Category: Teaching


Shiny Happy Laptopless Students

As luck would have it, I stumbled into a laptop-free section this semester. What started as a decision of one of my section colleagues to stamp out the scourge of laptops in his class had a domino effect. A second colleague signed up and, suddenly, we all were members of the Laptopless Society.

Do I like it? You betcha!

How much do I like it? Let me count the ways.

I like it to the depth and breadth and height

Of my classroom, when marveling at the sight

Of 1Ls engaged in class discussion.

I like it to the level of my students’ gaze,

With which I now have a direct eye connection.

I like it freely, as the students set discourse ablaze;

I like it purely, as they turn from malaise.

I like it with a teaching passion once deflected

By the tops of student heads bent over their PCs.

I like it with a like that I formerly rejected

When looking out over a laptop sea, — I like my shiny

Happy, laptopless students! – and, unless otherwise directed,

I shall but like it better even after course evaluations skewer me.


Teach Me

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about my effectiveness in the classroom. After my 9:00 AM class, my 1L students line up at the podium to ask me questions – obviously a consequence of my uncanny ability to convey information in an unclear and unconcise manner. My upper-level students, however, make a beeline for the door as soon as I quit my yammering. So, either I morph into a paragon of teaching clarity in the hour that I have between these classes or my upper-level students prioritize lunch over knowledge. Or maybe they know that a trip to the podium would be futile.

How is it that so many of us (maybe I should just speak for myself) become teachers without any training on how to teach? Is teaching truly so unimportant that we’ll let most anyone (e.g., me) in the classroom? If it is unimportant, then why do we pass out teaching evaluations to our students? And why is it a factor in the promotion and tenure process?

Maybe the better question is “how can I improve?” I know that there are annual teaching conferences and panels on teaching methods at the January AALS. But do law schools offer training and mentoring on teaching to their faculty members? I’m curious to know what folks are doing at their schools. Continuing to exhort my class to “Love the One You’re With” when they grumble about my (or anyone else’s) teaching may be entertaining, but it doesn’t address their concerns.


All RAs are Not Created Equal

At least, not for Larry Tribe:

Both allies and critics sometimes concluded that Mr. Obama was too gifted, or in too much of a hurry, for the tasks that consumed others.

“I thought of him much more as a colleague” than a student, said Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard for whom Mr. Obama worked. “I didn’t think of him as someone to send out on mechanical tasks of digging out all the cases.” Other students could do that, Professor Tribe added.

I love Larry Tribe. He is a gifted teacher, and amazing scholar, and, so far as I can tell, a genuinely decent person. (He brought a huge basket of granny smith apples to every conlaw class. When I was at HLS, this made him the most student-friendly professor at the place.) But this is a bad quote. Bad for Obama. Bad for the other RAs Tribe hired that year. And bad for those of us who think that digging out the cases is an act invested with a dignity and meaning all its own. Without the cases, after all, we’d be nothing more than history or philosophy professors! What did Larry and Barack do? Chat about the how to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”?


Pedagogical Nomenclature

The traditional style of doctrinal illustrations in the American Law Institute’s Restatements of Law identifies parties by meaningless letters such as A, B, C and D. In Contracts, at least, it would be clearer for the illustrations to identify parties by meaningful normative categories they occupy, such as General-Sub, Company-Inventor, Buyer-Seller, Borrower-Lender, Father-Daughter, or even Promisor-Promisee, Obligor-Obligee and so on.

Using meaningless letters adds unnecessary, if slight, cognitive demand to exercises that should be maximally parsimonious. Normative categories in Contracts are especially useful to emphasize the context in which an exchange occurs. The abstract lettering system should be abandoned in future Restatements. A few examples from Illustrations to Section 227 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts appear below.

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The Hippo and the Panda Talk Teaching

Hippo: Hey, Panda, did you see this study that says that students consistently give lower teaching evaluations to hippos than to pandas?

Panda: How do we know that’s true? I’m very sophisticated statistically, not to mention ridiculously cute due to the fact that I am a panda, and I can tell you that that study has a lot of flaws.

Hippo: But there are a lot of other studies like this, so can we just assume for the purposes of our conversation that it’s true?

Panda: Ok, let’s make that assumption. So maybe hippos get worse evaluations because hippos are just lousy teachers—maybe you all need to learn how to teach.

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Wait, What? Oh. Never Mind.

Helpful law school tip! If you have a class that is taught using the Socratic method, you’re in luck! No need to prepare! You should be able to handle class using only the following phrases (all from Jowett’s translations of The Republic and Meno):

You are quite right.

Certainly not.

To be sure.

That is true.




That is the inference.

Assuredly not.

I think that what you say is quite true.

It cannot be otherwise.

And, my personal favorite–

I agree, as far as I am able to understand you.


Teaching Evaluations

I have been wondering lately about teaching evaluations: how they are best structured and analyzed, disseminated, and used to make decisions, and, in the larger scheme, how differing interests should be weighed as we address these issues. I have no answers, but I have a lot of questions (they follow after the jump).

I would love to hear people’s thoughts on the answers to these questions, or suggestions for more questions to add to the list. Also, I’m sure there has been a tremendous amount of research on all of these subjects, but unfortunately I’m entirely ignorant of it, so among other comments, I’d be very curious if anyone had particular reading they would recommend on these subjects. It would also be great to hear how other law schools approach these issues now, and how other law schools arrived at their decisions about to address these issues.

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General Georges Doriot as Teacher

I’m reading Spencer Ante’s interesting new biography of Georges Doriot, who founded the nation’s first venture capital firm, American Research and Development, in Boston in 1946. Doriot immigrated to the U.S. from France in 1921, when he was 21 years old, to attend MIT. On arrival in Cambridge Doriot met the President of Harvard, who convinced him that Harvard Business School was where he belonged, and Doriot promptly enrolled. By age 30, Doriot had become a full professor at HBS. Not bad for a decade’s work.

Doriot loved to teach and was one of HBS’s most popular professors. But he learned there can be too much of a good thing. The HBS Dean at the time (Wallace Donham) recognized Doriot’s talents in the classroom and asked him to take over courses where other professors had proved unpopular. In one passage, Ante writes:

The Dean…told Doroit that there was something amiss with the class on Business Policy, a required second-year, full-year course. Over the past few years, students had complained about several teachers, and had even taken to stamping their feet ‘during lectures they considered boring or irrelevant.’ Like he had done with the class on factory problems, Dean Donham told Doriot to take over the course and recast his Manufacturing lectures as a Business Policy course. Doriot accepted the assignment even though he did not want to teach a required course with an enormous enrollment. His boss was relying on him, and he had to come through.

In a subsequent letter to a friend, Doriot complained of the new arrangement:

I have started teaching. It takes an enormous amount of energy to teach 330 men. Trained teachers having for the past years made a mess of that course, I quite realize that the odds are against me. I shall do my best anyway even if I have to pass out doing it.

Channeling Larry’s post from last week, now that’s a lot of contact hours!


Public Interest Auction Donations — Suggestions Wanted

I just returned from a visit to St. Paul, where we stayed with long-time friends Bill McGeveran and his family. Bill and I got talking about how he and several other law profs at the U of Minnesota will be taking a bunch of soon-to-be 3Ls to a karaoke bar as part of a donation to the annual public interest auction. Presumably, this was an exceptionally attractive purchase for the law students – what funnier than seeing your usually serious and straight-faced law prof singing to Paula Abdul or Amy Winehouse? Bill tells me it went for a large sum of money, commensurate with the ridicule he and his colleagues will suffer after the night is over. It got me thinking about all the very creative ways professors can contribute to the public interest auction. I have a colleague whose annual softball game (students v. her family of five), which is followed by a lobster bake, goes for a hefty price at the auction. I have also heard that John Sexton, when he was dean at NYU, sold a “pie-in-the-face-of-the-dean” item. At the end of the auction, Dean Sexton would graciously stand still while the winner of that item covered him in the pie-of-choice. I can only imagine what that went for. I have only offered (with colleagues) a night out shooting pool. This seems embarrassingly staid compared to the above options. What high-priced sought-after professor donations have you heard about?


Beyond Washington & Lee: A Call for Practical Exercises in Law School

784496_graduation.jpgWashington & Lee’s revision of its third year into a practice-based curriculum has attracted a considerable amount of attention in the law prof blogs, including a fascinating post from Deven Desai below suggesting that even W&L’s program may not go far enough. Over on one of Brian Leiter’s blogs, Leiter’s post drew several interesting comments, including several from Washington & Lee faculty members and students commenting on the theory and thought process that went into the decision. My wife and I both taught at W&L as visitors last year, and while we weren’t part of this debate, I was very impressed by the school and in particular with how W&L handles its first-year curriculum to address similar concerns.

But I was most interested to read two comments critical of W&L’s effort on Leiter’s blog, the first from an anonymous correspondent of Leiter’s quoted in his post: “If 100% practice is the way to run the third year, isn’t the obvious answer to make a J.D. program a two year affair?” Sam Bagenstos followed up in the comments in a similar vein:

This seems like a low-road strategy to me. Even if we stipulate that the major goal of our pedagogy is to train lawyers … the question is what kind of lawyers are we training our students to be. The best schools have or should have as their goal training people to be outstanding lawyers (and ethical, responsible professionals?) over the course of a career. The new Washington & Lee approach, I hate to say, is more closely directed to training students to be the best first-year associates they can be. I’m quite sure that a student who goes through that program will, to coin a phrase, be “ready on day one” for the kinds of tasks that new lawyers do on day one. But I’m far less certain that a student who goes through that program will be a better lawyer over the course of a career. I doubt that law schools have much of a comparative advantage over practitioners in the kind of on-the-job, practical training that is the focus of the new W&L third year.

I believe both of these comments are profoundly mistaken. I believe it is crucial in legal education to go beyond simply asking students to read cases and instead require students to apply those lessons in practical settings. The understanding of an appellate decision that comes from simply reading and discussing a case is a hollow form of understanding. It is understanding without context, and pedagogical studies have shown that context is critical to forming long-term memories. The student cannot begin to incorporate cases or doctrines into their broader context until the practical significance of the holdings or rules is made clear.

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