After a Year of Teaching
Yesterday began the last week of my first year of teaching. I taught Civil Procedure and Criminal Procedure as a Visiting Assistant Professor, so a colleague dubbed me the “Pro Prof.” There is still so much more to understand about becoming a challenging, inspiring, and effective professor, but I doubt I’ll learn in any other year the amount I learned in these two semesters. So, for the purpose of comparing notes with other professors, here are a few reflections accumulated after a thoroughly enjoyable year of professing.
1. Teaching is about balance. It’s necessary to find the optimal balance of informality (students tend to participate more and have more fun in a relaxed learning environment) with authority. There’s a balance of writing out notes but not wedding yourself to them. I also had to balance making deliberate choices about the kind of professor I wanted to be (modeling humbly after my law school professors) with the inevitable facts about who I am. When you speak for 1.5 hours in front of a classroom, your actual personality inevitably emerges. It turns out, I’ll never be as tough as Professor Kingsfield, but I can force myself to look disapproving if a student’s cell phone accidentally rings during class, and I can challenge students through my fervent, yet compassionate, Socratic questioning.
2. What excites the students will surprise you. It takes a few weeks with a new class to learn which types of questions, and which ways of phrasing/posing questions, will promote the best classroom discussions. Just because I am interested in the theories behind each rule of Civil Procedure doesn’t mean my students wouldn’t rather discuss whether a plaintiff can aggregate the claims of conjoined twins to meet the amount in controversy (this was an actual hypothetical a student posed in my class). That said, don’t give up on trying to get the students to come around to what excites you about the law.
3. Maintaining neutrality is difficult. My pedagogical philosophy is that professors shouldn’t impose too much of their own biases onto the material. I try to create an environment where students feel at ease expressing all manner of viewpoints. Of course, it’s impossible to completely mask one’s displeasure with certain majority opinions in Criminal Procedure. Plus, after discussing the material with other Civil Procedure professors, I learned that my approach to the law and interpretation of the cases is also a personal (albeit more abstract) viewpoint that is ultimately imparted on the class. I had high aspirations for neutrality, and still do, but part of teaching is influencing students’ approach to the law.
4. The timing will work out. When I first started teaching, I worried that the material wouldn’t cover the entire class period, or that there was too much material. This is no longer as much of a worry, but I always think of an extra problem or exercise for the class if the reading is a bit light.
5. Students want to laugh. They want to participate. The material is inherently interesting. Prepare and you will be rewarded. (That photo is me dressing up as Rule 26, Discovery, for Halloween. The light bulb is a pun that the students immediately appreciated.)