Brianna MacDonald

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My thoughts and feelings about CyberOne, my project, my peers, and myself went through quite an evolution over the course of the semester. In spite of some bumps along the way – or perhaps because of them – I find myself looking back on the course with a great deal of satisfaction and with optimism for the future.

When I signed up for the course, I assumed it would be a little “different,” given Professor Nesson’s reputation for displaying a rather unique approach to his classes. But I was not prepared for just how different this course would be from anything else I had experienced at Harvard Law School. The camera crew and equipment were the first tips, but Professor Nesson’s opening remarks were even more revelatory. Contrary to my expectations, it appeared this would not be a course devoted to learning how to apply traditional laws to cyberspace. My ears perked up the minute I heard the words “empathic argument.” Having taken the Negotiation Workshop last winter, I immediately connected with and bought into the idea of the importance of empathic argument, though I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about how this would all connect up with the “cyber” part of the course. Nonetheless, I decided to roll up my sleeves and dive right in.

My first experience at attempting to marshal the power of cyberspace for a noble purpose fell crushingly flat. The Pass/Fail Project seemed like such a slam dunk – the class seemed genuinely interested in it and, most importantly (or so I thought), we had the teacher’s support. So it came as a complete shock when the small band of us that had put time and energy into trying to get the project off the ground were unable to generate more than a modicum of support and interest among our classmates. I simply could not understand why a majority of the class wouldn’t even just sign the petition. I felt deflated, defeated, disenchanted…and so I simply disconnected. Mounting anxiety about a grading process that seemed extremely unclear and amorphous didn’t help my mood. I sat back, crossed my arms, and felt decidedly sour and surly for the next couple of weeks until I was forced to re-engage by coming up with a new project of my own.

Luckily, the process of working through my ideas and fleshing out my project brought me back in touch with my sense of optimism about cyberspace and empathic argument. Though the lectures seemed to be drifting around a bit and losing focus, the fact that we had to buckle down and actually turn in some work-product helped to ground me during my time outside of class. It was actually incredibly helpful that we did our project in stages and were asked to start experimenting with empathy and cyberspace fairly early in the course. This is not to say I had an easy time with it, but I believe the growing pains I experienced in developing my project were an incredibly important part of the process.

After struggling to come up with a topic for almost two weeks, I finally settled on something that had been eating at me since the beginning of 1L year – namely, the use and abuse of laptops in the classroom. I actually didn’t have any trouble whatsoever explaining all the arguments on both sides of the debate; the hard part turned out to be sticking to my original belief that we should ban the internet, and perhaps even ban laptops entirely. It wasn’t just the process of writing out the arguments of the other side that was making it hard for me. It was also the fact that CyberOne was a perfect illustration of just how useful, educational, and beneficial technology in the classroom could be if integrated thoughtfully into the educational space. It just felt so wrong to use a project developed in a course that so completely embraced technology in order to argue against technology. Instead, I am now committed to the idea that this binary way of looking at the issue should give way to a dialogue and a push for teachers to choose how they do or do not use technology in a more purposeful manner. Ultimately, my new position on the issue feels so much more satisfying thanks to a learning process I didn’t even realize was occurring at the outset. Formulating my new position was only the first hurdle, however. I noticed an interesting tension while watching students presenting their arguments and fielding questions from the class and Professor Nesson. It struck me that there are important differences in how you need to tailor an argument when you’re one-on-one and face-to-face with your opponent compared to when you’re trying to construct an argument in a cybermedium directed at a large audience of people who may each have a slightly different take on the issue. Our discussions of individual projects were useful for pushing each other to develop strong arguments and empathy, but I was disappointed that we didn’t spend more time talking more pragmatically about the way best way to communicate and frame those arguments for their external audiences. As a result, this was something that gave me a lot of trouble in my own project. After learning the importance of empathy in Negotiation Workshop – and developing my skills further through CyberOne – I felt confident that I could make a persuasive argument for my position to anyone who gave me 10 minutes of their time, but I just wasn’t sure how to translate those skills into this new medium and audience. Even though my final project didn’t ultimately require me to do this, I’m still not satisfied that the class addressed this as well as it could have.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the class and my project was the extent of Professor Nesson’s openness and collaborative spirit. I felt like we engaged in a real two-way dialogue over the course of our discussions on my Laptops in the Classroom Project; I believe we taught each other a great deal and that the power of our argument has more strength and persuasive potential as a result. Professor Nesson’s willingness to listen to alternative forms for expressing my final project was also a huge relief. One very important thing I learned in working on my project is that confining one’s imagination in any way – even to cybermedia that allow for expansive and varied forms of expression – can limit and inhibit the power of your argument. We should always be wary of thinking ourselves outside of one box and into another.

In our last class, Professor Nesson described his sense that we weren’t ending the class, but rather were just beginning to embark. That thought really resonated with me, partly because my project will only really begin to gather steam in January, partly because I hope to continue working with Professor Nesson to bring our argument to the faculty and student body, and partly because participating in this course has given me a sense of empowerment. Literally hearing the powerful voices of my peers – in class and especially in their podcasts – revealed the passion and personality that seems to get so easily lost in law school. Even if many of these projects go no further, just feeling the strength of our individual and collective power suggests to me that we have tapped into a stream of potential that we might otherwise never have realized was there.

My podcast