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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Teaching Undergraduates

This past semester I taught a seminar for undergraduates in the UGA Honors Program.  It was a great experience overall and one that I would repeat, but not because of the compensation package (a few hundred dollars of extra travel money).  The class was entitled "Climate Change, Sustainability, and the Law," which is a rather grand title for a one-hour pass/fail class.  The biggest difference I noticed between teaching law students and teaching undergraduates was that undergraduates tend to talk more with less prompting than law students.  Admittedly, this was a small, pass/fail seminar as opposed to a larger class but the students seemed to be less intimidated by the pressure of the setting than in law school.  The lack of grade pressure made have made the difference there, and it also might be that law students tend to think out the implications of their answers and answer more carefully than undergraduates.  Law students are also more likely to want to talk after class individually rather than as a group.

One nice feature of teaching this course was that I felt free from giving my students the standard exam at the end.  Instead, I had them each identify some practice that they would adopt for the term that would make them live more sustainably.  Each student could define sustainability however she or he wanted, and the practices ranged from giving up driving around town to taking reusable bags to the grocery to adopting vegetarianism.  At the end of the term, the students submitted an essay evaluating their experience, estimating what difference it made on the environment, reporting any violations of their rule that they had, and trying to sketch out how a legal system might encourage or adopt their practice.  I also asked them to report any additional benefits (or drawbacks) that they noticed from their new way of life.  Students who became vegetarian reported feeling better about their diets, students who took reusable bags to the store reported a lack of clutter from all of the accumulated plastic sacks at the end of the term, and students who walked or took the bus reported being more fit and losing weight.  One student who gave up driving around town had to fill up her car only three times for the entire semester.  For someone from the metro Atlanta area (which she, like most of my students in the class, is from), the cost savings were definitely eye-opening.  Almost all of them claimed that they would keep doing what they set out to do because of these added benefits.

I wonder about how to take lessons from this exercise and translate them into law.  The literature is certainly full of case studies about how firms can improve their environmental profile and their bottom line--Dan Esty's and Andrew Winston's Green to Gold comes to mind as an example--but more lacking in how to provide the impetus to actually do it.  For my students, the solution was easy:  I told them to do it.  I also gave them no direction about what to do, set no benchmark for how much improvement they were to achieve, etc.  But I don't think that my students would have adopted these practices without that push.  One would think that the potential cost savings would be their own reward, and in many cases they are.  But the benefits my students experienced were always there to be had; they just needed a reason to search them out.

Posted by Peter Appel on December 19, 2009 at 08:47 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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