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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Part II: Indefensible Things About Law Teaching (and suggestions)

We don’t teach people how to teach sufficiently well.  How do people learn how to teach?  In most of the university, one learns the substance in graduate training and learns how to teach by being a teaching assistant (TA).   Law is unusual in that most of the folks starting teaching have never been in front of a class before.   Again, I firmly believe that at least most law profs are bright, talented folks; and I would bet, just based on anecdotal evidence, that a greater percentage of law profs today actually care about being good teachers than in past decades.  But even assuming lots of positives, good intentions + hard work + knowing the substance + being gregarious and socially skilled all together are not sufficient for good teaching.

I was a much better teacher in my first law class because I had been a TA in grad school.  I learned from undergrads in Georgetown’s history department that I should speak more slowly, write more things on the board, etc.  I also stumbled onto/learned strategies about questions and answers in class, dealing with students that were unhappy with their grades, how to make criticisms more constructive, etc.

None of this is rocket science, and at least most folks in law teaching who care can work this stuff out after a couple of years.  But I think law schools could and should do a better job of prepping first year teachers on how to teach in their first couple of years.

From what I gather, current strategies include the following.  First, sending new folks to the AALS “new teachers” conference.  That was good when I attended it, but there’s only so much you can learn in a day or two.   Second, giving first year teachers “light loads” of teaching.  While it’s good to have more time for preparation, this still doesn’t teach how to teach.  Also, one wonders if schools expect at least a chunk of the “extra” time to be spent working on scholarship.  Third, periodic reviews, usually related to the retention/promotion/tenure process.   A snapshot review can be useful, but it’s necessarily quite limited; also, to the extent that it’s part of “making a record,” that can interfere with frank dialogue about teaching.

So, what can be done?  First, I think more schools should treat “learning how to teach” as seriously as they treat “learning how to publish.”    I don’t have hard data to support my claims (if I’m wrong, tell me and I would be delighted), but I suspect that more schools have publication mentors than teaching mentors, and most have few if any faculty workshops devoted to teaching techniques and issues.  I think every new teacher should be assigned a teaching mentor; that new hires should be strongly encouraged and maybe required to visit classes of more senior teachers to expose them to a variety of styles that work; perhaps mid-term evaluations for first semester teachers could be used to get earlier feedback; and that generally, learning to teach should be treated as seriously as learning how to publish.

Posted by JosephSlater on April 20, 2006 at 10:01 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I agree that law professors (I was one) are thrown in the deep end with very little by way of training in what it means to teach in a classroom. That said, some of us come to law teaching from practice and other professional experiences which may help in ways that a pure grad school experience may not. I had never appeared in front of a classroom prior to become a lawprof, but I had done a great deal of public speaking -- to small and large audiences -- and was a litigator, which gave me useful experience in the presentation of complex facts and law in an an accessible way (client presentations, interviewing, oral argument, trial exhibits, etc.). I also agree that law schools should be better at internal assessment of the teaching abilities of their new professors and help build on what works and what doesn't on an individual basis. Seton Hall's program sounds terrific in that regard. The once-a-year review is not enough in the early years and student evaluations are not always sufficient to capture the range of skills needed to truly excel in the classroom.

I also used the mid-semester evaluations my first year and they were extremely helpful. But it is an act of bravery for some. I had pretenure colleagues who told me they avoided them precisely because they were afraid to confront the criticisms at a time that is already highly stressful.

Posted by: Peggy McGuinness | Apr 21, 2006 2:38:39 PM

Well, you can't call on everyone at once. So if 10 hands go up, and you call on one person, then another, then another, then some new hands go up, in order to keep the discussion moving, the advice (which I think is correct, based on my experience) is to go with the new people. They are reacting to what they just heard, as opposed to something said 10 minutes ago. But if there aren't any new people, and you're in no hurry to move on, then obviously there's no harm in calling on someone who's been patiently waiting.

Posted by: Bruce | Apr 20, 2006 10:33:08 PM

So you just ignore people who've had their hand raised for awhile? That must look pretty bizarre in the classroom...I mean, if you hadn't ignored them when they originally put their hands up, their hands wouldn't have been up for so long in the first place, right?

Posted by: Jay | Apr 20, 2006 9:07:33 PM

Joseph, I relate to this post because I too began learning how to teach as a grad student. It was mostly trial by fire, but the university I was at, Northwestern, had an excellent center on teaching, with materials on such topics as leading a classroom discussion that I found enormously helpful. (E.g., don't call on hands that have been raised for a long time, even if you feel sorry for them -- their question/comment is usually stale.) But that was 15 years ago (urk!) -- I would love to reread/read further in those materials. So Frank, please do post or send the syllabus.

Like Orin, I have also done mid-semester reviews in the past, and find that they are more useful than end-of-semester reviews because you can better tell what changes work and which don't, given that it's the same students so that variable is controlled. Also, students tend to like having the opportunity, and it seemed to me that that improved the quality of their feedback.

Posted by: Bruce | Apr 20, 2006 6:49:50 PM

Following my experience as a high-school teacher: (1) Teaching mentors are absolutely essential - you can't learn just by being in the classroom, you need people who are tried and true to talk to about what's going on in your classroom; (2) Visting the classes of good experienced teachers; (3) Having those experienced teachers visit your classes.

That last one is really scary, of course, but I think it has to go hand-in-hand with having a mentor.

Posted by: Jason Wojciechowski | Apr 20, 2006 6:34:22 PM

I can't speak for too many other schools, but at least at mine and some others I know of, we are expected to submit end of year reports, which include scholarship (reprints and drafts) as well as teaching evaluations. I would think that helps explain why law teachers, especially new ones or untenured ones, would care about their teaching--contra "law student's" comment. Sure, you're unlikely to get tenure or raises on the basis of good teaching alone, but I think many of us approach this with belts and suspenders, and want to be successful teachers, as well as scholars.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Apr 20, 2006 3:07:32 PM


Thanks for the comment, I enjoyed your work on VC and now your own blog very much. I'm sure I'm overlooking things, and indeed I'm looking for suggestions.

The issue with evaluations is, of course, that they typically come at the end of the semester, which, for a teacher in his first semester, might mean it's too late/too bad for the class(es) just taught. And sometimes, it may be easier to figure out what you're doing wrong and how to correct it from peer comments than from student comments (although both should be taken seriously).

As to new teachers voluntarily seeking advice, I'm all for it. I'm not entirely confident, however, that such practices are as widespread and thorough-going as they could and, in my opinion, should be. And the argument for "imposing it from above" is that it might help the reticent, the folks that don't want to seem like they don't know what they're doing, and also the folks that don't know how much they don't know.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Apr 20, 2006 2:35:39 PM

Very useful series of posts. My school (Seton Hall) does have a very good program for junior faculty regarding teaching skills. We met once every two weeks last semester with an experienced and highly regarded veteran professor who led discussions of readings (on how to improve classes), reviews of videotaped classes, and reciprocal classroom visits. I'd be happy to send a copy of the "syllabus" for it if anyone is interested.

Posted by: Frank Pasquale | Apr 20, 2006 2:22:00 PM

Law student,

"It's sure not expected today" by whom?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 20, 2006 1:43:50 PM

I don't understand. Why would law professors give a shit about teaching? It's sure not expected today.

Posted by: Law student | Apr 20, 2006 12:38:12 PM

Interesting post. However, I wonder if you're overlooking a few mechanisms to improve teaching.

First, students fill out teacher evaluations for every course, and those evaluations are widely available for people to read. At GW, for example, all evaluations are scanned in and posted online; any student or faculty member can read a professors' entire set of past evaluations. For the most part, colleagues know what kind of evaluations other colleagues receive, and getting favorable evaluations is considered a very positive thing. Similarly, most if not all schools have a teacher award. Both mechanisms create important incentives to teach better, I think.

Plus, in my experience young teachers do a number of things you mention without them being imposed from above. For example, I had my students fill out mid-semester evaluations during my 1st two years of teaching. The law school didn't make me do it; I just made up an evaluation form and asked my students to fill it out. I then used the evaluations to try to improve the class. Similarly, in my 1st year I regularly asked senior colleagues for tips on how to navigate through particular issues in class, which was very helpful. They weren't official mentors, but they certainly were unofficial ones. I assume none of these efforts were unusual.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 20, 2006 12:24:32 PM

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