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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Optimally Bad Teaching

When just-signed-off Joe Slater won the University-wide teaching award here at Toledo today, I was forced to remind him of the old maxim that if you never get pulled over, that means you aren't driving fast enough.  Speedy driving gets you where you need to be sooner, and once there, you can do useful (or fun) stuff.  You don't want to get a ticket every single time you drive, because that slows you down and quickly becomes cost prohibitive.  But if you aren't getting pulled over for warnings every once and a while, it means you probably are missing out.

Similarly, if you win the teacher of the year award, it means you're putting too much of your heart and soul into teaching.  Sure, everyone wants to be a good teacher, to help students have those lightbulb moments and be part of the transformative experience which is a J.D. education.  But if you're the best teacher, well, that means you must be missing out.

With my tongue squarely in cheek, I note that the effects of good teaching are particularly damaging for junior law professors.  Good teachers get assigned "first-year" and "bar" classes; first years are more needy than their more senior (and cynical) peers, and bar classes have larger enrollments than "electives."  Even if a good teacher dodges a bar class or 1L assignment, word gets around and students flock to whatever elective the teacher has undertaken.  More students means more exams and more exams means less time for adding footnotes to one's latest article.  From a career development perspective, it's best not to be a terrible teacher.  When students howl, at least at any law school that cares about students, a junior professor will have problems -- subject to interventions, micro-management of their syllabi or material selection, etc.  But if one comes out of the gate an exceptional teacher, one gets on a track that may make it harder to pump out articles at the rate of less pedogogically sound counterparts.  Maybe the best thing is to be a good teacher, but not too good.

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on April 3, 2008 at 02:04 PM | Permalink


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Unless, of course, you're in it for the teaching...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Apr 5, 2008 4:08:44 PM

Another downside of being a good teacher is the energy it requires. A fair generalization of good teachers (at least from the standpoint of student opinion) is that they are relatively dynamic. Well, being dynamic is tiring. While the good teachers are forced to recooperate after class (that is, after they talk to all of the students that are not interested in talking to the bad teachers), the bad teachers can quickly start back up on their scholarship right where they left off before class.

Posted by: Brian Slocum | Apr 4, 2008 6:22:12 PM

Likewise, faculty should aim not to be too successful with their scholarship out of the gate. If you start your career with a publication in Harvard Law Review, it is almost certain to be downhill from there. You Dean and colleagues will be expecting great things from you. Better to start your career with a mid-tier journal than with a top 20. Most faculty, of course, already follow this advice.

Posted by: anon | Apr 4, 2008 10:50:12 AM


Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 3, 2008 11:22:34 PM

Great post Geoffrey, and amusing and ironic as a bookend to my post earlier today on becoming a better teacher. I am wondering if the problem can ameliorated a little by control of one's class size, at least in that one won't be shouldering more exams/papers than one's less good teaching colleagues. One might think that deans are more willing to accomodate people who are adding value (in this case in teaching) on a request to limit enrollment, but maybe that is newbie and naive on my part. If there are any deans in the readership, I'd also be curious if any of them have taken steps to avoid the perverse incentive that Geoffrey's post points out.

Posted by: Glenn Cohen | Apr 3, 2008 3:36:26 PM

Interesting. Reminds me of the advice that if you get an award for your score on the bar exam, you probably wasted a lot of your summer that you'll never get back.

Posted by: 2005grad | Apr 3, 2008 3:34:42 PM

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