Category: Teaching


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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And Now a Word From Our Sponsors…: The Ethics of Sponsored Courses and Maybe Chairs?

dollars2.jpgInside Higher Ed details that Hunter College offered a course that was sponsored by an industry group called International Anticounterfeiting Coalition (known as the IACC). The group represents major fashion industry companies. The class well that is where the fun begins. Apparently the

students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real.

The article raises some good questions: Why have students perform free labor for the fashion industry (and really pay for the privilege?)? What about the underlying lies? These issues remind me of the LonleyGirl issues (there a fake videoblog lured people into what appeared to be a true personal site but was a front for a group launching a film company. Eric Goldman has a set of quick links that highlight the problems of user-generated content, ads, and quality. In general the school’s willingness to offer a class that propagates a shall we say less than authentic Web site is an example of the marketer’s will. Not that this point should exonerate the school. (Note that apparently Iowa turned down money when it was unsure about naming a school after the donor).

Still according to the article “other colleges do work with IACC” including Ohio State University but at least Ohio State does not operate in the same way as Hunter allegedly did. Ohio State seems to set up the projects as out of class activities. Hunter’s class according to some was directed by the IACC such “that the professor was required to teach only one side of the issue, had to accept industry officials watching him teach, and had little clout to fight back since he didn’t (and still doesn’t) have tenure.”

So it goes. Schools need cash and corporations have it. Would a school bow to its donors? Are schools market immune? Of course they aspire to be but the reality is different. Further as public schools lose the endowment race, they will be more and more beholden to outside funding. I am not, repeat not, saying that schools should operate so that they bow to corporate requests. I am saying that the issue is alive and well and not so easy to combat. If the allegations are true, Hunter seems to be the easy case, don’t do it. The harder ones will be the subtle questions of hiring, curriculum, and building funds which can easily look like a decision based on lack of funds when perhaps other interests scuttled the project.

Hat Tip: Slashdot

Image: Manuel Dohmen WikiCommons

License: GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

Recommendation Inflation

clarence.jpgThough many law schools have become vigilant about stopping grade inflation, what about “recommendation inflation?” Recommendations can become difficult to write well if one is unaware of the prevalence of superlatives in others’ assessments. Consider this observation from an English professor: “The level of praise is so high that any assessment short of ‘brilliant’ can look tepid. That means that any consideration of a candidate’s weakness is probably a kiss of death.”

The inflation here is particularly pernicious because simple observations like that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Though the confidentiality of recommendations is supposed to ensure candor, privacy laws also make it highly unlikely that anyone can ever fully compare what one recommender has written on behalf of a range of applicants.

Lior Strahilevitz has argued that there is “often an essential conflict between information privacy protections and antidiscrimination principles,” because “the government can publish previously private information about individuals so as to discourage decisionmakers’ reliance on problematic proxies.” Reflecting on that proposal, I thought that one solution to recommendation inflation would be to establish a norm among recommendation writers to disclose how many times they called someone “the best student I have taught,” “in the top 1% of students,” etc.

But I sense that the impulse to quantify & disclose here is probably misplaced. To return to the Chron article I cited at the beginning, perhaps there are some more creative ways out of the problem. Though this style of recommending is directed to humanities graduate students, it could be translated to other fields:

One of our sources made a great comparison between the challenge of writing a letter of reference and the task facing Clarence, the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Clarence elucidates the importance of George Bailey’s life by showing George what it would have been like if George had never been born. A great letter explains what a field or discipline would have been like if the candidate had never contributed to it, and thereby establishes the candidate’s contribution.”

Ah, the wisdom of Frank Capra. Perhaps narratives have as much a place as numbers in the assessment of excellence.

Photo Credit: It’s a Wonderful Life (George and Clarence).


Short courses?

Greetings from (mostly sunny) Champaign-Urbana, where I’m spending the week, teaching a short course on Federalism and the Making of American Corporate Law at the University of Illinois. Under the law school’s short-course program, the brainchild of Ralph Brubaker, my former colleague at Emory and now Associate Dean here at Illinois, anywhere from five to ten professors, judges, and attorneys come to campus each term, to teach a week-long, one-credit course.

I’m told the students generally love the short courses. My own data – consisting of the (fairly high, I think) enrollment of 27 students in the class, and good participation in the first class (yesterday) – would seem to confirm as much. For the visitors, meanwhile, it can be an occasion to try something new, or at least different, and to spend time with academic colleagues they might otherwise only see in passing, in the hallways at AALS. For Illinois, finally, it’s an opportunity to spread good impressions and good will among legal academics, on the bench, and with the bar. (As Charles Tabb – who’s serving as Interim Dean – put it, it’s a great way “to make new friends.”)

At Emory, we have “accelerated courses,” but of a different sort. Visitors, most commonly hailing from overseas, come for four to seven weeks to teach a class or two. Again, students like it, etc. Obviously, though, the longer format engages a completely different set of potential visitors.

Do other schools do anything similar to Illinois? If not, it’s something I suspect might be well-worth considering.


Practicing Law, Studying Law, and Teaching Law

I missed the party on interdisciplinary studies last week — see here for links — but it did raise a question that I don’t think was a focus of the discussion, namely, all else being equal, can interdisciplinary scholars teach law school classes just as well as “non-interdisciplinary” hires? If, as Brian Tamanaha claims, more schools are adopting interdisciplinary programs, presumably the character of their faculties will need to reflect that ambition — i.e., they will have to hire more professors who have spent relatively more time studying and relatively less time in practice. Indeed, that balance does not only pertain to schools going interdisciplinary. Larry Solum suggests that in 20 years, law schools might be taught by law Ph.D.’s, who will presumably have less practice experience than today’s non-Ph.D. law faculty. So the question is really one of scholarly credentials versus experience. Will law teaching be better, worse, or unaffected by such a shift, if it occurs?

I’m skeptical of arguments that quickly equate “different from how it is done now” (or, similarly, “different than how it was done when I was younger”) with “worse.” So that’s a danger to avoid. However, as someone who views himself as having both interdisciplinary interests and some practice experience, I feel unusually free of biases here. And at the end of the day, I lean toward “worse.”

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