, strong, creative ideas.  The best writers, of course, are those who have those ideas-- whose creativity causes us to challenge the way we think, whether it is about the very idea of law or the contours of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 16.

If that essence of art is at the core of what we do, we have a built-in advantage over some of those in other fields.  For most of us, our schedules can accomodate time in which we can leave work behind, escape the day-to-day deluge of student questions, emails from colleagues, and the rigors of a syllabus.  As a practicing lawyer, this was not the case-- I was tethered to work always, even if only by the strong leash of the telephone. 

For many of us, I suspect that good scholarship is linked to these "fallow" periods, when we can have the clarity of mind to think of a big idea or quietly contemplate the way a part of the world, however small, might be.

I know that to others in the legal profession, the fact that we have the "summer off" of classes may seem like an unearned luxury.  Perhaps that is true.  I also think, though, that there is a link between that true change of season and the ability to return to work with what the academy, at its best, offers to the world-- ideas, challenge, and a broader view of an issue born of contemplation and insight.

-- Mark Osler

August 28, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 25, 2008

Shouldn't we just grade class participation rather than ban laptops?

Through this new post at his home blog, Eugene Volokh continues a thoughtful discussion of his new experimental one-laptop policy (details here).  I found this account of his goals helpful and interesting:

In my view, the main impetus for the non-laptop policies has not been paternalism towards students who choose to tune out....  Rather, the concern is about the impact of laptops on others — both (1) the distraction to other students when someone is surfing the Web or (even if Internet access is turned off) is playing solitaire, and, probably more importantly, (2) the perceived decrease in class discussion stemming from laptop use, and the hoped-for increase in the number of participants and the quality of participation when people stop using the laptops.

Now I'm not sure whether class discussion improves as a result of no-laptop policies. I've heard favorable reports from others, but the reason I'm calling this an experiment is precisely because I don't know for sure whether the results will be positive (though I've heard enough to suggest that the results are unlikely to be highly negative).  But ... we're trying to improve class discussion, a discussion through which each student's participation benefits the other students as well as the participant.

Among many notable comments is this one making a provocative (and accurate?) assertion about what law students really care about:

Most law students, I think, would say that their priorities are (in this order): (a) receiving their degree, preferably backed by good grades and awards; (b) maintaining a personal life that is not tied to school; and (c) engaging in intellectual conversation in a limited set of courses.  But even for those students who enjoy the intellectual side, surely most only enjoy it in certain select courses, and not in every class they are required (or choose) to take.

These thoughts lead me back to an idea I have long supported: making class participation an integral and significant part of law school grading systems.  Laptops or no laptops, I think students would be very involved in (and very prepared for) class discussion if they were certain that, say, 35% of their final grade was directly impacted by their classroom performance.  (Moreover, since an ability to talk about legal ideas effectively when placed on the spot is more relevant to most legal jobs than an ability to write a quick answer to a contrived essay question, having grades turn significantly on in-class performance makes some sense when grades are largely designed to be a signal to the legal marketplace.)

I know there are various reasons why grading in-class might not produce the ideal classroom environment.  But if improved class discussion is what Eugene and others are seeking, wouldn't it make a lot more sense just to give students a direct and tangible incentive to improve class discussion rather than to ban classroom use of a particular technology?

Some recent related posts:

Posted by DAB

August 25, 2008 in Technology -- in the classroom | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack