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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Developing as a Teacher

I have a confession: I’ve been having a ball teaching this semester, more than in years.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is that it’s a pleasant change of pace from my regular 9-5 duties as Associate Dean (duh).  But I think part of it has to do with a change in my approach to teaching.  In a nutshell, I’ve begun focusing on teaching.

Let me try to explain.  Perhaps (or not) like most profs, the theme of my early years of teaching was “Guess What I Just Learned!”  As I was literally just learning the material myself, I was full of excitement as I walked into class and pretty much spilled my short term memory out to the students.  The very fact that I had something to tell was thrilling; as you can probably imagine, I did not require them to participate in the discussion.  I got very good student evaluations.

After three or four years, my knowledge of the subject-matter deepened.  In my classroom, the theme became themes.  Connections.  The seamlessness of the law (or at least selected parts of it).  “Look how Employment Division v. Smith employs the same basic type of intent requirement as Washington v. Davis.  Wow!”  I suspect my students liked it, fans as they are of coherent (that is, easy to follow) narratives.

Then, Phase III: Reality. 

The seams became undone; the fit wasn’t as tight as I’d thought.  But I needed something to tell my students.  This was a problem.  I could play it cynical for a while.  It was just after Bush v. Gore, so it was easy enough to do.  And anyway, all my friends were doing it.  Still, it felt like I was just acting a part.  Mid-career crisis beckoned (quite early, of course, but then again I was always a precocious child).

What’s wrong with this picture?  That’s right – it was all about me.  Well, maybe it was a little bit about the materials.  Or the justices.  But mainly about me.  Certainly not about the students or their learning process.  I don’t know what has caused me to change; just plain getting older, attending a splendid teaching conference in Vancouver this past summer, or the aforementioned demotion to Associate Dean, which has given me a much broader perspective on students and my colleagues.  But something has changed; I now focus (or try to focus) on the students, and on the act of teaching.  It’s absolutely not to dumb down the material, but it is to add another element to its presentation: the element of, well, presentation.  And listening.  And not being afraid that students will either disrupt the narrative, or, in the case of Phase III, the anti-narrative.  Indeed, in some sense, how the students grasp the material is the narrative.

Ultimately, what I think has happened – and the reason I hope my presumably idiosyncratic progression helps others – is that I’ve learned the difference between teaching and scholarship.  To value both, to be sure, and to recognize their mutual dependence – indeed, some of my least bad scholarship ideas come from my teaching.  But to understand that they’re different, and to enjoy both for what they are.  I now do things in the classroom I wouldn’t so readily have deigned to do before: giving in-class exercises, making sure students understand how to spot issues, talking about how to write a good essay.    It’s my job.  As a teacher.  And now that I get it (at least until Phase V sets in), it makes me happy when I walk into the classroom.

Posted by Bill Araiza on October 7, 2006 at 06:22 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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