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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Challenge of Seminars

The conventional wisdom about law professors’ teaching preferences is that we are supposed to prefer teaching small seminars on our current research topics.  In fact, we even sometimes call the other classes or “service courses.”  But conversations I’ve had over the past two years with various profs leads me to believe that not all law professors feel this way.  A surprising number of profs (junior and senior) have told me that they prefer teaching larger classes on core subjects that evaluate students based on an exam, rather than small seminars that require students to write papers.  In fact, several profs I spoke with said that they have stopped teaching seminars all together.

 

I first started asking profs about their seminars because I was worried that my own seminars weren’t as useful to students as I wish they were.  For example, the first couple of years that I taught my seminar, I had a hard time getting sufficient student participation.  A few people recommended that I appoint student discussion leaders for each class, and so I made that change this year.  While it has lead to a number of good discussions, the quality of the discussion has varied wildly, perhaps based on the abilities of the particular student leader.  And as with faculty-led discussions, the more engaged and thoughtful students tend to shine, while the less engaged or less knowledgeable students continue to remain quiet.

 

Seminar papers are also very challenging.  Some students write very strong papers, and I am able to assist them to make the papers stronger.  But those students with weak analytical skills or very poor writing skills don’t seem to get much out of the exercise.  Even if I ask them to write multiple drafts, at most the students will make specific changes that I’ve recommended, but they don’t seem to be able to improve their papers beyond that.   Every law professor that I have spoken with has conceded that they don’t find themselves able to give much assistance to their weakest students’ papers.

 

A cynical part of me worries that perhaps I like teaching big exam classes because I can control the class pace and because I assume that all of the students are following along (only the exam results at the end of the semester tell me otherwise).  In contrast, seminars force me to recognize that I am not doing a particularly good job teaching some of the students.  Or perhaps the challenge of seminars lies in the fact that seminars --- unlike core classes, which are designed in large part to teach students a body of information --- are largely designed to teach students to think critically and hone their independent analysis skills.  And while we law professors know how to teach our specific subjects plus the basic skills that underlie legal reasoning (synthesizing cases and applying them to new fact patterns), no one really knows how to teach students to, well, get smarter.

I’m be interested in other people’s thoughts on this issue.  But let me give one quick caveat --- I don’t mean this post to impugn the intellect of the students at my current school.  I taught this seminar a few years ago at one of the top law schools in the country with similar results --- the students who began the class as engaged critical thinkers emerged that way, while less engaged students with weaker analytical skills didn’t seem to benefit much from my efforts.

Posted by Carissa Hessick on April 11, 2010 at 04:27 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink

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Comments

I like teaching seminars. Teaching students how to think and write better is obviously at the core of legal education. Seminars allow one to tackle these problems directly. I am concerned that we have outsourced so much of this task to legal writing professors. This is not meant as a criticism of legal writing programs but it is a criticism of doctrinal professors. We should be more involved in all aspects of law teaching.

Posted by: Miguel Schor | Apr 14, 2010 7:36:43 AM

Interesting post, Carissa. How about the "hybrid" approach? I'm sure others have done this, but I very much enjoy teaching a basic survey-type course - Insurance Law - in a small seminar format. I just combined the best of both worlds into an odd conglomeration of evaluations but I think it caters to all needs: a prescriptive case comment assignment/paper for 25%, participation and weekly in-class discussion exercises/problems at 25% and a standard law school exam of 50%. There were no in-class presentations. The downside- a bit of grading, but there aren't 80, it's 24.

This coming year, I'm going to try it a little different with a seminar on Complex Liability. I'm going to offer a choice - either a 25% case comment or 50% full-on paper. The participation bit stays at 25%, but there will be time for short presentations in-class. But, the exam value floats - either 25% (if you do the full-on paper) or 50% if you do the 25% case comment. This way, students who prefer the exam option can choose it. Students who prefer the paper can choose that. They just have to elect up front, in irrevocable fashion, by week 2 of the course.


Oh...why the exam? Two reasons: 1) nothing else ensures the material is put into one's head and stays there like a law school exams; and 2) with no attendance requirements at my school, this is the only thing that keeps people coming (other than the 25% participation and, of course, sparkling personality...).

Anybody else have experiences with turning what are normally large lecture classes into seminars? It gives one a chance to get a bit deeper into the material. I found it a dream.

Posted by: Erik Knutsen | Apr 13, 2010 1:32:29 PM

This post is spont on, Carissa.

The thing I struggle with most about my seminar is that it is hard to integrate the writing component of the seminar into the substantive focus of the class. This year I experimented with having four or five class sessions dedicated to various aspects of writing a paper--e.g. a class on topic selection, one on legal research (with the help of a librarian) etc. I assigned Eugene Volokh's book on seminar papers and I gave them good examples of student writing (mostly in the form of law review notes and the best seminar papers from past years). But in the end the papers didn't seem any better than normal. So I'm still looking for ways to improve the porcess. I like Dan's mini-workshop idea. I will steal it for next year.

Posted by: Zak Kramer | Apr 12, 2010 10:48:36 AM

Teaching writing is hard! It can be a challenge when the only response to feedback is to make specific changes to some of the items the teacher has highlighted. And sometimes these changes affect the rest of the paper, but it appears as if the effects weren't thought through, and no other changes were made.

In clinical setting we have a better ability to deal with this. In sessions we can ask the student to reflect on the choices they have made and why. Resist telling them what you think is the right answer, but instead focus on improving their ability to come up with answers. I think this would be difficult to do in a seminar. Maybe the best you can do is recommend they participate in a clinic with a lot of writing. :)

Posted by: gcr | Apr 12, 2010 9:56:54 AM

As a 2L, I'm still figuring out what sorts of courses work best for me and which I enjoy the most, and I have to admit... the mid-size lecture classes seem to be my preference. I thought for sure I would enjoy seminars but the reality is that the offerings at my school are generally not closely aligned with my personal interests or professional career goals, therefore it's verrrry difficult to stay engaged at the level required to prepare thoroughly and participate fully each week. Not to mention the challenge in finding a related interest fascinating enough to inspire a 30 page paper.

Mr. Solomon's idea sounds ideal to me. Even if a seminar's general area of law is appealing, they often (at my school anyway) end up impractical for real life as a practitioner. A 30 page paper on animal law might not get you far, but a stack of simulations related to the practice of tax law? Now that might be useful.

Posted by: AstridT | Apr 11, 2010 10:45:51 PM

Agree 100% I've taught seminars and the like for the last 6 years, and I'm going to give them up for a while next year to take up a new large course (civ pro). For all the reasons you mention.

Posted by: dave hoffman | Apr 11, 2010 10:28:02 PM

Carissa, I certainly understand why some prawfs prefer "service courses." For my own taste, I *love* the 12 person seminar with 10 weeks of me or guests, and the last couple weeks with students presenting their drafts in accelerated prawfsfest! formation; ie., everyone's read the presenter's shitty first draft and we go around the room and offer feedback.
Prep usually does take a bit longer for the seminar and there's definitely more risk and some frisson of danger that the seminar's session could go horribly wrong, but, fwiw, I really think the role I play in seminars as educator is more pronounced than the one I occupy in bigger classes. Naturally, my students might feel differently. Jason's strategy of course would be ideal for most courses; not entirely sure why the 15 and under size is necessary for those problem based/skill training exercises to work--I suppose if there's more grading that would be true, but if they're ungraded, well...

Posted by: Dan | Apr 11, 2010 10:03:58 PM

Totally agree. I think the thing to do is encourage people to teach smaller classes (20-40 people, say) that are more oriented toward lawyering where you work through problems, simulations, etc. -- work in small groups and write memos and other short things. I do a version of this as my regular Employment Law class, have done it for Complex Litigation, colleagues do it for Constitutional Torts, and I have a class on Lawyering in the Reg State I want to do at some point. Students like it, and I think it works reasonably well.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Apr 11, 2010 9:36:43 PM

I am in whole-hearted agreement with everything you say here. I have never taught a seminar and do not have any interest in doing so.

My reason is based mostly on course coverage--the scope of coverage (surveying a subject or honing in on one piece) and the manner of coverage. I prefer the broad survey of the material. More important, I enjoy teaching the doctrine, with a heavy bit of theory and policy thrown in, as opposed to focusing entirely on theory and policy (when the chances are that they may lack the basic doctrinal grounding). It is less about grading mechanism, because I grade my upper-level electives with papers that combine doctrine and policy--basically a seminar paper (although not multiple drafts).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 11, 2010 8:33:40 PM

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