Pens and Laptops

The never-ending quest for efficiency

I like fountain pens. I own four of them (although I’ve never been able to spend more than $150 on one, so I hardly count as a collector). They are my preferred device for writing by hand because they write smoothly and consistently until the moment they run out. When I was in law school, I took notes (in some classes) with a fountain pen in large Moleskine or Levenger notebooks. It doesn’t get much more fetishistic than that. Yet I spend the vast majority of my working life typing on a computer keyboard. That’s how I describe my job to my daughter: I talk on the phone and I type on a computer.

The war between pens and keyboards sprawls over a number of different fronts. One is the classroom. With the school year beginning, it’s time to debate whether to allow laptops in class or not. When I was in law school, from 2008 to 2011, only around one professor in ten banned laptops, but the proportion has been climbing slowly. (I was in college so long ago that laptops basically didn’t exist.) When I got a job as a professor in my last year of law school, I decided that I would not allow laptops in my classes, for the usual reasons. First, students know they shouldn’t be surfing the Internet during class, but they can’t help it, so banning laptops is a simple way of helping them do what they want to do anyway. Second, taking notes by hand forces you to synthesize as you listen, which improves your ability to learn the material, rather than trying to transcribe everything the professor says.

When I started teaching, however, I changed my mind and let the students decide whether to use laptops. (Something like 90 percent do.) One reason was an empirical study (can’t find the link now) showing that using laptops in class actually improves student performance. Another was that legal casebooks are expensive, and I didn’t want to force students who chose an online option (legal or illegal) to have to print out their readings before class. The most important reason was simply that I decided that my students were adults and they could decide if they had better things to do than pay attention in class. There were certainly days in my law school career when I spent class time writing articles or blog posts rather than taking notes.

Last week, Clay Shirky wrote one of the most comprehensive arguments against laptops in class that I’ve seen, focusing largely on the downsides of attempted multi-tasking and the inability of most people to resist constant bombardment by the Internet. In particular, he points out that laptop users hurt the performance of students around them because of a sort of contagiousness of inattention. It’s pretty convincing, and when I go back to teaching (I’m on unpaid leave this semester to do other things), I may reconsider.

In general, though, using pen and paper doesn’t actually make you any smarter. Many times I have taken out a fountain pen and a notebook on a plane and tried to write something interesting and significant — and found that it just doesn’t work. For all the delightful physicality of writing with a good pen on good paper, I just can’t write fast enough. This is a phenomenon that Clive Thompson discusses in an article called “The Joy of Typing.” It’s true that, even at my fastest, I can only compose new material at about fifteen words per minute. But the ability to type 115 words per minute (according to the test Thompson links to, although I can only do that when transcribing) means that when I have a complete thought, I can get it down without even thinking. (Then there’s the editing problem, for which pen and paper offer no good solution.) Despite my nostalgia for writing by hand in notebooks, there’s nothing like a computer keyboard when you’re feeling inspired.*

A lot of what I do is writing, whether it’s teaching notes, blog posts, or work emails. As I get older, I’ve found that nothing is as important as focus, which means not thinking about anything extraneous — including the tools I’m using. That’s one of the things I like about Medium, especially in full-screen mode. A nice pen intrudes on the experience in the way that a completely bland, utilitarian keyboard and screen don’t. The challenge with using a computer, of course, is all the other things you can do with a it. The mere existence of the computer is a constant invitation to do something else, like watch the Madrid derby from the past weekend or categorize the last four hundred photos you took. Sure there are tools that will help you control your Internet addiction, but the work I do often requires constantly looking up information on the Internet. The problem is that the most powerful writing tool that exists comes with its own built-in productivity drain.

There are a few things I do to try to block out the most common sources of interruptions — all of which involve disabling some of the features that supposedly make life so convenient. I try not to check email too far outside of work hours. I use three different email clients so I can check one kind of email without being distracted by the other two. Then I found I was being tempted by the Android app badges that told me how many unread emails I had in each account, so I turned off the badges themselves (find the Badger process and disable it). I don’t use airplane wifi unless absolutely necessary. I use Facebook as little as possible and rarely use Twitter.

I know these are all not particularly effective half-measures. It does seem like there has to be a better way to combine the immediate information availability of the Internet — the greatest research tool of all time — with the calm of a blank sheet of paper and the fluidity of a computer keyboard. But I haven’t found it.

* Unlike Thompson, though, I don’t really care which computer keyboard, as long as it has real keys (i.e., not a flat glass screen). I’m writing this at a 13" MacBook Pro (and I’ve never really liked MacBook keyboards), but I also have an 11.6" Samsung Chromebook 2, and I don’t really care about key depth or even the overall spacing of the keyboard.

Photo credit: Toshiyuki IMAI

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