Category: Teaching

Picking Up Technical Knowledge

As I teach in some technical fields, I often get questions from students about “how much tech do I need to know to succeed in this field?” For example, the Health Law Survey includes many complex medical situations; my seminar Health Information, Privacy, and Innovation covers standards for certifying “meaningful use” of health information technology; and even the intro to IP course tends to include some forbidding patent cases in it. I think this advice from Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky is reassuring:

[S]uccessful tech companies require a variety of skillsets – from design and community management to operations and business development- both at the entry level and in leadership positions. Significant technical skills can also be learned both on the job and outside of traditional academic education. Take Marissa Mayer vs. Sheryl Sandberg. While Mayer, the current CEO of Yahoo may have graduated Stanford with a CS degree, Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, rose through the business ranks at Google, gaining enough product knowledge on the job to become one of the leading operators and innovators in the space.

Having just reviewed the offerings at Coursera this fall, I can definitely vouch for the idea that many tech skills are “on offer” outside the classroom. I’ve also heard from former students who picked up some tech management skills; for example, one learned software programming skills in order to deal with the massive paperwork in a litigation involving many small disputes. I’m also hoping to teach law students how to work with computer scientists and quantitative analysts in a spring course on data analysis and advocacy for attorneys (which I’ll be co-teaching with a professor from my university’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science). I know that Michigan State & Daniel Katz have really blazed a trail here; I’m hoping to apply some computational legal studies ideas in courses on health and IP law. If anyone has any suggestions on doing so, I’d love to hear them.

X-Posted: Madisonian.

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The Increased Cost of Distance Education

For uninteresting reasons, I just read Indiana University’s Strategic Plan for Online Education.  Here’s a fact I didn’t know, and haven’t seen well-advertised in the blog discussion on the cost transformative effects of distance learning:

IU (and the remainder of higher education) needs to educate policy makers and the public that online education generally is more, not less, expensive than on‐campus education at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The biggest reason for this is that a universal experience is that equivalent quality online education requires greater individual student attention than on‐campus education at all levels. Units deal with this either by decreasing class sizes, increasing the credit given to faculty teaching online in calculating their teaching load, or providing additional instructional assistants; all of these increase cost per student.

Additional factors that increase the cost of online instruction are the technological infrastructure needed to support it, the need to support student access 24/7, and the greater costs to develop and maintain course materials. The main factor that generally is cited for a decreased cost of online instruction relative to on‐campus is that it doesn’t require classroom space. This is valid; a careful computation by Associate Vice President Steve Keucher calculates this savings at $8.68 per credit hour, or roughly $26 per three credit course. While significant, this savings is not enough to offset the additional costs of online education, such as class sizes that often are 20‐35% smaller.

As pointed out by IU Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Neil Theobald, an important factor in pricing online education is pricing by peers in this market. As shown by the pricing summary for other universities in Appendix B, this pricing offers some guidance but is highly variable.

This seems to pose a challenge to those who would say that distance learning will drive costs out of higher education, no?

5

Does Topic Sequence in Teaching Matter?

What are we really teaching our students?  Those of us who complain that our students are too focused on learning rules and doctrines should read a provocative empirical study recently published on SSRN by my colleague Don Gifford, Villanova sociologist Brian Jones, and two of Don’s former students with expertise in statistical analysis, Joseph Kroart and Cheryl Cortemeglia. Donald G. Gifford, Joseph Kroart, Brian Jones & Cheryl Cortemeglia, What’s on First?: Organizing the Casebook and Molding the Mind, 44 Ariz. St. L.J. ___ (2013) (forthcoming).  The article describes an empirical study suggesting that whether the Torts professor begins with intentional, negligent, or strict liability torts affects the students’ understanding of the role of the common-law judge in a statistically significant way. The authors argue that the judge’s role in deciding intentional tort cases is at least to some extent more rule-based than her role in negligence and strict liability cases. Applying the work of sociologist Eving Goffman, they posit that beginning with intentional torts frames the judicial role in this manner. Further, they hypothesize that once frequently anxious first-semester students latch onto one particular conception of the judicial role during the initial weeks of the semester, it becomes anchored and resistant to change even after the students have studied other categories of tort liability.

Gifford et al. surveyed more than 450 first-year law students at eight law schools that vary widely in terms of their
reputational ranking. The students were surveyed at the beginning, middle, and end of the first semester. The survey results supported the authors’ hypothesis that students who begin their study of Torts with strict liability experience a greater shift toward understanding the judge’s role as being influenced by social, economic, and ideological factors and a sense of fairness and less as a process of rule application than do students who begin their study with either intentional torts or negligence.  Even when the authors controlled for the ranking of the law school, topic sequence still generated a significant effect on students’ perceptions of the role of the common law judge.  Nor did the effect of topic sequence vary by gender. The authors were surprised to find that students who began with intentional torts experience a greater attitudinal shift toward perceiving the judicial role as being policy influenced than do students who began with negligent torts.

Despite their disclaimers, the authors implicitly criticize the overwhelming majority of Torts professors who begin with intentional torts. Most Torts casebooks begin with intentional torts, at least after a brief introductory chapter.  Their editors claim that these cases are “accessible,” “memorable,” and provide “a nice warm up” for studying other torts. Some of these same editors admit that intentional torts comprise a “backwater” in modern tort practice. Gifford et al. suggest that the real reason for beginning with intentional torts may be because that is the way it always has been done. They note that the first Torts casebook, edited by James Ames Barr, Dean Langdell’s colleague, began with intentional torts. They provocatively suggest that Ames may have begun with intentional torts in part precisely because these torts were most rule-like in nature and furthered Langdell’s mission to make the law appear “scientific” in order to justify its inclusion within the university curriculum. If this is true, note the authors, then most modern-day Torts professors are “unwitting conscripts” in the Langdellian mission. Read More

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Overlong Resumes, Redux: What Would Alex Kozinski Do?

By way of seconding Gerard’s comments regarding resume (and CV) creep and its baneful effects, let me share with you the rather short resume of an incredibly well-accomplished person: Alex Kozinski, circa 1984, as he was applying for a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Note that Judge Kozinski’s resume back then (as taken from the files of the Reagan Library) was all of two pages long, and that he didn’t go on and on explaining precisely what he did as a clerk for Chief Justice Burger, Judge Kennedy, or even as a judge on the Court of Claims. He didn’t even mention that he was once a contestant on “The Dating Game.”

Given that it’s interviewing season, this also might provide a good opportunity for me to offer a couple of resume tips to law students. I enjoy reviewing students’ resumes, and see a number of recurring errors along with what I consider to be poor judgment calls. I’ll offer a few suggestions, for what they’re worth, after the jump.

Read More

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Welcome Contracts Students!

As new 1Ls begin to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of law, we welcomed them here on this blog recently with an overview of the first-year curriculum that has been in place for ages. It concluded with a particular reference to the course on Contracts, about which I’ve recently published a new book connecting its classic cases and doctrines to contemporary contract disputes in popular culture and covered in the media.

From that book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter, the following continues to provide a gateway into that field by introducing two legends whose venerable work on the subject continues to define the boundaries of recognized debate on most of the issues. The legends are Samuel Williston and Arthur Corbin.

In 1920, Williston, a Harvard professor, published a monumental treatise on the entire law of contracts, and updated it until his death in 1963. In 1950, Arthur Corbin, a professor at Yale, promulgated an equally magisterial and comprehensive treatise, based on earlier writings throughout his career.

These works—still kept up-to-date by successor editors—influenced generations of lawyers and judges addressing contract disputes. Williston’s philosophy dovetailed with that of the eminent jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Corbin’s resonated with that of the esteemed judge, Benjamin N. Cardozo.

Williston epitomized a formalist approach to law and reflected what some call the “classical” school of contract. It looks to whether parties in a transaction were giving and getting something, emphasizing a concept called “consideration” as the signal of an enforceable contract. This school of thought held unenforceable not only promises to make gifts or attend dinner but promises merely inducing another party to take some action.

In this view, the remedy for breach of a bargain is to pay the injured party money to put them in the same economic position they would have enjoyed had the other performed. This classical conception of contract law dominated well into the twentieth century, and remains a force today.

Corbin took a realist approach to law and offered a more pragmatic conception of contract. Though agreeing with Williston on many points, Corbin recognized, as courts increasingly did in the twentieth century, a wider range of circumstances that create contractual obligations. Williston’s bargain model of consideration remained, but loosened so that even some promises to make gifts could be enforced, so long as there was an identifiable return, like naming a college endowment. It recognized reliance on a promise as a basis of contractual liability, in a novel doctrine commonly called “promissory estoppel.”

Compensation for disappointed expectations remains the primary measure of remedy. But recognizing promissory estoppel gave equal dignity to measuring remedies by out-of-pocket costs incurred relying on a promise.

These twentieth century developments that Corbin captured, and helped to shape, reflected broader social developments as well, moving law’s orientation from a formalist to a realist conception. For example, classical contract’s relative strictness, limiting the scope of contractual obligation, was accompanied by an equivalent strictness of enforcement: if a contract was hard to get into, it was also hard to get out of. People could be bound to contracts that were made based on mutually mistaken assumptions or even where performance became impossible.

But as the ambit of contractual obligation expanded, so did grounds for excusing it, like mutual mistake about the terms of a trade, or impossibility of performance, such as a power outage in a rented banquet hall. Similarly, classical contract law venerated written records, limiting the scope of obligation to what was plainly meant within a document’s four corners. Corbin and his realist descendants were more willing to consider evidence supplementing these written expressions. Read More

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Welcoming All 1Ls Across America!

Welcome all first-year law students to the wonderful world of law!  I teach Contracts at George Washington University (though I’m visiting at Fordham University this fall).  My students find it useful to begin our journey into that subject–which many find can be difficult–with a step back to look at the shape of the first-year law school curriculum.

It has not changed much in a century and does not vary widely among law schools today, from Cooley to Columbia.  I also try to be sure to connect the topics and examples appearing in today’s casesbooks (which have also not changed much over time and do not vary from school to school) to current topics in the news.  Students at other schools can share in these stories by obtaining a copy of my book, a fun supplement to the Contracts course,  Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.

Some thoughts about the shape of today’s 1L curriculum appear in the beginning of the book, including the following excerpt.  I summarize this for my students on our first day of class to give a sense of why today’s curriculum looks as it does and where contract law fits within it.

The curriculum dates to a legendary figure of nearly a century and a half ago.  In the 1870s, C. C. Langdell, as Dean of Harvard Law School, designed a simple way to organize the vast field of law still used to this day. He thought that underlying law’s complexity were a handful of basic ideas. Examining leading cases organized around these ideas would reveal law’s elements and rhythms.

Common law actions, meaning those courts resolve one by one, were of greatest interest to Langdell and dominate many 1L courses, including Contracts.  In the United States, following English traditions, common law is developed by state courts as disputes arise. Originally referring to law “common” to all citizens, today this system yields some variation among states, but general principles tend to prevail. Though the common law evolves as society and the economy change, judges draw on precedents when evaluating new cases—under the principle of stare decisis.

Langdell organized the welter of cases on numerous topics according to basic questions: how, what, and why. The question of how isolates the procedures private parties follow when resolving disputes using civil litigation. This is the practice of the lawsuit, arranged into the sub-field of study called civil procedure. Read More

2

Bad Humor in the Classroom

It was a terrible thing to say, an awful attempt at humor. A tenured professor at the Merchant Marine Academy, cuing up a documentary film  before leaving a class, alluded to the orange-haired man who, 11 days earlier, had massacred a dozen people in a Colorado movie house and wounded five times more.  (The teacher reportedly said: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.”)

The associate dean promptly filed a recommendation of termination, classifying the action as notoriously disgraceful, a ground for firing in the school’s rules.  The head of school followed suit, putting the professor on administrative leave and halting his teaching.

The teacher, who made the statement without any bad intent, immediately apologized to everyone concerned, including especially one student, whose father was a victim of the Colorado gunman.  According to sources I contacted who know the teacher, he is a first-rate, solid person who simply made a crude comment.

Having been an associate dean myself, I have heard many worse jokes spoken during class by professorial comedians  manqué.  Occasionally I did consult with a colleague after students reported such episodes and even felt constrained to confer with my Dean once.  But I never thought to suspend a teacher or suggest a suspension or termination over blundered, insensitive, stupid but innocent or naïve attempts at humor.

In such cases, I came to realize that it has  been difficult for many teachers in recent decades to sustain a sense of good humor in the classroom without offending the sensibilities of at least some.  Classrooms are not comedy clubs, of course, but humor can be a valuable pedagogical supplement.  We must weigh our words in class, true, yet classroom colloquy is more robust when the scales are more forgiving than shackling.

The associate dean and head of school seem to be overreacting. They can admonish and berate the professor in many other ways than suspension or threatened termination.  A similar bit of overreaction is how the New York Times decided to report this story in today’s paper.  At least the writer had the good sense to quote tenure guidelines that cast doubt on the proportionality of the administration response.

I hope I never say anything so  dreadful in my classroom. If I do, however, I hope that my associate dean, dean or president would not rush to punish me or have the New York Times add injury to embarrassment. The self-loathing is enough.

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Another Tip That Education Is Changing: Open Stax Textbooks

Costs of education need to come down. Open course materials are growing. Maybe education will indeed undergo a transformation in the next ten years. There are many things that will need to change for true education reform to take place. But better resources matter. Enter Rice University. Its OpenStax College initiative tries to address the problem of source fragmentation. In other words, resources, resources everywhere but no time to synch may be less of a problem than it has been so far. One nice touch is format flexibility: web, e-textbook, or hard copy options are available. “The first five textbooks in the series–Physics, Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology–have been completed, and the Physics and Sociology textbooks are up at openstaxcollege.org. The model is curious:

Using philanthropic funding, Baraniuk and the team behind OpenStax contracted professional content developers to write the books, and each book went through the industry-standard review cycle, including peer review and classroom testing. The books are scope- and sequence-compatible with traditional textbooks, and they contain all of the ancillary materials such as PowerPoint slides, test banks, and homework solutions.

So there is professional level seeding of content while also allowing for wiki-like contribution:

Each book has its own dashboard, called StaxDash. Along with displaying institutions that have adopted the book, StaxDash is also a real-time erratum tracker: Faculty who are using the books are encouraged to submit errors or problems they’ve found in the text. “There’s also the issue of pointing out aspects of the text that need to be updated,” notes Baraniuk, “for example, keeping the Sociology book up-to-date as the Arab Spring continues to evolve. People can post these issues, and our pledge is that we are going to fix any issues as close to ‘in real time’ as possible. These books will be up-to-date in a matter of hours or days instead of years.” When accessing a book through its URL on Connexions, students and faculty will always get the most up-to-date version of the book. Faculty can, however, use the “version control” feature on Connexions to lock in a particular version of the book for use throughout a semester.

If you thought that keeping up with authoritative versions of an ebook and citing it (trust me it is odd to cite to a location in a Kindle book) was messy, this new model will throw you. Then again, that is a small issue.

Group contributions for the latest on an issue and the ability to choose versions is a great idea. Law texts that could update the latest cases or a change in legislation as they happen and then be refined overtime would be wonderful. Of course teachers use other ways to reach these goals. But if crowds/commons style approaches to texts work, we may see better and less expensive versions of textbooks. How the system will mangage disputes about content and education boards’ issues with approval remains to be seen. Still, the promise of this approach should make the miasmic aspects of education boards look silly and create a press for improved ways to have quality content available for educators and most important, for students.

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Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.