Category: Teaching


Hypotheticals, the Classroom, and Moral Biology

Hypotheticals are a ubiquitous pedagogical tool in both the law and philosophy classrooms. I have recently been thinking about the different functions they serve and whether they are well-suited for the weight we give them. These reflections were prompted by a conference on “Moral Biology,” hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School (which I co-direct), in cooperation with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, the Gruter Institute, the Harvard Program on Ethics and Health, and the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

I may blog a little bit later about some other of the marvelous things I learned over these two days, but for now I wanted to concentrate on some thoughts that stemmed from a public portion of the conference that can be seen here, involving Josh Greene from Harvard’s Psychology Department, William Fitzpatrick from the University of Rochester’s Philosophy Department, Adina Roskies from Dartmouth’s Philosophy Department, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke’s Philosophy Department, and Tim Scanlon, from Harvard’s philosophy department.

At around the 43 to 50 minute mark in the video, Josh discusses Trolley Problems (which ask participants a thought experiment about whether to divert a trolley from one track to another with many versions of the hypothetical) and an experiment done on them by Fiery Cushman (and a collaborator, Switzgable I believe, I could not find the actual paper) in Josh’s lab.  In the experiment, before being asked whether they would endorse the principle of double effect, ethicists with PhDs were asked to reason about variants of the Trolley problem (switch vs. footbridge) presented in different orders. The experiment found that if one varied the order in which the versions were presented (but always presented all of them,) ethicists reached different conclusions about whether they would endorse the principle. [This is Josh’s description in the video, again if anyone can find the paper he is discussing I will try and like to that].  The result is surprising in that it appears even those with PhD training in ethics are susceptible to order effects in reasoning about a very fundamental issue.

As Josh concedes, and others (in the panel and in written pieces discussing his work emphasize) the fact that these ordering effects occur is not itself fatal to the enterprise of philosophical analysis using intuitions. It depends on further views about how one uses these kinds of intuitions in the analysis. For present purposes, though, I want to partially side-step that question in favor of thinking about the law classroom, and how this experiment might should us a little more careful about the way we use hypotheticals.

Read More


Traditional v. Economic Analysis and Cardozo v. Posner

Scholars continue to debate the merits of traditional legal analysis compared to contemporary economic analysis of law. Each has virtues and both pose trade-offs. Adding to the extensive discourse, now available on SSRN is my new article probing the comparative appeal of these two approaches.

I offer a novel approach to the longstanding debate. I focus on judicial opinions of Benjamin Cardozo and Richard Posner. I use the context of tort law, where economic analysis has enjoyed most impressive success. I chose these two judges because their opinions appear more often than any other judge’s in current torts casebooks and they epitomize the competing methods.

My analysis led me to conclude that Cardozo’s traditional approach has the better of Posner’s economic approach. I would be delighted to hear criticism of the paper and its conclusions.


Can We Teach?

Reading Alfred’s posts on choosing a law school, I got to thinking about the quality of teaching at any given school, as a factor in that choice, and of an article I read in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, on Building a Better Teacher.

The piece describes, in essence, the effort to improve the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States, by more carefully/fully training teachers in how to teach.  By contrast, it counsels, merely incentivizing teachers (whether with the carrot of merit pay, or the stick of dismissal/school closure) fails to get at the root of the problem.  Teachers, thus, need to be taught how to teach.

The teacher trainer profiled, for example, suggests that the generally derided and dismissed issue of “classroom management” is actually foundational to whatever learning does (or does not) occur in the class.  As the article puts it, “students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions.”  (By way of empirics, I might note, the article cites data to certain that the students of the best teachers get 18 months of material, for each year in class, while those of the worse teachers get only 6 months!)

What about those of us in law school teaching, though?  Can we teach?  Is there any reason to believe that the skills that get us our teaching appointments are well correlated with teaching skills?

I’m doubtful there is, though I might perhaps be convinced otherwise.  Even if there is some such correlation, however, wouldn’t it still be useful to think about relevant training in classroom instruction, for law students thinking about going into teaching – or perhaps at least for those who actually end up there?  Isn’t that especially appropriate if, as the research reported in the article suggests, evidence of natural teaching “ability” aren’t highly correlated with student success?

One need not abandon a commitment to scholarship as the most critical metric in appointments, in promotion, and even in evaluating the overall “success” of a law professor, thus, to recognize that there are relevant skills to teaching – and perhaps to law teaching in particular – that we ought to know.

If so, how might we go about accomplishing as much?  By having a teaching “track” in law school, which would include some training in teaching?  Perhaps with some sort of intensive summer program, in which newly hired teachers would enroll for a time before embarking on their teaching careers?

No single solution would be perfect, of course.  I’m reminded, though, of my complaints to a colleague, in my first year of teaching, that I wasn’t sure I was doing a particularly good job at teaching.  “I’m sure they love you!” he responded.  Perhaps they do, I remember thinking, but that need not mean I was doing a good job.


Thoughts about choosing a law school, pt. 3

Legal writing programs get staffed in 3 meaningfully different ways.  One model relies primarily on part-time instructors (generally adjunct teachers or graduate student fellows) supervised by a director of the program who is sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist in legal writing.  A second model uses a director (sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist) who works with faculty teaching doctrinal courses like torts or contracts to integrate writing exercises into those doctrinal courses.  A third model uses full-time faculty who specialize in teaching legal writing.  Each has its pros and cons.

Model 1 is inexpensive for a school to operate.  Adjunct faculty don’t get paid very much, so this saves faculty positions for people who will teach other subjects.  Devoting slots this way arguably benefits students in a couple of different ways.  It might mean lower student-faculty ratios in upper level classes or a wider variety of courses from which to choose.  And, it could mean more faculty publishing and advancing the school’s scholarly reputation.  (Note:  This second point may be hotly contested depending on one’s perspective.  Conventional wisdom holds that tenure-track faculty who teach outside of legal writing publish more than legal writing faculty.  This is partly because many legal writing faculty hold non-tenure track positions for which publication is not a requirement.  This may be changing as legal writing faculty have begun to hold tenure-track positions and publishing more.) All of this comes at a cost, however.  Full-time faculty who specialize in legal writing develop considerable teaching expertise.  Perhaps more than any other type of law school faculty, full-time legal writing teachers think and write about how to train lawyers.  With all due respect to those who teach legal writing as adjuncts or fellows, I think that full-time legal writing faculty will, on the whole, teach better classes than part-time faculty.  An adjunct has another job that is his primary income.  He understandably pays more attention to that than his students.  And, adjuncts frequently teach for only a few years.  Just when they’re starting to figure things out, they move on.

Model 2 has intriguing possibilities for excellence that may not always be realized.  When full-time faculty teach writing as part of a doctrinally focused course, the integration could lead to a deeper understanding of legal problems and how to write about them.  Class discussion can explicitly tie big substantive questions to challenges in writing memos or briefs.  If this works, it probably creates an excellent legal writing class.  Unfortunately, the faculty I know who have taught in these programs report that the promise is not always realized because faculty who teach doctrinal classes do not, as a whole, make legal writing a priority.  They prefer to concentrate on their substantive law specialties and their scholarship.  Only an unusually dedicated non-legal writing specialist professor will spend the time necessary to become a top-flight legal writing teacher.  Some undoubtedly do it, but others I’ve spoken to find the obligation to teach writing a burdensome distraction from teaching and writing about subjects they prefer.

Model 3 uses only full-time faculty who dedicate themselves to teaching legal writing.  The obvious benefit is the development of expertise I mentioned earlier.  Not every law professor will agree with this, but I think that top-flight legal writing teachers bring great value to their students.  Those who don’t agree may say that any of us (meaning non-legal writing law professors) could step right in and do just as good of a job, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.  A good legal writing course combines the reading and analysis of cases with instruction on how to write about the law.  It isn’t obvious that “just any” professor would immediately do a good job of it.  If experience matters in teaching torts, it probably matters in teaching legal writing too.  So why don’t all law schools employ a full-time staff of legal writing teachers?  Well, it’s expensive.  Full-time legal writing teachers occupy faculty slots that could be used for teachers in other areas.  A school may not think that legal writing is sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure.

From the standpoint of a prospective law student, it’s worth deciding how important legal writing will be to you.  You will have to candidly assess your writing ability, how easily you will adapt to legal conventions, and your willingness to experience stress if you’re behind fellow summer associates/new lawyers who have had more training.  To be clear, I’m not saying that legal writing should be your primary method for choosing a law school.  But, if schools are fairly close in other ways, the legal writing program is one important and frequently overlooked way to identify the right school for you.


Wheel of Fortune? Not Your Family Board Game

Wheel of Fortune: Not Your Typical Board Game

In the wake of the recent financial crisis, many now ask whether we should blame the Board of Directors of investment banks, commercial banks and other financial services firms for failing to manage the economic risks associated with their market activities. (See  here , here,  and here. In teaching the Business Associations course, I find that we have the most interesting discussions when we cover the role of the Board of Directors and Management. The conflicts among the cast of corporate characters – the board, managers, employees, creditors and shareholders (to name a few)- intrigue students. In assessing risk management, we typically do not expect the Board to have a direct role in monitoring risk on a transaction-by-transaction basis or determining the day-to-day operating procedures that reduce risk. We do, however, expect the Board to have a role in establishing policies that address enterprise risk management. When we juxtapose the danger of risks of loss related to certain market activities (think AIG’s financial products group) with our traditional expectations of the Board’s role in firm oversight, we find ourselves asking if it may be prudent to require that the Board be more informed and active in monitoring enterprise risk management.

Read More


Education, Technology, and Empirical Data

I just returned from the Institute for Advanced Study’s Symposium on Technology and Education. Anyone interested in how education operates should contact the folks in today’s symposium or in the year-long seminar The Dewey Seminar: Education, Schools and the State. It is a great group of people thinking about justice, finance, the structure of schools, education and labor matters, whether constitutions address education, and much more. Indeed, it struck me that many of the participants’ work could provide interesting opportunities for collaboration.

Today’s speakers offered some fantastic ideas about the way education works in K-12. One thing that occurred to me was how, in yet another field, data is increasingly important. In many areas, vast amounts of data are being used to understand how a student is performing or where a different type of learning style may be required or whether a teacher is effective, and so on. This point may be readily familiar to those interested in empirical legal studies. Yet, two key issues arise. How does one sort the data? And, how does one interpret the data.

The answer seems to lie in the ability to embrace the Google mindset. Take in data. Study it. Study it. Study it. And see where it takes you. As Hal Varian has described (pdf), “The real secret to Google’s success is that they are constantly experimenting with the algorithm, adjusting, tuning and tweaking virtually continuously.” He compares this approach to “the Japanese approach to quality control is kaizen which is commonly translated as ‘continuous improvement.'” As general matter Varian has offered:

During the 1960s and 70s the scientific study of financial markets flourished due to the availability of massive amounts of data and the application of quantitative methods. I think that marketing is at the same position finance was in the early 1960s. Large amounts of computer readable data on marketing performance are just now becoming available via search engines, supermarket scanners, and other sorts of information technology. Such data provides the raw material for scientific studies of consumer behavior and I expect that there will much progress in this area in the coming decade.

After today’s seminar I am wondering whether “large amounts of computer readable data on marketing performance” could also be written “large amounts of computer readable data on education performance.” It seems like that day is coming, if not already here. We may be entering an era where education is heavily data driven and educators must be able to use new tools to understand and use the data. The challenges regarding privacy, notions of tracking, and fairness will be large. Then again the promise of improved educational outcomes and a system that can reach more students in ways far beyond training them to jump through test-taking hoops suggests that whatever the obstacles, it is worth pursuing the possibilities.


Of Domes and Homes

I’m very happy to be back adding my two cents to Concurring Opinions.  Thanks very much, Dan, for the invite, and Sarah, for the introduction. 

I was watching the NFL Vikings carve up the Bears yesterday, trying to decide what to post about first, and my eyes were drawn not to quarterback Brett Favre, running back Adrian Petersen . . . or even the freak who dresses like a viking and leads cheers inside the Metrodome, the Vikings’ domed stadium.  I kept looking at the shots of the stadium itself, and thinking about two recent court orders. OneTouch 4.0 Scanned Documents

One was issued last Monday, lifting an injunction on the previous week’s sale by auction of the 94,000 square foot, 80,300 seat Pontiac Silverdome, along with an adjacent fieldhouse and 127 acres of land.  There were four bids.  The winning bid? $583,000.  Total.  After auction fees, the current owner — the City of Pontiac, Michigan — will net about $430,000.  When professional sports tenants such as the Detroit Lions left, a property that cost $56 million to build was rendered practically worthless.  In fact, Pontiac was prepared to accept any bid for the property, since maintaining it was costing the City $1.5 million per year. 

The other order was issued in September by Judge Berrigan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern Louisiana, ordering St. Bernard Parish not to interfere with the construction of a mixed market-rate and low income housing project.  The Parish, faced with an influx of low income tenants, had refused to issue building permits for the project, imposed a moratorium on building apartment complexes, and passed an ordinance making it illegal to rent to anyone other than a blood relative without special permission.  The New Orleans area faces an extreme shortage of low income housing, despite the population diaspora from the area generally.  Most of the housing destroyed by Katrina was low income. 

Read More


A Civil Procedure Curriculum Challenge

I read with great interest Jon Siegel’s recent post on curricular reform and the thirty or so comments it generated. I don’t really disagree with his main point that law school is mostly about “acquiring the ability to acquire skills and knowledge.” But at the same time, I don’t spend that much time on personal jurisdiction and Erie in my civil procedure class and wanted to use this post to explain why.

I started teaching civil procedure during my time at Brooklyn Law School where civil procedure was a two semester five credit course. When I got to Loyola, civ pro was a two semester six credit course. Two years ago we moved to a one semester four credit course as part of a general reform of the first year curriculum. So I have now taught the course in just about every possible permutation.

I currently spend the first 2/3 of the course on the litigation process and about the remaining 1/3 on personal jurisdiction and Erie. I am probably in the minority on this and it’s hard to find a casebook that is set up the way I prefer.

I do it this way because of my belief that only a detailed study of the litigation process reflected in the FRCP can convey a deep understanding of the American civil justice system and its strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, we have a system that (until very recently) has deemphasized pleadings and uses discovery to lay the groundwork for settlement or summary judgment for those cases that make it into the system and is increasing reliant on ADR for those cases that don’t. Of late, the Supreme Court has seemingly raised the bar on pleadings in Twombley and Iqbal and reinvigorated motions to dismiss as a more meaningful part of the litigation process. One cannot understand what we do, how we do it, why the rest of the world thinks we are crazy, what is changing, and what needs to be changed without a large amount of class time, which of necessity limits the amount of time devoted to personal jurisdiction and Erie.

All this is driven by my view of in most litigation the law is easy, but the facts are hard. Discovery is where the facts come in. If you don’t understand how parties marshal, present, and protect facts from their files, from the real world, and from the other side through discovery then the students leave civ pro (and possibly law school) without any real clue how our civil justice system works. Read More


Teaching Constitutional Law

I’ve been working on my Con Law syllabus for next semester.  I must admit that I find Con Law the most difficult course to teach, even though it’s the subject that I enjoy the most.  Why is that?

Read More


Sabbatical Blogging

This semester, I get to take my first sabbatical. As Larry observed, law firm sabbaticals are a thing of the past, and so lawyers might see this opportunity as yet more evidence that academics are insulated, head-in-the-clouds, wastrels. Perhaps, though it might help to see the sabbatical, like tenure, as simply a form of alternative compensation for professors, rather than a serious spur to productivity. And, like tenure, the sabbatical is a relic: while many years ago, a regular sabbatical policy was commonplace, now it’s my sense that it’s somewhat more rare.

I’ve got to say, I find the prospect of a fall with no duties other than those I set for myself more than a little terrifying. Putting aside the absence of structure, and colleagues to talk to, there’s the problem of figuring out which kinds of projects are the right size. If I pick something too big, I’m not going to finish (and thus feel pretty bad about having nothing to show for the immense privilege that the Law School and its stakeholders have extended me). If I pick something too small, well, you get the idea. So I’m looking for the sabbatical goldilocks. As I’ve learned, painfully, promising goldilocks projects in the empirical world are often (forgive me) wolves in sheep’s clothing. You start collecting data, and before you know it it’s two years later and you realize you never fully specified your research question. Yikes!

Some folks use their sabbaticals to do something entirely different, e.g., hiking the Appalachian trail (no, seriously); writing fiction; constructing toasters from scratch. I fear I’m more conformist than that. Apart from some personal business, I’ll probably be spending the fall writing more articles, coding more data, thinking about how to be a better corporations teacher, and blogging a little bit more often than I did over the summer.

I do have two larger intellectual projects that I’m going go try to fold in. The first is to read (again) the works of the Situationalist project. I’ve read several of the project’s papers – in one case, multiple times – but I still don’t think I really understand many of the claims, and, more importantly, the project’s motivation. Since there are tons of brilliant folks affiliated with the group, this obviously is a situation that I’ve got to remedy.  Second, I want to read at least a large sample of the articles that Herb Kritzer identifies here as fruits of pre-1940 empirical legal studies work. One of the few abiding disadvantages to not having a PhD is is a missing sense of the intellectual history of your field. That problem is particularly acute in ELS, where (to read the dates on citations in most recent papers) nothing useful was written before 1995.

I suppose that’s it. I’m not training to climb Everest. I’m not going to reorient my scholarly path. I’m not taking on a court case (though the amici in Jones appear to be having tons of fun). I can’t imagine that I’ll pick up a new hobby. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I’ll be spending more hours working than I do when I’ve got classes to teach!