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Monday, May 03, 2010

10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting Law Teaching

Is there a professional job in the world that requires less formal training than law teaching?  Perhaps because so much of the hiring process focuses on scholarship, new hires are often placed in front of an auditorium full of law students with little or no teaching experience or formal training.  This is changing, of course, with the increasing ubiquity of fellowships and VAPs, and the system appears to work pretty well, due perhaps to the fact that new hires tend to be hard-working self-starters.

That said, as I think back over my first three years teaching (five if you count my fellowship—and yes, that does make me feel old as the hills), I am always coming up with small insights that I wish I’d known when I was starting out.  For that reason, I hereby proffer the ten things I wish I’d known before starting out law teaching, in the hope that some of these points may be helpful to the pre-prawfs out there.


These are, I should caution, based purely on my own experience and may well not ring true for others.  I am sure that there are many, many other non-obvious tips and pointers that other lawprofs will find missing from this (admittedly incomplete) list, and I’d be very interested to hear others’ suggested additions.  That said, here goes.


1.  There will be substantive errors.  The law is sprawling and often very difficult, and in teaching a long and complex course, it's hard not to make a couple of missteps in discussing the substantive law along the way (at least the first time out).  Though making such an error feels awful, it is by no means the end of the world.  When this has happened to me, I’ve owned up to the mistake, clarified it in all possible media (in class, on TWEN, etc.), and used it as a reminder to the class that the law is hard stuff and even the purported experts sometimes get it wrong (which, I hope, comes off as humanizing).


2.  Classes will vary in quality.  Sometimes, class just clicks—everything goes according to plan, people laugh at my jokes and respond well to my questions, and it all ends right on time.  But there are other classes that are just the opposite—nothing goes the way I wanted, there’s an ocean of silence in response to just about anything I say, and I leave feeling like I just did a couple hours of intellectual dentistry.  Fortunately, most classes are closer to the former than the latter, but when a class goes poorly, I remind myself that this kind of variation is natural and inevitable, and may be due to exogenous forces outside my control (after one particularly dreary class, I learned that the students had just turned in a major writing assignment in their first-year law skills class, leaving them understandably tired and ill-prepared).

3.  Overpreparation can be a real concern.  When I started teaching, I combated my pre-class anxiety with an onslaught of prep—there wasn’t a student question I hadn’t thought through, and my lecture notes had little times next to them to make sure I hit every point at the right moment in the class.  Looking back, the intention was good but I was simply overdoing it.  Law classes are different than straight lectures because their dialogic format requires extemporaneousness, and leaving space and time for that is key to having a good discussion.  It’s kind of impossible to prepare to be spontaneous, so this is the kind of thing I’ve found improves a lot over time as you get more comfortable in front of the class and allow yourself room to freestyle (as it were).


4.  There is awesome power in punting.  When I started teaching, I lived in fear of not having an immediate and complete answer to any given student question.  Many years removed, I am very much at ease with my many shortcomings, and feel no obligation to answer every question immediately in class.  While one wouldn’t want to make too much of a habit of it, there’s something very freeing in being able to occasionally say, “I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that—I’ll look into it and [come back to it next class; post about it online; etc.].”  The occasional punt also helps avoid misstep #1 above (substantive errors). 


5.  It’s easy to lose sight of how fragile student egos can be.  It’s getting to the point where I can no longer say “I was a law student not too long ago,” but if I think back, I can still recall the anxiety of being called on in class, and the attendant embarrassment if it didn’t go well.  I try to constantly remind myself of this when teaching, because student anxiety/sensitivity is an inevitable factor in the classroom and one that requires delicate management.  In light of this, I make a big effort to stress when a student has hit the right answer to a question, and correlatively try to find the kernel of value in even off-base student contributions.  Related, on the rare occasions when a student is so visibly wracked with anxiety upon getting called on that they’re visibly struggling, I have no problem moving on and sparing them (though often informally arranging to call on them in the next class so they have a chance to redeem themselves).


6.  Getting to class early has its virtues.  This one may be purely personal, but I like to show up very, very early for class to set up and do some last-minute reviewing.  Part of the reason is that I’ve found that if I arrive late to class and in a rush, I feel rushed and disorganized at the outset of class; but if I arrive early, I’m relaxed and ready to go by the time things get started.  Related, and purely idiosyncratically, I have a pretty strict attendance policy, and figure that if I expect my students to be highly punctual, then I should apply the same standard to myself.


7.  Jokes have to be deployed with the utmost caution.  A well-timed, truly funny joke can be a great way to liven up a class.  But the danger is that a joke that doesn’t go over well—or, worse, offends someone—can have just the opposite effect.  The first time I taught copyright, for example, I made a snarky remark about the painting at issue in Lee v. A.R.T. (which is kinda depressing—see what you think here), and a student raised her hand and said icily, “Annie Lee is my favorite artist.  I think her painting is wonderful.”  Ouch.  That moment was tough to get past, and was a wake-up call that even  an innocuous remark can have unforeseen consequences (see #5, “Fragile student egos,” above).  The lesson I took away from this is to be very careful with any humorous remark, and to give wide berth of any joke that tends to mock anyone or anything—except, of course, myself.  Self-deprecating humor is unlikely to offend and may also have the salubrious effect of making the lawprof seem more human and approachable.


8.  Students hold you responsible for every word you say.  In my experience, students will hang on every word that comes out of your mouth (I’ve had students recount in detail anecdotes I—apparently—told in class that I’d entirely forgotten), and this is especially true for any promises or predictions you make about course management.  I found this out the hard way.  I used to have the very bad habit of making extemporaneous promises.  E.g., “We’ll probably end class early today,” or “I’ll have these slides on TWEN by tonight.”  And even though I’d follow through on nine of ten of these representations, if I forgot about or failed to keep the schedule on even one, students would—not unreasonably—call me out on it.  My policy now is never to make promises or predictions about course management issues extemporaneously in class, but only when I’m sitting at my desk, thinking carefully about the issue, and consulting my beloved MS Outlook calendar. 


9.  The learning curve bends inexorably upward.  The first times I’ve taught classes have all been onerous—the amount of work required to put together a full law course is enormous, and despite that, the first edition of any course is likely to have some serious kinks to work out.  But I discovered that the beauty thing is that after I laid the groundwork with that first course, I’d done all the hardest slogging, and thereafter, I needed to invest less prep time but the course kept getting better.  There is, of course, marginality after you teach a course many times.  I’ve taught property five times already and am planning on switching texts to keep things fresh, but still, it’s a great feeling to be able to reduce (though not, of course, eliminate completely) the amount of time one spends working at something and have it get ever better.


10.  Be yourself.  Yes, yes, it’s a hokey cliché, but I’ve found it to be entirely true.  Small counterexample:  I once tried to teach a class based on someone else’s notes and lesson plan.  It wasn’t a full-on disaster, but lord it wasn’t good.  Since then, I’ve done class Sid Vicious-style (that is, “my way”—not in a 1970s Sex Pistols idiom, though the latter would indeed be interesting), and it’s made all the difference in the world.  Large groups of students are adept at sniffing out phonies, and little is more persuasive than genuineness, so it’s not terribly surprising that to thine own self be true retains its validity in the classroom.  (Though I suppose it has limits.  If “thine own self” is a drunk, or incompetent, or sadistic, then all bets are off.)


So that’s all I got in the way of possibly obvious and arguably useful insights.  If anyone has a beef with the above, or other thoughts they’d add to the list, I’d be interested to hear them. 

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on May 3, 2010 at 06:08 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Another from the student perspective: never, if you make an error, castigate the students at the next class by saying "you should have caught it if you had done the reading". A first year prof did this many years ago in first year property and I'm still mad about it.

Posted by: KeithT | May 6, 2010 2:50:07 PM

"This could be because they are in fact treated more rudely -- or it could be because they are more sensitive, more self-righteous, more entitled, or more defensive than older, more established profs . . . ." Lawanon, that's not the right comparison group. The right comparison group is young male profs, which controls for level of experience generating rudeness.

And between the competing hypotheses, one that women are as a class "more self-righteous, more entitled, or more defensive" than equally inexperienced men, and the other that some people view younger women as projecting less authority, the latter has a substantial body of experimental scholarship, not based on self-reporting by targets, supporting it, whereas the former is supported by, so far as I know, only your intuitions.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 6, 2010 11:28:07 AM

Donna: that study didn't actually find any such thing. It found that young and female profs are more likely to *tell the researchers* that they were treated rudely by students. This could be because they are in fact treated more rudely -- or it could be because they are more sensitive, more self-righteous, more entitled, or more defensive than older, more established profs, who often view students as children and correspondingly ignore their youthful indiscretions. A proper study would have used multiple measures of student incivility to avoid these well-known problems of self-reporting.

Posted by: lawanon | May 6, 2010 1:54:54 AM

On the subject of new professors, check out the research cited at feminist law professors blog -

The study finds that young female profs are more likely to encounter rude students.

Posted by: Donna Coker | May 5, 2010 11:51:17 PM

Very interesting post. It certainly counterbalances all the articles out there that talk about things that students should know before entering law school.

I'll forward it to those I know will start teaching!


Francis Barragan

Posted by: Francis Barragan | May 5, 2010 11:20:29 PM

Keep detailed notes each time you teach a course; it will make it easier to prepare the next time. I annotate my syllabus (and, yes, you should always provide the students with a semester-long syllabus) by noting how long it took to cover the assigned material, what worked and what didn't, any explanations (including things like "we were all just off, I can't explain it"). And I keep these syllabi for many years, so I can look back and figure out what I've tried, what worked, how I've changed things, whether a particular issue was an aberration, etc. After just a few years I was able to hone the syllabus from general topics into day-by-day reading assignments, confident that I knew what I could cover in a day (and I still annotate that, because things change). Once you reach that point, stay confident: Several times during each semester -- but usually different times each year -- I spend the last 5 or 10 minutes of class lecturing on something that we don't quite have enough time to finish up. I don't worry about it, because I know from my prior annotations that it's probably just a fluke. But I do write down that it happened, because if it happens two years in a row I think about changing something.

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | May 5, 2010 2:20:27 PM

I would second the need for a clear and thorough syllabus, but on the need to stick to a strict reading schedule, I'll throw in a dissenting vote. I am perpetually cutting material from the reading assignments -- with a minimum of 1 week's notice -- in my classes. If it seriously irks my students, they haven't really mentioned it on their evaluations. But I think it is true, at least it has been in my case, that you'll cover much less than you initially hoped/planned. There's two options when that happens, just moving on, or carrying it over to next class, but neither feels particularly satisfactory.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 5, 2010 2:15:41 PM

I would add that it takes careful planning to write a fair exam. Your test coverage should be commensurate with your course coverage. You'll be surprised how faulty your memory can be from year to year about how much time you spent on a particular topic. I mark the spot in my notes where each class ended so that when I write the exam the percentage of time devoted to a topic matches (roughly) the time devoted to the subject in class.

Posted by: Donna Coker | May 5, 2010 12:30:24 AM

I, as a student, have little to add to this conversation, with the exception of my full support of the above comment. If I could reach through the interwebs and hug you, I would. After a semester of courses with no syllabus, or a syllabus that states the most obvious expectations and nothing else (Be prepared! Come to class! Learn things!), I have developed a deep and sincere appreciate for those professors who take the time to actually type out syllabus with dates, topics, and the corresponding reading. Seriously. It makes everyone's life so much easier. It makes preparing for class easier. It makes preparing for finals easier. And it makes writing that glowing course evaluation easier. You don't have to stick to it precisely, we all understand that sometimes things get off track, and discussions can be difficult to map. But a good faith effort people. That is all we ask. Because there is nothing so frustrating as sitting down to prepare for class and having the inevitable g-chat conversation with 7 classmates about what is actually supposed to read for the next day. Or, the resulting class, where half the people will just call it in and not prepare at all, and the other half will show up having under or over read. And then everyone is just mad. And mad students don't talk. Instead, we become petulant teenagers (regardless of whether we are 25 or 45) and we stare sullenly at our laptop screens whilest writing detailed Facebook notes on how it we KNOW we are being petulant teenagers, but it we don't CARE and ANYWAY, it never ceases to amaze us that Harvard educated professors fail to grasp the necessity of dates and pages. And that is my long rant on why professors with good syllabi deserve a pet pony, a cookie, and a gold star for excellence.

Posted by: studentanon | May 4, 2010 8:39:35 PM

An older colleague gave me important tip: the train must always be on schedule, even if there is nobody in the locomotive. That is, students value predictability and order far more than your brilliance and expertise. Give them a detailed syllabus upfront and always stick to it. Schedule not-fully-loaded classes every couple of weeks and use them to catch up if you ever get thrown off schedule. Be absolutely sure to cover what you told them you'd cover. Don't mention a topic if you aren't sure you'll have time to cover it. Don't tell students they are responsible for the material that you meant to cover, but ran out of time; this will only emphasize your disorganization. Make sure your course does not feel hurried to students. Organization, organization, organization.

Posted by: lawanon | May 4, 2010 8:12:27 PM

Good list, although I would dissent re #3 and concur instead with Kurt Lash: "overpreparing" -- or at least spending a LOT of time preparing -- *allows* you to be more flexible in class. Teaching, in this way, is like lots of other stuff in life: sports, music, litigation, etc. If you put in a lot of time and effort in preparing to do something, you can do it better, and a lot more easily.

I would also add:

Give students a clear idea of what will be expected of them in class and on the exam (especially important for first year students).

Talk slowly, and don't be shy about repeating important stuff (within reason). Really, don't be shy about repeating important stuff.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 4, 2010 5:22:49 PM

For those of us starting up this fall, this is a very welcome post (especially as we are gearing up to prepare for class). More experienced professors, please post liberally!

Posted by: new prof | May 4, 2010 4:53:09 PM

I think you meant that the learning curve bends downward, i.e., the second derivative is less than 1.0. Otherwise you'd have to learn more as time progressed, not less. I say this only because you didn't mention any rule against pedantry.

My major objection is to the proscription against thine own self being a drunk. For some of us, it actually makes us a rather friendlier person, at least during those moments.

Posted by: Curt Sampson | May 4, 2010 3:53:21 PM

My first rule is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 4, 2010 2:56:06 PM

Here's one that's worked well for me: 11. Silence is your friend. When you ask a question and no one answers right away, it's OK to allow the room to be silent for several seconds. There's no need to fill every available moment with sound. It won't take long for someone to volunteer; even 10 seconds in a class setting can seem like an eternity.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 4, 2010 2:44:34 PM

After 17 years of teaching, here is my list:

1. It is impossible to overprepare during your first three years of teaching. Not only do you need to learn your subject, it gives you greater flexibility in the classroom discussion since you have a greater awareness of the bigger picture. It facilitates, in other words, extemporaneous teaching. Four hours preparation per hour of class lecture, minimum.

2. Nothing is more important to the success of a class than the first three weeks of the course. If ever there is a place to overprepare, this is it. Don't cancel or reschedule these classes absent an emergency. You get the first three weeks right, the rest of the semester will be a breeze. You mess up here, well . . .

3. Learn their names. We all know why. No matter how large the class. If 80-100 students, create a seating chart--with pictures if you can. I ask my students to choose a seat on the second day of class and to remain there for the rest of the term. On the third day, I often take their picture with my iphone. I use these pictures and the seating chart to memorize names. I have never regretted the time I've taken to do this.

4. Only tell jokes at your own expense. The harder you are on yourself, the better. I have regretted every humorous remark I have ever made at a student's expense, or which denigrated a political party or a religious viewpoint.

5. If you are new to teaching or to the subject, keep your inexperience to yourself. Don't comment on it and don't apologize for it. Your law school believes in you, and your students have no choice but to learn from you. They want to believe in you too. Give them every reason to do so.

Posted by: Kurt Lash | May 4, 2010 2:44:03 PM

Well said, Dave. Your reflections came at a great time, as I'm cleaning up my notes from the semester.

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | May 4, 2010 1:20:45 PM

A good counter point to this comes from the blog 'Simply Justice'.

Posted by: Michael Greene | May 4, 2010 11:52:44 AM

I found myself doing what Marc describes a lot since I began using regular course blogs. It is invaluable, not only for when I flat-out say something wrong, but for when I don't say something as clearly as I could have and writing it down will make it clearer for the students.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 3, 2010 9:04:37 PM

I have had some experience with (1). It's no fun when you realize after class that you said something wrong, or even misleading. But I think people appreciate it when you go back and research it more thoroughly than it's discussed in the book and do a little explanatory note on TWEN or wherever about it. I usually call this "cleaning up the mess."

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 3, 2010 8:53:48 PM

Terrific post!

Posted by: Joe Miller | May 3, 2010 8:35:29 PM

I would add this:

11. You don't have to cover everything, but cover everything you say you're going to cover. If a typical field of law has (say) 30 or 40 subtopics, it really doesn't matter much to how much students learn if you cover 23 of them in your class or decide to cram in more and cover 26 of them. But if you try to cram in the extra topics, you probably will teach everything less well. So it's probably better just cover the 23 topics, and to cover them really well. On the other hand, don't promise to teach some topics and then not teach them: The students will feel they are not something that they're supposed to be getting, and they'll feel like they're not getting what they need (even if they are).

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 3, 2010 7:45:21 PM

Great list, Dave. A corollary to #2 is to learn to take the same approach to class evaluations. It's all too easy to let a handful of critical evaluations crowd out the effect of the nice ones. But I keep reminding myself that none of the critical evaluations were written out of pure malice -- it's just that my class wasn't everyone's cup of tea. And I've always learned something from the points that the critical evaluations raised and (I hope) improved my teaching as a result.

Posted by: Laura Heymann | May 3, 2010 6:26:13 PM

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