Category: Teaching


Constructive Feedback for Writing and Maybe Living

Writing well requires attention to style and execution, but it also requires interaction. John Gardner’s works on writing explains his views on temperament and talent. In On Becoming A Novelist he also addresses training and education. What he says about writers workshops applies for classrooms, conferences, and more:

In a bad workshop, the teacher allows or even encourages attack. … In a good workshop, the teacher establishes a general atmosphere of helpfulness rather than competitiveness or viciousness. Classmates of the writer of the writer whose work has been read do not begin, if the workshop is well run, by stating how they would have written the story, or by expressing their blind prejudices on what is or is not seemly; in other words, they do not begin by making up some different story or demanding a different style. They try to understand and appreciate the story as it has been written. They assume, even if they secretly doubt it, that the story was carefully and intelligently constructed and that its oddities have some justification. If they cannot understand why the story is as it is, they ask questions. … It takes confidence and good will to say, “I didn’t understand so-and-so,” rather than belligerently, “So-and-so makes no sense.” It is in the nature of stupid people to hide their perplexity and attack what they cannot grasp. The wise admit their puzzlement (no prizes are given in heaven for fake infallibility)… John Gardner, On Becoming A Novelist, p. 81

This attitude reminds me of my introduction to rhetoric class. We had to re-state what the author said for our first essay. We lost points for doing anything more. Saying “I think…” was not allowed. We were not ready to have an opinion. As Philippe Nonet used to say, “That you think it does not matter. Only what you show matters.” Tough advice. But good. He also said we have to let the idea present itself. We have to let it be.

A good workshop is a place where we let the writing be. Take it at face value and root around to see what is being said. Some will be good, some bad, some confusing. We will not agree with all that is said. But as Garder says, if we admit our puzzlement and share well, the writer may see how to improve or explain what was missed. Then all will have learned and constructed a new way forward. I think this approach applies to much more than writing, but leave that for another time.


Aspirations to Write Better

Yes, more from Hemingway. I am reading others as well and may share from those if so moved. For now I will say that few have what he describes here. I will say it can be developed. And I will say I am most grateful to two people who have read my work, shredded it, but did so with love. Love here was the willingness to take the work on its terms and dig and hack and purge. That is why I think the skill can be learned or rediscovered if lost. I will not name them here. I have told them. Anything else is gossip and name-dropping. That would be unseemly and share a personal moment that is for them and me. Still, I thank them. And now for the quote:

A writer without a sense of justice and of injustice would be better off editing the yearbook of a school for exceptional children than writing novels. Another generalization. You see; they are not so difficult when they are sufficiently obvious. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction, No. 21, Paris Review


Continuous Assessment

Thanks so much to the Concurring Opinions gang for having me back for another guest blogging stint. My semester has ended, so let the blogging begin!

Except … even though I have not received my students’ exams from the registrar yet, I am grading. Why?  Because I assigned group projects during the semester and have not completed marking the last one. This raises an uncomfortable question for me: have I done the students any good by giving them a graded assignment during the semester if they don’t receive feedback on it until they are on the cusp of taking the final exam?

That really depends on the reasons for requiring “grading events” such as group projects, short papers, quizzes, midterms, or oral presentations during the semester. Like many of my colleagues, I have increasingly moved away from the traditional law school model that based the entire course grade on a high-stakes final examination, perhaps with some small adjustment for class participation. It seems clear to me that this is a good decision — even though it has meant a lot more grading (every professor’s least favorite task) and even though the institutional incentives for law faculty don’t really encourage or assist us to do depart from the tradition of the all-or-nothing final exam.

But I have to confess that my views of the reasons for continuing assessment are unsettled and even a little muddled. Here are the main candidates in my mind:

  • Earlier graded events give students feedback about their understanding of the material and performance in the course while there is still time to correct it.
  • Basing the course grade on more than one event reduces the “fluke factor” of a student who is ill or overtired or just not in top form the day of the final exam.
  • The events themselves — say, a group project — serve valuable pedagogical goals and making them part of the grade ensures that students will take them seriously.
  • Educational research shows that students learn more effectively if they synthesize knowledge as they go along rather than just doing a big outline at the end of the course, and graded events spur them to synthesize earlier.
  • Basing the grade on different types of exercises rewards varied abilities beyond the particular (and slightly bizarre) skill set that excels at law school issue spotter exams.


Only the first of these requires me to return students’ grades sooner than I’ve managed to do for this group project. Of course, I am saying this partly to assuage my guilt over my own tardiness. But I also wonder how well we articulate the reasons for continuous assessment to our students — or even, frankly, to ourselves. I have now more carefully engaged in the sort of reflection about these goals that I should have gone through before the semester started. Now I know for next time that my answer is: all of the above.

Uh oh. I better get back to grading those group projects right now.


Ed de Grazia, RIP

RIP to Ed de Grazia, my 1L Criminal Law teacher and later colleague at Cardozo for a decade,  who passed away at the age of 86.  As the NYT puts it today, Ed was a “fierce civil libertarian.”

Landmarks of his outstanding career as a lawyer who opposed government censorship include his 1964 SCOTUS victory on behalf of the publisher of Henry Miller’s sexually explicit book Tropic of Cancer.  Ed’s own 1994 book, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, was a stirring defense of artistic freedom against state power.

Ed, who spent most of his career at Cardozo with shorter stints at Catholic, Connecticut, Georgetown and Yale, was an impressive teacher.  He presented material and led students through discussion with total objectivity, with no assumptions  or pre-judgments.

He insisted that we students explain why any given alleged behavior violated a particular criminal law.  That went as much for arson, burglary, and homicide as it did for cannibalism, incest and necrophilia.  Ed’s method was demanding, leading a class that sharpened legal minds.  He also taught a special seminar as part of Cardozo’s prosecutor internship program where his pedagogy and philosophy instilled a deep sense of obligation to think and explain rather than blindly pursue and enforce.

Ed was also a passionate proponent of privacy before the modern era developed such an intense interest in the topic.  For example, as the NYT notes today, Ed argued that newspapers had no business reporting on the romances of political figures, such as Gary Hart’s  affair with Donna Rice that doomed his political career.  Ed preferred not to judge his fellow human beings, leaving that to the inner tribunal of the conscience and above all keeping the state’s role in people’s lives as limited as possible.

Ed was also a great colleague for the same reasons: he welcomed all forms and manner of scholarly inquiry and loved learning about why any one of us found our subject so interesting.  Ed was cool, smart and earnest. We will all miss him but always remember his spirit.


MOOCs, Meet Turing or Is It Socrates?

It dawns on me that Turing tests may have a role for the future of education and MOOCs. In short, can one create a Socratic style system that automates probing what a student knows? A combination of gamification (not a great word) and machine learning might allow a system to press a student to express more than “I memorized X” and move to explaining why in a discussion. If I understand the simple idea of Turing tests, one should not know that the other side is a machine in a conversation. It should be a discussion. That is what a professor does in Socratic method. There would likely be a wall of sorts where the student has no more questions or perhaps the machine determines that some level of mastery is in place. To me, a key reason to press questions is to see whether the student can answer why their claim or understanding is correct. When they can do that they may at last “own” the idea and then do something with it. Insofar as the key is to keep questioning, this approach will hit a different wall where a person may need to engage with the student. In addition, when a student asks something the teacher has not considered, a “does not compute” response will likely be a let down. Assuming one solves that personal dimension, that moment would be a signal to shift to other resources including instructors to go deeper into the issue. Otherwise we are left with test passing equals knowledge. As Erika Christakis put it, we have:

a broken system built on the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for actual teaching and learning. Somehow, along the path of good intentions, testing stopped being seen as a diagnostic tool to guide good instruction and became, instead, the instruction itself. It’s as if a patient were given a biopsy, learned she had cancer and was then told that no further medical treatment was necessary. If that didn’t sound quite right, we could just fire the doctor who ordered the test or scratch out the patient’s results and mark “cured” in the file.

Although I am leery of easy solutions, I think that a system that may prod a student to see what they know and then come to a teacher to gain further insight and evaluate what they grasp would be great. It might be a step away from a system that asks students to jump through a hoop and receive a star or treat for performing a trick without knowing why the words or ideas coming from them matter or how to apply the words and ideas to new contexts, which I think would be knowledge rather than inert data.


Data Streams and E-Textbooks

Today “smart” e-books are in the news.  These books give professors access to a stream of data about how individual students are using their e-books—whether they are skipping pages, highlighting specific passages, or taking notes in the book. The software that makes such monitoring possible even provides an “engagement index” for each student.  The news stories I’ve encountered have mostly focused on how the data enables professors to identify and then reach out to students with poor study habits.

I don’t know how to spell the sound I made when I first heard this particular news angle, but it was something close to the classic UGH.  The company that created the software says its surveys indicate that few students or colleges have privacy concerns.  But I know I would feel like I was spying on the adults I teach.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t put the data stream to some use, at least in an aggregate form.  If a meaningful portion of my class does not appear to be reading the textbook but is nonetheless performing well in class and on exams, then my course is too easy or the textbook is a dud, or some combination of the two.

The data stream may also be of interest to the institutions that employ professors.  Every university, college, or graduate school has at least a couple gut courses—classes in which students can do very little work and still get good grades.   One concern in law schools is that GPA-conscious students will flock to a gut course instead of one that would better prepare them for the bar and eventual practice.   A dean who is trying to convince a professor that her class needs to be harder could put the data from smart e-books to very effective use.   In fact, some professors will be disinclined to embrace smart e-books once they realize that students aren’t the only ones who can be watched.

Last, I am struck by the connection between the emergence of smart e-books and a post Larry wrote a few weeks ago.  Larry’s post laments that as e-books become increasingly dominant, he will no longer be able to peruse the bookshelves of colleagues or friends as a means of sparking a connection or sizing them up.   E-books do not serve the same (often inadvertent) signaling function as a print book.  E-books mean that no-one can get a window into my interests by scanning my shelves or seeing what’s open on my coffee table.  They also mean that I can no longer pick out law students on the subway by looking for a telltale red binding.  But with smart e-books, a select group will know more about these students’ reading habits than most of us would have imagined just a few years ago.


MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

Read More

The Centralization of Higher Ed

Last month, I noted some important innovations in teaching, while striking a cautionary note about massive, open online courses (MOOCs). But for those who prefer MOOC-thusiasm, Tom Friedman’s recent column delivers:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot!

Friedman spends much of the remaining column arguing that universities need to a) get rid of “sage on a stage” lecture courses, while substituting in for them b) sages on YouTube like Sandel. The critical link to Education 2.0: intensive, individualized assessment & problem solving. So in Friedman’s ideal world, philosophers like Sandel would teach all the intro “Ethics” or “Justice” courses for millions, while local adjuncts would apply them to particular dilemmas (such as: should columnists disclose if they are “heirs to a multi-billion-dollar business empire”?).

The irony here is twofold. Read More

Social Science & Teaching

Gary King and Maya Sen have argued that traditional universities “can build on our tremendous advantage in research to improve teaching and learning.” In a recent article entitled “How Social Science Research Can Improve Teaching,” they give more details:

We marshal discoveries about human behavior and learning from social science research and show how they can be used to improve teaching and learning. The discoveries are easily stated as three social science generalizations: (1) social connections motivate, (2) teaching teaches the teacher, and (3) instant feedback improves learning. We show how to apply these generalizations via innovations in modern information technology inside, outside, and across university classrooms. We also give concrete examples of these ideas from innovations we have experimented with in our own teaching.

I don’t think all the ideas they propose in the piece could work in a law school context, but several seem well worth trying. I have found, for instance, that teaching a course in Health Data Analysis & Advocacy with a professor from my university’s math department has been a good “stretch” exercise for all involved. In other courses, I’ve tried to introduce students to various online communities that encourage learning about health law. (I’ve found that Twitter may well be the best place to keep track of what’s going on in the law and policy of health information technology.) The King/Sen paper offers many more ideas for promoting new kinds of learning, particularly for those willing to buck the MOOC trend with FASOCs (focused and small online courses).


Classroom Minutes and Syllabus Design

I am dividing my Corporations casebook to fit the fourth different classroom schedule I’ve had this decade.  It is a taxing but valuable exercise, from a pedagogical standpoint.

At Boston College from 2002 to 2005, my 3-credit class met twice weekly for 90 minutes and I tailored my syllabus accordingly.  From 2007 to 2010, at George Washington, my 4-credit class met thrice weekly for 75 minutes, and I re-sliced, and slightly expanded, my course.

Visiting at Fordham this term, my 4-credit class is meeting twice weekly for 100 minutes; the syllabus I’m designing this week is for my visit at Cardozo in the Spring, where my 4-credit class will meet once per week for 110 minutes and twice per week for 50 minutes.  And at Cardozo, the Corporations course includes a mandatory separate sequence on Accounting, so the syllabus design is a bit more complex yet, as I incorporate material from another book.

In each exercise, the task entails assigning a set of materials, each defined as a teaching unit.  The pros and cons of the various combinations emerge, revealing how a given topic can be either expanded or contracted or linked in new ways with other units.   The exercise adds perspective on the materials for the teacher which should enrich the student experience.

Particularly interesting is how, at least as the book is designed, some topics are best suited for 50 or 75 minute units while others are better suited for the longer 90 to 110 minute slots.  That  knowledge will help me as I revise the book for its 8th edition next summer, trying to provide materials that can be readily sliced into separate series of 50 versus 75 versus 100 minute blocks.

As you can guess from the fact that I just diverted 20 minutes to writing this post, syllabus redesign to accommodate teaching minutes is not the most stimulating of activities. It is less interesting and less valuable than switching books, and is hardly as taxing.  Still, the exercise shows the value of variety.  Time to get back to it.