Wednesday, February 08, 2012
A student forwarded me the story in Above the Law a couple of weeks back about Yale Law School's issues with placating student demand for Administrative Law (short story shorter: a large number of 3Ls were locked out of Admin in their last semester and complained; the administration then offered an additional section). One apparent reason among many (and it's clear from the story that there were many, so I'll stipulate that this may have been a minor reason even though I suspect it might not be) is that students preferred to avoid taking the course from Jerry Mashaw, who "has a reputation for running a dry and difficult class." I'll testify to that. It was one of my favorite classes, and it's now one of my favorite ones to teach, and it's dry and difficult, and although his extremely dry and ironic wit was there if you were paying attention, Jerry Mashaw made little effort to enliven it.
To which I say: good for him. The notion that classes should be entertaining, and that law school should be entertaining, and, more importantly, that it is a profession that should be entertaining (as no doubt entering law students expect), seems misplaced. Being bored and being boring is a defining feature of adulthood, of responsibility, of doing the things that need to be done in order to live and provide for others. Most jobs are boring -- the most boring job I ever had was on a film set, which of course had the aura of sexiness and entertainment but which was mostly about sitting around, waiting for the lighting, sound crews, and talent to be satisfied with the set up. Mastery of anything requires repetition; repetition by definition is boring.
More significantly, like most professions law is about repetitive tasks and arcane things. There are periods of great, sustained, enervating intellectual activity in many legal jobs, but also vast stretches of reading, research, and manipulating boiler plate that are defined by their dreariness. And perhaps no field, and no course, can be as dreary as Administrative Law where, this week, we have debated the difference, if any, between "substantial evidence" and "arbitrary and capricious" as judicial standards of review for findings of fact in agency adjudication. If someone has found a way to make this anything but dry and difficult -- other than in a meta-conversation that considers the absurdity of making the distinction -- then my hat is off to them.
But this is why I think it's our obligation to make our material dry and difficult and, where appropriate, boring. I found Jerry Mashaw's teaching style almost performance-art-like in its fascination with the dry and arcane. I try, no doubt unsuccessfully, to emulate that fasination, to get students to see the boring and to understand why it exists. To become an effective government lawyer or administrative law attorney requires one to recognize the importance of bureaucracy, as well as the necessity of channeling it within legal bounds. That's essential and can be exciting; it can also quite frequently be really boring.
Posted by Mark Fenster on February 8, 2012 at 10:30 AM | Permalink
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This approach is deeply misguided. Boring instruction does not stick; it's not an effective way to cause actual learning. Anything worth teaching is worth teaching in an interesting way -- and CAN be taught in an interesting way.
Law is boring, yes. But sitting in a room listening to someone drone at you in a monotone is not even a good way of introducing students to the boring aspects of law because it doesn't actually bring them face to face (to so speak) with the kinds of tasks that make law boring but are nonetheless important. All it's good training for is sitting through mandatory CLEs.
And if you think that it's not possible to make the difference between "substantial evidence" and "arbitrary and capricious" interesting, well, then, I'm sorry you didn't get to take Admin from Don Elliott.
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 8, 2012 10:40:58 AM
I agree completely with James Grimmelmann. It's not a matter of "law practice is boring too, so suck it up." In my teaching, it's about engaging the students and getting them to think deeply and critically. Sometimes that means being entertaining, often it means being informal and approachable, but the goal is to get students to be willing to go out on a limb with their thinking.
Posted by: James Milles | Feb 8, 2012 10:57:45 AM
If you cannot stir your students' interest in the subject, then you have failed in your duties as a professor. To suggest that professors are 'obligated' to make the material boring is simply making excuses for an ineffective teaching style.
I took Administrative Law with Rick Hills, an author on this very blog, and it was far and away my favorite 1L course. I do not believe I am less prepared for the real world because he was able to engage his students and enliven the material.
Posted by: Ed | Feb 8, 2012 11:10:39 AM
Oh, I get it--this is another one of those trolling posts Prawfsblawg likes to do on occasion. You got us!
Posted by: James Milles | Feb 8, 2012 11:24:54 AM
Agree fully with James. Well said!
Posted by: newprof | Feb 8, 2012 11:25:13 AM
Many legal topics that might appear boring to a "layperson" are highly entertaining to those of us who love dissecting texts or analyzing abstractions such as federalism, so the trick is to get students to embrace their inner law nerds and find entertainment in issues the misguided masses might dismiss as boring. By the way, I've sat in on a number of Mark Fenster's classes and they are anything but boring.
Posted by: Lyrissa | Feb 8, 2012 12:41:29 PM
Well, I'm not entirely displeased with becoming the Andy Kaufman of legal blogging (to explain: Kaufman used his stand-up routines as a means to frustrate his audience in order, among other things, to reveal to them their own expectations of the form, often resulting in his getting booed off-stage). But before clarifying my point, let me make the observation in passing that hearing academics talk publicly about their teaching is akin to hearing 16-year-olds talk about sex: everyone is so consumed by their own performance anxiety that they invariably inflate, in quality and quantity, their own abilities; and that the best conversations about teaching happen in private moments, when such anxiety can be confessed and discussed.
I will leave to my students the question of whether I succeed at being boring. I will note, however, that I don't think any course, much less Admin, is invariably boring. My point was simply that sometimes the material is boring -- frequently because it has to be, because it's dealing with things like mass justice or bureaucratic processes where rules must be complex, all-encompassing, and concern something that requires minute but significant regulatory distinctions. To be entertaining, one could avoid such subjects, or gloss over them quickly, or present animated powerpoint slides. All those things are fine. But they can't avoid the boring complexity of the law; nor can they deny the boring complexity of the practice that deploys them. I think it's incumbent on us to present that boring complexity to our students, and sometimes that requires us to be boring.
Is that deeply misguided? Trolling?
Posted by: Mark Fenster | Feb 8, 2012 12:54:02 PM
When I was a student I took Administrative law with Professor Mashaw. I suspect that boring is being used in an overly broad way in this discussion. I really liked the subject and I really liked and respected Professor Mashaw. In fact, it proved to be the subject in which I was the most interested even though it was not the class in which I did the best. However, I, like I think much of the class, found it very very difficult to hear what Professor Mashaw was saying. As I am sure you recall, he speaks in a very soft fashion with a bit of a mumble. He uses fairly convoluted sentences at a cadance and pitch such that many students find it difficult to continuously make out what is happening over the course of the class. Some of that is the dryness of the way he presents the material, but some of it is a communicative concern. Given the latter, I don't think it is wrong of students to not want to add an additional hurdle, unrelated to the mastery of the material, to their learning process. Not wanting to do things that are difficult, and where the boredom seems a necessary part of the process, is quite different from wanting to avoid boredom and unnecessary difficulty when you can. Would you have taken that very boring job if you could have found an equivalent one that was not boring? Boredom is not a good in itself, nor should we maximize exposure to it just to get used to it for the times when we will have to face it.
Posted by: Student | Feb 8, 2012 1:10:43 PM
I started to read this post, but it was dry and boring, so I didn't get very far. Can someone summarize the post for me in a more entertaining way?
Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 8, 2012 1:11:56 PM
"I will leave to my students the question of whether I succeed at being boring." This reminds me of the way Arthur Dent figures out how to fly, which is to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 8, 2012 1:19:22 PM
No, that's not deeply misguided or trolling. It's just not what you said in the post.
Not avoiding difficult and intricate subjects is rather different from making them dry and difficult, no?
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 8, 2012 1:20:09 PM
I think "Student" did a good job of drawing out the distinction that most of the rest of the commenters are missing. There's a difference between closely engaging with difficult and 'boring' material (which can seem boring to some but highly interesting to a student with the right mindset) and presenting material in a more 'boring' and inaccessible way than is necessary.
For me, the contrast is in two required classes I took in fields I don't particularly care for, art history and biology. In the one sense, both were 'boring': they were taking a pretty detailed look at material I wasn't that interested in. But the biology prof would stand in front of class and read almost word for word from PowerPoint slides, never giving us a sense of any importance to the material beyond memorizing the facts in front of us. The art history prof talked quietly in a dim room, but he did such a good job of conveying his passion for and interest in the material that the class was enjoyable. He didn't use the gimics that Mark Fenster seems to be worried about: he was just engaging.
There are an unfortunate number of students who conflate 'boring' material with 'boring' professors. This post seems to be aimed at those students. But the distinction is an important one to draw: don't be afraid of the complexity of the material, but also don't forget to engage your listeners.
Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Feb 8, 2012 2:31:21 PM
Posted by: Matt Bodie | Feb 8, 2012 2:52:28 PM
Orin: Andrew M-M's last paragraph got it, and it was much less boring!
Student: No doubt you had to sit in the front row.
Matt: Thanks for the clip, but it was really boring. Nothing happened! (Moreover, it looked too much like me during my first year of teaching...)
James: I'm still not sure what in the original post led you to assume that I meant performatively boring, but I'm pleased to have clarified the point sufficiently.
Lyrissa: The check's in the mail.
Posted by: Mark Fenster | Feb 8, 2012 3:04:50 PM
JG can speak for himself, but perhaps these sections made him think that you were talking about performance.
"And perhaps no field, and no course, can be as dreary as Administrative Law where, this week, we have debated the difference, if any, between "substantial evidence" and "arbitrary and capricious" as judicial standards of review for findings of fact in agency adjudication. If someone has found a way to make this anything but dry and difficult -- other than in a meta-conversation that considers the absurdity of making the distinction -- then my hat is off to them.
But this is why I think it's our obligation to make our material dry and difficult and, where appropriate, boring." (Suggesting you think it unlikely that anyone could make this interesting suggests you are talking about performance. When you phrase it in terms of an "obligation" to be boring, it furthers the suggestion.
Or near the opening-- "It was one of my favorite classes, and it's now one of my favorite ones to teach, and it's dry and difficult, and although his extremely dry and ironic wit was there if you were paying attention, Jerry Mashaw made little effort to enliven it.
To which I say: good for him. The notion that classes should be entertaining, and that law school should be entertaining, and, more importantly, that it is a profession that should be entertaining (as no doubt entering law students expect), seems misplaced." Again, I think a fair reading of this is that you were talking about the way people performed in their presentation of the subject of Ad. Law.
Both of those passages, to me, referenced the performance of the professor, not the material itself.
Posted by: Anon | Feb 8, 2012 3:34:25 PM
You use "complicated" as synonymous with "boring." Doesn't that insult your students' intelligence?
You also misunderstand the obligations of instructors and students. Students don't have a duty to cultivate a propoer apprecation for the "performance art" of their instructors. Instructors, on the other hand, have a responsibility to educate the studnets as effectively as possible. This probably invovles presenting complicated materials in clear and memorable way, as everyone above has pointed out.
Posted by: Matt | Feb 8, 2012 3:57:52 PM
Comments above have helpfully distinguished some meanings of "boring" but I think we have devoted insufficient attention to the project of dissecting the different meanings of the word "dry."
It's one thing to say "dry" as in "lifeless." It's quite another to say "dry" as in a wry sort of wit. I took Mashaw's class as a law student and thought it was excellent; one of several reasons was his dry, somewhat subtle, humor, which was also one of the ways that his intrinsic enjoyment of the subject came across -- even (or especially) when we were talking about corners of administrative law that are frankly a bit contradictory or do not make the most sense.
Posted by: Joey Fishkin | Feb 8, 2012 10:27:41 PM
There's nothing wrong with being entertaining in class, but even I find this (http://youtu.be/UlDWRZ7IYqw) excessive for a typical law school class.
Posted by: James Milles | Feb 9, 2012 10:13:34 AM
When I read, "I think it's our obligation to make our material dry and difficult and, where appropriate, boring," I had to check my calendar to see if it was April 1st.
Posted by: Heidi R. Anderson | Feb 9, 2012 2:33:11 PM
Oh, please. If the geeks at Yale don't have an appetite for the dry and arcane, who does? I suggest that this post is built on sand - namely, the risible premise that "[b]eing bored and being boring is a defining feature of adulthood . . . ." To clarify, those are defining features of *dysfunctional* adulthood. Healthy adults seek out and, occasionally, succeed at finding the meaningful side of "responsibility" and "doing the things that need to be done in order to live and provide for others." Therein lies the felt significance and even, on good days, the drama of the dry and arcane. To phrase this proposition in the negative, boredom and being boring are not signs of adulthood but signs of failed imagination. They are not, I emphasize, the same thing as serenity. I also note, in fairness, that they are not the same thing as an active cultivation of an interest in the dry and arcane, which is what Prof. Fenster seems to be defending and Prof. Mashaw, if his students are to be believed (heaven forfend), seems to be failing at.
Posted by: Anon | Feb 9, 2012 2:56:32 PM
Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Feb 9, 2012 6:46:31 PM
Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 9, 2012 9:46:25 PM
David Foster Wallace would find this post fascinating. Some relevant quotes from "The Pale King"
"Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Herosim. [...] The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. [...] ...actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested." p. 227
"True heroism is minutes, hours, week, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care--with no one there to see or cheer." p. 228
An administrative lawyer --the modern Achilles?
Posted by: William | Feb 10, 2012 2:23:40 AM
Have you read the Pale King yet? I'm tempted to assign portions of it to my 1L section- it is the first fiction work I've read that seriously grapples with the problem and pervasiveness of boredom.
Posted by: Lesley Wexler | Feb 10, 2012 8:57:14 AM
And that's what I get for not reading the entire thread. William, you scooped me.
Posted by: Lesley Wexler | Feb 10, 2012 8:58:15 AM