Thursday, July 05, 2012
On Experience and Pedagogy
My last post generated a lot of comments not merely about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of practice-based sabbaticals (or of sabbaticals at all), but about the value (or lack thereof) of practical experience to law teaching generally.
For example, pedagogical anon wrote: "What I would love to see is a study of the post-experiential sabbatical's effect on teaching. So much of the assumption that some amount of practice makes one a better teacher doesn't usually go beyond the above ‘war story’ assertions. As someone who works in law and education, I'm amazed that people think practice is so definitively linked to classroom teaching outside of clinics. Teaching is a craft, and sometimes a natural talent. One year of practice makes you that much better at teaching in a doctrinal class? More charismatic, empathetic, or any of the traits people who actually study effective pedagogy emphasize? Hmm..."
Although I would not venture to assert that practice is "definitively" linked to classroom teaching, anecdotally, I have found my practical experience to be a valuable addition to my teaching.Did it make me more "charismatic, empathetic," or the like? Not necessarily. Having done litigation, I suspect it caused me to be slightly less empathetic, slightly more charismatic. Courtroom experience has helped me to be more sensitive to presenting material in an articulate and understandable manner to audiences of varying levels of familiarity with the material, although obviously that is not the only or even the best way to develop such sensitivity. But I never assumed that the main value of legal experience to teaching is that it instills the interpersonal qualities of a good teacher. Nor did my experience merely provide fodder for "war stories" (although I do think there is value in that as well, see Brooks Holland’s post).
Rather, my experience provided me with perspective about how lawyers use doctrine in practice, a contextual understanding of the procedural, strategic, and ethical context in which lawyers apply legal rules. If the goal of law teaching were solely to transmit doctrine effectively, then I would tend to agree that experience does not necessarily translate into good teaching (but see my thoughts on that below). However, I regularly pursue (as no doubt, most teachers do) multiple pedagogical goals simultaneously.
For example, while discussing a case in my Wills and Trusts class, I not only want my students to understand the court’s reasoning and holding. I may want them to think critically about why the parties chose to litigate the causes of action they did (or raise the issues they did on appeal), about what other causes of action or defenses might have been asserted or strategies pursued, and about the practical considerations (cost; likelihood of success; malpractice or ethical concerns) of pursuing those strategies. I may also want to pepper in practical tips about things to watch out for, or things to make sure to do, in practice. This includes (but is not limited to) thinking of legal practice as a business, where applicable, and not merely an academic exercise. I find that students often would not think about the law in these terms if I did not push them to do so, and that they are often grateful for my having done so.
I would have a much harder time achieving these goals—or indeed, be less likely to even realize that they were goals I would want to pursue—if I didn’t have a base of practical experience.
Moreover, I do believe that in some ways—and this may be fairly subject-specific—practical experience can in fact help one teach doctrine more effectively. When I was in law school, my Evidence professor was a brilliant man whose scholarship I did and still do highly respect. But I came out of that class not really knowing how to recognize hearsay when I heard it. Then I took a trial advocacy class and participated in a mock trial competition, and evidence became second-nature. This enhanced my work as a litigator, which, in turn, enhanced my ability to structure my own Evidence course in a way that would demand that students apply evidence law through role playing as trial lawyers, and assisted my ability to design hypotheticals in ways that would be useful to my students. Again, many students have express gratitude for my having approached this subject in this manner.
All this being said, would spending, say, six months working at a prosecutor’s office necessarily make me a "better" teacher of criminal law? I obviously can’t guarantee that it would. But if my civil experience is any indicator, it should give me a broader or, at the very least, a different perspective on the law, and provide a richer context in which to place the law. And this all is to say nothing about the scholarship that might flow directly from such experience, or how the experience would otherwise inform my work going forward.
Finally, the idea of a "study of the post-experiential sabbatical's effect on teaching" intrigues me. Would it be a qualitative study, based on self-reporting by the professors who engaged in such sabbaticals? Would it quantitatively measure pre- and post-sabbatical differences in the students’ teaching evaluations? Grades? Bar pass rates? Other post-graduation metrics (job selection, job satisfaction, job performance)?
Okay, I’ve mused long enough. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on the topic.
Posted by Martin Pritikin on July 5, 2012 at 12:36 PM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference On Experience and Pedagogy:
The comments to this entry are closed.