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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I aspire to Charlie, but I've got some Oprah in me.

During the hiring process, my least favorite question -- usually asked by students -- was "What's your approach to teaching?"  I always wanted to respond, "What would you like my approach to teaching to be, friend?"  Even today, I'm not sure how to describe my approach -- a little bit of lecture, some light-contact socratic, a song, a dance, whatever works.  After all these years, though, I've finally found an analogy that works for me.

By way of background, since Ted Koppel retired, the object of my biggest man crush has been Charlie Rose (besides Eddie Vedder, of course).  While watching last night, I realized one basis for my admiration: he actually embodies what I hope to accomplish in the classroom.  He creates space for a conversation, not just an interview; he is a great listener (rather that formulating my next point while a student is talking); he encourages participation from everyone at the table (rather than relying on a few "go to" students); he is not afraid to challenge his conversation partners when they try to punt, but he always does so with grace and class (he doesn't make them cry); he is funny, but not in an insecure stand-up comic sort of way; he can make even painfully boring topics seem only moderately boring.  Now to be clear, I aspire to be Charlie Rose in the classroom.  I'm not there yet.  On most days, I fear that I'm exhibiting a parade of horribles from across the talk show host spectrum.  Read on for the heart-wrenching introspection . . .

I confess to having some Oprah tendencies in me: pedagogy as self-revelation, sharing stories that entertain and affirm the power of the law student spirit.  Trotting out a good human interest story (i.e., photos of my kids) when the class is about to turn against me.

At the same time, I occasionally like to rattle my students out of their comfort zones, pushing them through real-world examples that call their settled views into question.  Jerry Springer has gotten rich by doing the same thing, though I hope that mine leaves students with some lasting lessons other than shock and nausea. 

I don't have the abrasiveness of Rosie O'Donnell (I hope), but I do need to make sure that, when I disagree with a student's remark, I have a legitimate pedagogical objective for that disagreement.  I don't pick fights, but I do like to disagree. 

One host who thankfully does not show himself much in my classroom is the early David Letterman, whose grouchy sarcasm made the guest not so much a conversation partner, but the object of scorn.  The more recent Letterman's slightly bemused sarcasm is not foreign to me, but I reassure myself that it can motivate learning and keep classmates engaged without alienating the recipient. 

The talk show host I resist most in the classroom -- perhaps because he can rear his big-jawed head now and then -- is Jay Leno: not wanting to make anyone feel uncomfortable, keeping things light (and lightweight). 

I don't spend much time worrying about Craig Ferguson, whose "dirty old man" schtick could actually threaten my job security if he saw the light of day. 

Eureka!  I think I've found a workable framework for articulating our diverse approaches to teaching.  Much more informative than the socratic / non-socratic blather.  So which talk show host are you?

Posted by Rob Vischer on February 3, 2009 at 03:52 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Regarding Craig Ferguson, I'm not a regular viewer, but every time I see him he seems to rely not just on the double entendre, but on a leering facial expression that suggests the presence of a double entendre even when one is not readily discernible. I don't think that classroom persona would go over well. (This is not to suggest that I'm suppressing my inner Craig Ferguson in case my dean is reading this and needs reassurance. I'm not the leering type.)

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Feb 4, 2009 12:01:37 AM

I'm totally Bernard Henri-Levy. Or Duane from the Floppy Show.

Posted by: David | Feb 3, 2009 10:56:21 PM

"I don't spend much time worrying about Craig Ferguson, whose "dirty old man" schtick could actually threaten my job security if he saw the light of day."

What is that supposed to mean? >:(

Posted by: Katie | Feb 3, 2009 8:33:13 PM

I hope my students will say something like Tim Russert on Meet the Press!

Posted by: Dan | Feb 3, 2009 6:21:26 PM

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