Photography by John Russell
Developing the curriculum for his class, Law as a Business, reminded James H. (Jim) Cheek ’67 exactly how dramatically law practice has changed since he started his career in 1970. “We had no copy machines or computers,” he recalled. “We used typewriters and carbon paper.”
Cheek last taught at Vanderbilt from 1968 to 1970, when overhead projectors were cutting-edge technology. When he returned to teaching part-time in 2013, one major goal was to help his students connect the best elements of traditional law practice with today’s rapidly evolving technology- and profit-driven legal practice models. “It’s essential to do a good job of managing the practical side of running the ‘business’ of a legal practice without losing the essence of what has historically made the practice of law a ‘profession,’” Cheek said.
But for all the changes that have taken place over the past five decades, Cheek would still feel at home as a student at VLS today. The essence of a Vanderbilt Law education remains unchanged even as technology helps transform the classroom.
Rebecca Allensworth, associate professor of law, is one of several Vanderbilt Law professors who prohibit laptops in first-year classes. Allenworth’s decision harks back to her first year of law school, when laptops were prohibited in two of her first three classes. “I noticed a big difference in how much I got out of the two classes where laptops weren’t allowed,” she said. “Students were much more engaged, and I learned a lot more from other students and from the professors.” When she began teaching Contracts and Antitrust Law at Vanderbilt in 2012, Allensworth was pleased to learn that several colleagues asked students not to bring laptops to class.
Allensworth’s rigorous use of the Socratic method—“I try to call on each student at least once every time the class meets”—also makes devices a dangerous distraction. “Phones and laptops form a barrier between you and everyone else,” she said. “You should come to every class ready to learn as much from the other students as you do from me.”
Sean Seymore, professor of law and 2015–16 FedEx Research Professor, also stopped bringing his laptop to classes early in his first year of law school. “I found I preferred to take notes by hand and stay engaged in the discussion,” he recalled. He and Tracey George, the Charles B. Cox III and Lucy D. Cox Family Professor of Law and Liberty, began prohibiting laptops in their first-year classes after realizing “they were a distraction, and students were not synthesizing the material we discussed,” he said. “Instead of actively listening and participating, they just typed everything.”
Technology as a Tool
Although Professor Ed Cheng, who holds the Tarkington Chair in Teaching Excellence, allows his students to choose whether to bring laptops to class, he said he personally never used one himself to take notes in school despite his interest in technology. “My position,” he said, “is that students learn in their own ways, so it’s up to them to decide.”
Cheng uses a smartphone app in his Torts and Evidence classes to pose hypotheticals and assess his students’ grasp of the material he’s already covered. “Every lawyer knows that hard legal questions are not amenable to multiple choice,” he said. “But you can pose questions everyone should get right so students get immediate feedback. I also use complicated open-ended questions, where there’s no right answer, to draw the whole class into the discussion.” He touts the questionnaire app as an efficient way to deliver essential feedback without embarrassing individual students. “If 95 percent of the class got the answer right and you didn’t, you now know the right answer,” he said.