Saturday, May 03, 2014
On "turning 40"
I just finished (well, almost -- my students are taking their exams) teaching my 40th law-school class: Criminal Law - 9, Constitutional Criminal Procedure -5, Constitutional Law - 7, Freedom of Speech - 5, The First Amendment - 4, Freedom of Religion - 5 (once as a mini-course in Israel), Catholic Social Thought and the Law - 3, The Death Penalty - 1, The American Jury - 1. (Thankfully, this "40" milestone looks to be much less complicated, and a much happier occasion, for me than it was for Paul Rudd's and Leslie Mann's characters in "This is 40.")
It's easy to report that I still love law-teaching and continue to regard the chance to participate in the development and launching of my students' vocations as a huge blessing. My students have been great (and they've been patient as I get slower and slower on the basketball court). The trickier task, "at 40," is to figure out, and honestly assess, whether or not I have improved as a teacher -- or, even if I have, if I have as much as I could and should have.
Sure, I know the material better than I did the first few times around. I'm more comfortable than I was at first with not knowing the answer to a good question, and with being challenged, and with having to correct myself, and with needing to apologize for a mistake. I've changed books and classes often enough that, I think, I've pretty well avoided the danger of the "same old notes, same old script, same old class" problem. I think I've managed to lose the nervousness while retaining the enthusiasm. So far so good.
That said, if I'm honest about it, I wonder if I could or should have done more. My courses proceed pretty much as they always have in the non-seminar classes -- a mix of review, lecture, discussion, "soft-Socratic" questioning, and looking ahead. I draw some things on the board, but have only used PowerPoint (or other digital tools and resources) on a handful of occasions and not, I think, very effectively. I've assigned and used a lot of secondary materials and scholarship to supplement casebooks, but have probably not done enough to bring in current events, relevant material from other disciplines (say, sociological or psychological material in Criminal Law). I evaluate students -- that is, I write and grade exams -- in pretty much the same way I did in 1999. For the most part, I have not incorporated experiential-learning or clinical assignments and exercises into my courses.
I'm not inclined to think that "change" is an imperative, or that it's always good, but . . . maybe I should have changed more? Maybe that happens at 50 . . . .
Professor Garnett - it's a shame (in my opinion) that you only taught your class on the death penalty once. How lucky I am to have been at NDLS in 2001! :) It was my favorite class in law school, and I still reference what I learned in it to others, including my own students now. Congratulations on hitting "40"!
Posted by: Kristina Campbell | May 3, 2014 7:24:56 PM
Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 4, 2014 12:35:54 PM
Rick--Any thoughts on teaching so many *different* courses over the last ten or so years? I'd think the median law professor taught far fewer courses over the first several years of teaching; maybe 4-5 at most. Has it improved your teaching, or just meant a lot more work?
Posted by: anonprof06 | May 4, 2014 12:50:06 PM
anonprof06 -- That's a great question: I just don't know. On the one hand, focusing on just a few could give you the time (and incentive) to *really* focus on those few. On the other, having a "bigger rotation" might help to keep things fresh, etc. Also, at least in my case, three of the courses (First Amendment, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech) are really closely connected, and there's lots of overlapping prep work.
Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 4, 2014 1:28:33 PM
I have heard from others how blessed Notre Dame Law School is to have you; Godspeed!
Posted by: N.D. | May 6, 2014 4:57:08 PM