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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Taking Stock of the Semester

Today Yesterday was the last day of my first semester at FSU; as some of you know, I taught both a seminar on punitive damages and a course on advanced criminal procedure (bail to jail).  I thought I'd share a few reactions; I invite others to weigh in with what they find worked for them (and what didn't) in their courses and schools. 

Regarding the crim pro course, I think I was able to avoid the soft scourge of widespread internet usage in class by a) prohibiting it, b) using Powerpoint slides, and c) using a remote clicker that allowed me to roam around the class to monitor what's going on and still help remind me of what my next topic of discussion was. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I never suspected I would be a Powerpoint person, and I still have incredibly rudimentary skills at using it; but, at least for bigger classes, I'm a convert.  Having the slides keeps the students' attention since they can toggle their focus back and forth from the slides to me, which I think keeps them "more" fresh than if it were just me talking, or having a discussion with just a few people.  (I guess it's similar to the phenomenon by which I often become more alert by getting the chance to surf the net through different sites than I would be if I had to just read one thing for an extended period of time.) 

Looking back, I remember the first day of class of the course quite vividly.  After all, until the class was over, my enrollment then was double what it was at the end. I'm not kidding.  About 1/2 the students dropped after the first day because a) I assigned too much reading, b) I cold-called too many people with too many questions, and c) required students to post a question and an answer to someone else's question about the reading in advance of each class on the class website.  With so many people voting with their feet, only a brave group of 22 stuck with me, and I soon softened the requirements.  Instead of calling on the entire class every day, I split the class in two, and alternated sides, as well as taking volunteers.  I reduced the reading from 30-35 pages per 100 minute class to 20-25, which meant less prep time for me as well.  And instead of requiring posting for every class, I gave the students the flexibility to post for 11 out of any of the 22 sessions we had together.  In retrospect, I almost followed Machiavelli's sage counsel: if you must do evil, do it at the beginning, and let the benefits trickle in over time. (Of course, now that I've publicly addressed the matter, I'll have to be "intentionally" difficult next year for a longer period to keep enrollments reasonable; I will continue to feel a minor pang of guilt about externalizing the defectors onto my unwittingly kind colleagues.)

I continue to be a big believer in the web discussion pages: there are often interesting questions that people come up with and the board provides a forum for those matters we don't have the time to address at length in class; it also provides a safe(r) place to ask questions that students might feel are "dumb."  To be sure, not every web discussion proves to be incisive and penetrating, but they often are, and overall, there are decisive benefits, to my mind at least.

From my perspective I think we had a great time over the course of the semester.  The students are, no doubt, anxious about the upcoming exam, but they will do fine.  One of the benefits of having scared off some students earlier (especially ones who get scared off by hard work and purportedly mean teachers) is that the class (here at FSU) can transform into a "profile" class.  (This  means that you don't have to use the school curve, but rather can use a curve based on the profile of students' past grades for students in the class.  That "profile" curve also comes attached with some extra discretionary points.  In other words, more room to give better grades.)  The remaining students are generally quite  pleased with this arrangement.

Both the course and the seminar on punitive damages turned out to be exceptionally fun and helpful for me, and gave some credibility to the nostrum that teaching can be helpful to scholarship rather than an impediment to it.  I'm working on a few big projects, both of which benefited from the teaching I did this semester: one involves inspecting the claim that indeterminate sentencing schemes should be declared unconstitutional and another tries to figure out the jurisprudence of a "retributive damages" scheme in tort law.   Viz. the seminar, I was very explicit  at the beginning of the semester that figuring out punitive damages was like trying to put together a moving jigsaw puzzle, and that I wanted to enlist the students' help in trying to fashion an attractive punitive damages scheme.  As the semester's end approached, I realized I had better get cracking on my draft if I want to get them to read it and help me repair it over time.  After all, nothing concentrates the mind like the sight of the hanging gallows.  The draft I gave them had gaps and ambiguities and probably even conflicts, but it's critical to get that "shitty" first draft done, or almost done, and now at least it's done, or almost done.  I have a few days before their papers and exams trickle in, so I'll get to really finish that shitty first draft this week I hope.  The best thing is that I can rely on students who have studied these matters with me for a semester to become RA's so we can gussy these projects up for the springtime.  It's as if they are pre-trained. 

My one regret with both classes is that I didn't get a chance to do a grand sum-up homily like the kind Paul H. gives because we were enmeshed at the time in good discussion about the substantive materials. (However, there might still be a chance at a review session for the course next week--hmmm.)  But maybe a rookie shouldn't be in the business of grand pronouncements to law students anyway... 

A final point about professorial attire, a topic near and dear to Ethan's heart and those of many others.  I definitely slid down a slippery slope.  Started off with a suit and tie and toward the end I often appeared in cords, sneakers and a dress shirt.  Didn't seem to matter much--FSU is quite casual (though no shorts by prawfs in class is the one rule I've heard).

As always, but especially here, I'm curious to hear reflections from others on the end of the semester (both students and prawfs).

Posted by Administrators on November 23, 2005 at 02:01 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Over the holidays I saw this post over at Prawfsblog. We have a couple of new profs as well, and it was striking how their experiences almost exactly echoed my impression here. Having taught before (though not law school), I can understand the nervo... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 28, 2005 11:45:48 PM


Dan, I'm curious about this idea of a "profile class" -- how, exactly, is it determined that a class will be released from the standard curve?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 23, 2005 7:09:40 AM

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I never suspected I would be a Powerpoint person, and I still have incredibly rudimentary skills at using it; but, at least for bigger classes, I'm a convert.

And 22 students is a *bigger* class (he queries from the front of the lecture hall filled with 200 students)? Get any smaller and my -- B school, not law school -- Associate Dean cancels the class.

Posted by: JP | Nov 23, 2005 8:02:47 AM

Dan -- We could've changed the names of the classes and school, and otherwise a post by me on the same topic would've looked just like yours, on virtually every point. [E.g., the "students voting with their feet" point (my ultimate enrollment in Federal Courts ended up at 24), the utility of Powerpoint, if for no other reason than attention-getting, and the slippery-slope of attire]. Maybe it's specific to teaching in Florida, but I had already eschewed the sports jacket by mid-September, and have basically given into the weather (so, polo shirts, khakis, and casual shoes).

My summation in Federal Courts was equally open-ended (although our last case was "Colorado River," which, I told them, was a silly way to end the semester. At least in Civil Procedure, I was able to read a poem -- Auden's "Law Like Love," an all-time fave.

It's remarkable, isn't it, how different it felt to walk into class the last day of the semester than the first... So, at the risk of asking a silly question, and besides the obvious, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? I have some of my own, but I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Mazel tov!

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Nov 23, 2005 8:10:16 AM

As one of Prof. Markel's students, I can embarrass him by observing that, at the end of our last session and despite the lack of a grand pronouncement, our class broke into sincere and sustained applause.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Nov 23, 2005 9:49:44 AM

Thanks Bart. Honestly, I haven't paid him to write that.
Rick, to answer your question: if you're below 34 students in a class at FSU then the prawf can opt for a profile distribution.
JP: well, I'd like to say that 22 students for a class at FSU is large, but that's not right; it's bigger than my seminar, which had 12. The bigger course was held in a large classroom notwithstanding the smaller enrollment, which made it seem like a "bigger class" to me.
Steve: one thing I've learned (or re-learned) is Gam Zeh Ya'avor. "This too shall pass." Despite extensive prior teaching experience while I was in law school, I was on the edge of puking my first day this semester. Now the onset of class doesn't scare me at all. The other lesson is: don't try to cover too much. I've probably committed educational malpractice by skipping virtually all the "trial rights" of an adjudication crim pro course, but I figured it was more important to focus on things like screening, counsel access, plea bargaining and sentencing, which is where the action is these days. Covering too much material in class often requires forgoing the deep engagement with the materials that makes class fun. And students, for the most part, prefer less reading to more. Shocking.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Nov 23, 2005 12:37:07 PM

Law school in the US sounds very different.

Posted by: UofT 2l | Nov 23, 2005 11:01:31 PM

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