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Monday, August 15, 2005

Things to ask (or not to ask) your new prawfs

Today was orientation and meet your professors day at Hastings.  After a brief introduction, the forum was opened to students to ask questions of their professors.  Some asked about the Socratic method; some asked about supplemental readings; some asked how they could find the assignments for the first day.  Here's the one I got on my first day as Professor Leib:

"Professor Leib, many of us are concerned that you've never taught a day in your life.  What do you have to say about that?"

This is not only what I heard (which I expected to hear, of course); it was what was actually asked.  Law professor wannabes, take note: not only will your students be thinking it--some may actually say it out loud.

Posted by Ethan Leib on August 15, 2005 at 04:52 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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Nu, so what was your answer?

Posted by: Dan Markel | Aug 15, 2005 5:13:33 PM

I'd have paraphrased Job:
"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if thou hast understanding."

Except, applying the Green Bag's gloss.

Posted by: Dave Hoffman | Aug 15, 2005 9:54:18 PM

I think the best response is to say, "I'm looking forward to our class. I realize you have never been in a law school class before, but I think you're really going to enjoy it."

Posted by: My | Aug 15, 2005 10:12:22 PM

Young and energetic, and fresh from law school and/or trenches beats old (and sometimes tired)...well, not always, but quite often. (But you will be shocked at the exams--takes years to re-normalize your expectations. Use a curve. For their sakes.)

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Aug 15, 2005 11:11:29 PM

I'm with Dan: what did you say?

But the real concern comes around studying-for-exams time.

"My god... this prawf has never written an exam before! We're _guinea pigs_!

You can allay this fear by

- giving out a sample essay question part-way through the semester, with the comment that this is an example of your typical question style, that they should be able to answer it fairly well at this point in the semester given what they've learned so far, and that if they wish to write up a sample answer and email it to you, you'll be available at office hours at mutual convenience to discuss what's good and what needs improvement in the answer.

- pointing to another prawf's exams that you believe you will model yours on (the students already know where to find the model answers, don't worry about that part)

- not testing multiple-choice

- giving feedback on "homework" questions during the semester, such as a 10-minute writing assignment done in class one week, returned two weeks later, and discussed the week after, in which they are told to "evaluate the damages question" on a short sample question. Distribute the model answer, discuss it, or post it online, and return their questions with some comments on each one.

Extra work, but it allays fears all around.

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | Aug 16, 2005 2:33:15 PM

While I'm amazed a student actually *said* that, it's not surprising that they are thinking it. But as others have said, students also worry that older law profs. will be stodgy and out-of-touch. The advantage young profs. have with students is that, as a generalization, students are more likely to think that they can "relate" to the professor, culturally and maybe personally, and that the professor will be more up on recent trends in law and technology. The disadvantage is that young profs. are less likely to be seen as the Ultimate Authority on whatever they are teaching, and as untested in their actual teaching skills.

The real solution is to *show* them that you can teach and that you know what you're talking about. And that requires a lot of work, especially in your first year or two/the first time or two you teach a class. The students are right, at least instinctively, that being an effective teacher is more than just being smart, generally knowledgable, and caring. You have to put in the prep work to present the material coherently and to be able to answer questions.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 17, 2005 10:53:01 AM

"This is my first course. If you have feedback on how to improve my communication and organizational skills please do come to my office hours. If you hold your opinions until final evaluation, I will be unable to act upon them during the semester. If you would like me to reconsider a grade, I will ask the advice of Professor-Notorious-Fails-Everyone."

The first class I taught was at Harvard. I have a Southern accent, am female, and was pregnant. After that, everything else has been cake.

Posted by: Jean Camp | Aug 18, 2005 5:16:08 PM

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