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Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Teachable Moment

Thank you to Howard and to the PrawfsBlawg community for the opportunity to blog this month.  This semester I'm teaching Administrative Law in what amounts to an ongoing teachable moment for that subject. 

My fellow blogger, David Fontana, recently discussed the topic of law professor neutrality in our political moment.  I'd like to ask a related, but different, question:  What are techniques to bring this teachable moment into the classroom?  For some, I recognize, this question may seem the wrong one to ask.  For instance, bringing the day's headlines into class will raise the questions about neutrality that David posed.  It also raises questions about responsibility to students, some of whom may be directly affected by the latest action of the Administration.

Still, I've seen several benefits this semester from teaching Administrative Law through the lens of our teachable moment.  First, it helps students connect with difficult and sometimes abstract material.  Second, it helps students understand not only the promise of the rule of (administrative) law, but also its limits.  Third, it responds to students' own demands.  Fourth - and this last point is focused on Administrative Law - it has helped me tell a story that focuses students on presidential administration, a story that might not otherwise be apparent from many of the canonical cases. 

There are, it seems to me, several ways to bring this teachable moment into class, at least for an Administrative Law class.

Perhaps the lowest cost approach is to work real-world examples into Socratic questioning or lecture.  At the beginning of the semester, I did a fair bit of that during the opening of class.  For the most part, it seemed to work well.  And by that I mean, it helped students get some sense of the stakes of the administrative law we planned to discuss, such as due process.     

Another option is to pull problems from the headlines for intensive focus during class.  I use problem-based teaching frequently.  Creating in-class problems based on the latest action from the Trump Administration helps students see the material as relevant, which can be difficult in administrative law.  At the same time, there are risks.  For example, there's a temptation to wrestle with any given class session's material even if it does not fit well with the latest headlines.  Avoiding that temptation, I've found, isn't always easy, particularly if students are eager to connect the law they're learning with what the Administration's doing.  For those who, like me, used problem-based teaching, this option may work well, though it requires generating new problems as the semester goes along.

The most interesting option - at least for me, and I hope for students - is to allow the students to put what they're learning to work.  This semester, my students are each writing a comment on a proposed agency action.  (Some students did not find a real-world proposal that interested them, and therefore worked with me to predict an action that the Trump Administration might take in the future as the basis for the written assignment.)  I just finished grading the students' outlines of their comments, which reflected careful thought and genuine passion for the issue(s) they discussed.    

There's much more that could be said, of course, including the questions that David posed about teaching during the Trump Administration.  I'm interested in what others have done and think about the pedagogical benefits and costs of connecting class with this teachable moment.


Posted by Seth Davis on March 16, 2017 at 06:48 PM | Permalink


Obama had many, many questionable AdminLaw issues. The waters of the US, the clean coal plan, DACA, DAPA, Obamacare regs granting waivers to churches but not other religious persons/entities for contraceptives, Dear colleague letters reinterpreting "sex" in Title IX, Dear Colleague letters requiring lower standard of proof in college rape cases...

Did any of those come up in your problem based learning?

Posted by: biff | Mar 16, 2017 8:45:10 PM

Biff, This is the first time I've taught the course. Many of the examples you mention would make interesting problems for teaching, I would think.

Posted by: Seth Davis | Mar 17, 2017 12:44:53 PM

So why not include them in your class? Surely Title IX and college rape are topics as relevant to your students as any Trump admin actions.

I would actually really like to hear how a similar class exercise that focuses on these topics turns out.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Mar 17, 2017 1:04:28 PM

I would generalize biff's point with a rule to ignore avoid any news less than five years old. This comes from my immediate reaction to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. I fully expected everyone with an ax to grind to jump all over such an overtly nihilistic act, and advised anyone who would listen to ignore anything said about it for the next five years. The upcoming 100th year on Ford Motor Co (in 2003) would be the signal that the time has come where talking about it wouldn't be a complete waste of time.

My prediction, to my dismay, was truer than I anticipated, given the subsequent moral panic over video games, and a certain documentary filmmaker's profiteering that would have made M Licinius Crassus blush. Years later, the FBI, tasked with coming up with some sort of constructive policy for mass killings at schools, published a report that said, effectively, that all the conventional policy responses (intervention, profiling, mental health awareness measures, gun restrictions for minors, etc.) were provably ineffective. It follows, therefore, that using current events as a pedagogical tool for policy formulation is about as close to a provable waste of time as you will ever find.

Contrast that to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The group of men there didn't have many of the analytical tools of the social sciences we have today, but they did have an understanding of history much better and deeper than is common today. (I have to think they would be dismayed at how few people today can connect the terms "establishment" and religious "test" as used in the Constitution to the terms' use in previous parliamentary acts.) Their policies proved much more enduring, so the lesson here is that the broad sweep of history is a much better source of fitting examples than current events are.

Posted by: M. Rad. | Mar 17, 2017 1:16:16 PM

Yesterday, In the last class we discussed an interesting example that bridged the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration: DAPL. And it turned out well.

Posted by: Seth Davis | Mar 17, 2017 1:16:56 PM

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