Category: Teaching


Drop Everything and Emulate, IV

What a joy it has been blogging here at Concurring Opinions. I thank Dan Solove and the rest of the crew for the opportunity, and I thank the commenters for the great e-conversations that have followed my posts. For my last post, I want to enter the last installment in the Drop Everything and Emulate series.

shelley house plaque.jpg

In 1948, a graduate of an undistinguished and then defunct law school, whose parents had been born in slavery, stood before the Supreme Court and, against the urging of some of the greatest legal minds of the 20th century, made an argument that had been unanimously rejected by state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court: that court enforcement of private racially restrictive covenants constituted state action and, as such, was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Against all odds, he won, and Shelley v. Kraemer became a guidepost for the civil rights revolution that followed. Less than two years later, he was dead, and today is rarely remembered.

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Need a Great Torts Exam Fact Pattern?

school bus.jpgdeer.jpgmushroom cloud.jpg

Every once in a while, God inexplicably smiles upon law professors. To wit:

Driver of school bus full of middle school basketball players hits deer. Driver doesn’t stop. Deer gets caught beneath bus. Deer ruptures fuel line. Bus, on fire, pulls into school parking lot, and explodes.


Best of all: no one was hurt.


Drop Everything and Emulate, III

Here’s a question I pose to my property students when we begin to study takings: is that property which the law declares to be property? Or, are there some things that can never be property, no matter what the law says?

It’s a simple question, but answering it has ripped entire nations into pieces, including the United States. It was U.S. Senator Henry Clay, arguing that abolishing slavery would be a massive taking that would require just compensation to the slave-owners, who said, “that is property which the law declares to be property.”

Once they realize the context of his statement, most students disagree with Clay. But that begs the next question: if the law doesn’t give us the final word on rights, including property rights, then what does?

I then take the opportunity to introduce them to a dapper young attorney who argued that that certain fundamental rights inhere in man – including property rights, and in particular the just allocation of property rights in natural resources.


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Drop Everything and Emulate


My kids’ school had a program called “Drop Everything and Read.” The idea was that no matter what else was on the agenda, every once in a while the kids just stopped what they were doing and made time to actually read (I told my kids that in my rough school, I followed a program called Drop Everything and Run). The point was to prevent them from losing sight, amid the constant hustle and bustle of school, of the joy of learning and storytelling.

Law students often lose sight, amid the alternating grind and panic, of what they might be able to do with a law degree some day. I like to think we’re training them to be wise counselors, people to whom others turn for guidance when the going gets rough. But how do we show them that?

It seems to me that it’s worthwhile, every now and then, to drop everything and talk about some ordinary lawyer who, when history conspired to give them a choice between trying to help people who needed it, and turning away, chose to try. I think of it as “Drop Everything and Emulate.”

The criteria are that the lawyer must be either someone they’ve never heard of who tried like hell to help when needed, or someone who did great things, whom they never realized was a lawyer. And, there must be a tie-in with whatever we are studying at the time.

Last year, I chose the the 75th anniversary of the ‘Reichstag Fire’ Decree of February 28, 1933, to introduce my students to a lawyer named Hans Litten. We were studying zoning and takings at the time. Here’s what I told my students:

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Thoughts on non-traditional legal writing

At Prawfs, Hillel Levin has a post asking for suggestions on where to place a short, somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay that nevertheless explores important legal ideas (I am looking forward to reading the paper). He is looking for suggestions as to where to place the article, noting that the writing game is somewhat “confining.” I added my two cents on possible outlets in the Comments, but I wanted to break out a broader point.

Hillel received a ton of good responses as to where he could place this article. And I think that suggests that the rules for legal writing in the academy are not as confining as Hillel’s post suggests. There actually are a lot of opportunities to write and publish short and fun pieces such as this one that make creative (and often important) legal points. Many journals will jump at them. The expansion of outlets, both in the number of journals as well as the addition of on-line supplements (that really were intended for precisely this sort of thing), means there is a place for this type of work. One of my great frustrations was my inability to place this piece (like Hillel’s, it was short, tongue-in-cheek, but, I think, hit on an interesting idea about the law) in some law journal forum, settling instead for FindLaw.

Of course, something like this does not “count” if you are at a school that counts publications and are just trying to meet the statutory minimum for promotion and tenure. But I think committed and successful scholars just keep writing, doing many different types of projects for many different forums, all of which form an overarching body of legal writing. The short piece that Hillel is describing is a perfect example of the sort of things that should be part of that corpus, in addition to the traditional books and big law review articles. And that is why I do not believe blogging is anathema to legal scholarship–it is another way of exercising the writing muscles.


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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