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Friday, August 31, 2007

Good classes and bad

A couple of weeks of the Fall semester are now in the books, and already I've experienced both the pleasure of what I consider a successful class, and the self-criticism that comes from teaching a class I consider not so great.  And once again as I drive home from school I ask myself about what made the difference.

Ultimately, I think, the difference is not in preparation.  I've actually taught pretty bad classes where I have prepped, and indeed, where I know a lot more than usual about the material (e.g., cases or doctrines I've written about) --  and I know, by the way, that there's a difference between prepping and knowing the material.  For that matter I've taught pretty decent classes where my prep time was quite limited. 

I think the difference lies in my taking the time to think about my goals for the class.  There have been times when I've walked in all fired up to talk about a doctrine, yet when we get to the big punchline, the "why are we talking about this?" question . . . I don't have an answer.  Talk about climbing up the mountain, only to shrug and turn around and walk back down.

This ties in to some  thoughts on teaching I blogged about last year.  The point of those thoughts was that I was realizing the importance of teaching for the students' benefit, rather than my own.  What I meant then and mean now (although I've experienced it differently this go round) is thinking about what students need out of a class.  Some of what they need is obvious, and seemingly trivial, for example, for the professor not to fall behind so they can confidently prep for what we're going to talk about that day.  And part of what they need is a context for the material, so it doesn't seem to be a disjointed set of cases or statutes or readings.  But a big part of it is for me to think about what I want students to get out of that particular day's class.  The doctrine? Understanding a judge's method of analysis? Understanding the history so they can better understand the state of the law today?

These aren't questions I learn the answer to by rereading the case or my notes or any legal scholarship on the topic.  These are teaching questions.  They require me to approach the issue as a teacher, rather (simply) as a scholar.  I reached similar conclusions in that earlier post, but thinking about the issue this time around has taught me one of ways in which teaching and scholarship are different.  This may seem obvious, and indeed I have circled back to the same thoughts I had last year. But it's not something that comes intutitvely to me.  Maybe it doesn't come easily to anyone who hasn't been trained in education or who isn't what they call "a natural teacher."  For that reason it's probably a good thing that profs consciously try to think about these issues, at least at the start of every semester when their teaching bones may be a little creaky from the summer.

Posted by Bill Araiza on August 31, 2007 at 06:44 PM | Permalink

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The point of those thoughts was that I was realizing the importance of teaching for the students' benefit, rather than my own.

This sentences holds more truth than almost anything I've read on any of the prof blawgs in a long time. Bravo. This is the essence of teaching.

Posted by: Scott Greenfield | Sep 2, 2007 7:45:09 AM

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