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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Course Preparation Project: Part 5: Planning for the First Day

Well, it's the middle of August, which means that for most law profs, classes are right around the corner.  If you're new to teaching, perhaps you have a few butterflies about that first time you walk into a room with 20, 40, 80, or 120 students looking at you, waiting for you to speak.

The first day can be tough, even for experienced profs.  How much material should be covered?  What sorts of introductions should be made?  Some profs prefer to start by calling on someone: is this a good attention-grabber or too Kingsfieldian?  Should the syllabus be discussed, or is this unnecessary?  What policies should the teacher establish?  And are there any (non-medicinal) tips for settling the nerves before you walk in?

Rather than breaking this topic down by subject, I'll ask that you post your comments in response to this post.  But feel free to discuss substantive issues that may be germane to a particular course.

Posted by Matt Bodie on August 16, 2007 at 01:53 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Orde, did you say introductory materials? ;-)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 18, 2007 1:06:17 AM

I think the most important thing is just to be yourself. For instance, a colleague of mine walks in the room, puts his stuff down, and calls on a student--I don't think he ever introduces himself. There's no way I can pull it off, so I don't even try to. And to echo Paul's and Bruce's comments, don't worry about trying to seem authoritative. Unless you give them a reason to doubt you, the students will presume you belong in the front of the room.

Good luck to everyone on the beginning of the semester!

Posted by: Zak Kramer | Aug 17, 2007 3:07:55 PM

One thing to look into is whether there is an orientation class -- often taught by legal writing profs -- that goes over the basics. My first year I went over the basics of the legal system in my first Contracts class; afterwards, the students told me that it was the fourth time they had gotten a civil process overview that week. However, I do think you have to spend more time on the basics in the first few weeks, just to make sure they are seeing what you need them to see in the materials.

Also, I always liked the Speluncean Explorers, and it lines up well with a Crim class. You might want to consider using it.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Aug 17, 2007 2:37:26 PM

As a visitor to another law school this year, I am for the first time teaching the first year Criminal Law course during the fall rather than the spring semester. Thus, students may never have read a case before, etc. I am curious to hear, from others who have taught the same first year course both semesters, how much "this is what a case is" type introductory material do you add to your fall semester version? Are there any specific introductory readings you would recommend? Thanks!

Posted by: Orde Kittrie | Aug 17, 2007 11:22:20 AM

Combining Paul and Bruce's comments yields excellent advice. Be authoritative. Students pay tuition with the reasonable expectation that their teachers know a lot more than they do about the subject, and that the teacher will be good at conveying information to them. But don't do artificial, unnatural things that you feel have no pedagogical purpose other than, essentially, showing off or aping certin stereotypes of a law prof.

Of course there are lots of different models of successful law teaching.
Personally, I go over expecations -- for class and for exams -- in first year/first semester classes in some detail. That's because undergrad experiences are typically very different from law school; the "one big exam at the end" way of evaluating is only even arguably fair if students have reasonable notice about how that's going to work; and in all walks of life, making expectations as clear as possible is a plus. You'll still have plenty of time in the first class to, as they say, stop talking about it and start doing it.

Periodically, think of what you would reasonably want if you were a student.

If you're teaching for the first time, speak more slowly. Yeah, I know I don't know you, but trust me, speak more slowly. And repeat things. That's right, repeat things.

Stop at a coherent stopping point, even if there's a minute left in the class period. At the beginning of the next class, summarize where you left off.

Beyond that, try to use the rest room before classs and make sure you zip up your fly, if you have one. I had a property prof who didn't zip his before a class, and memories of what we students said about that still echo in my head (20 years later!) when I'm in the bathroom before a class.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 17, 2007 10:28:56 AM

One follow-up to Paul's comment that I learned as a grad student long ago: you don't need to demonstrate your authority, but don't do anything to *undermine* it, either! I.e., don't minimize your own expertise or experience in an attempt to be collegial or friendly. I'm not talking so much about self-deprecating jokes, which sort of leave up in the air whether you actually believe what you're saying, but rather declarative statements ("Hi, I've never taught a class before, and I'm not much older than you all....").

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 16, 2007 6:55:56 PM

Paul, that is truly excellent advice. Beautifully put.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 16, 2007 6:26:33 PM

The one piece of advice I would give new law professors for their first class is that, no matter how nervous or insecure you may be, you have far more authority standing at the front of the room than you may think, just by virtue of the fact that you're standing at the front of the room. First-time law teachers may feel the need to wear a suit on their first day, to cold-call, to speak from on high, to be especially difficult and smart, etc., lest they be called out as a fraud. Feel free to do any or all of those things, but do them for the right reasons, and not simply because you feel a need to demonstrate your authority. You've got authority, whether you feel that way or not, and you needn't demonstrate that you've got it.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 16, 2007 5:59:32 PM

I start right in calling on people in first-year classes, without much more of an introduction than "Hi, my name is . . ." The theory is that I'll never had a better opportunity to demonstrate to students that the point of my course is, basically, to learn how to read cases carefully. I think that going over the syllabus gives the wrong message - that they aren't self-directed, professional students. But I have colleagues who strongly disagree.

In upper division classses I start by talking about why you might want, or not want, to take the class and then try to connect the subject to others they may have taken.

Posted by: david hoffman | Aug 16, 2007 5:35:37 PM

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