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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Setting High Expectations

I am not a touchy-feely type, and when someone says she believes the universe is sending her messages, I tend to question her sanity. Nonetheless, I kept facing the same issue today over and over again in every imaginable context: how should I set my expectations--for my students, my colleagues, faculty candidates, my children, and myself--so that they are high but not unrealistically so?

I will spare you the full rundown of my day. Let me just present a few examples. Let us say hypothetically that your faculty is in the market to hire a new entry-level faculty member and that the prospective faculty member has written an article or the draft of an article. How should you (and your colleagues) judge her work? Should you judge it the way you would judge an untenured colleague's first tenure piece, or should you set a lower standard on the theory that the person's scholarship will improve when they join your faculty and receive mentoring? How harshly should you judge the candidate's writing style? If the article or draft indicates that the candidate is a mediocre writer, should you overlook that if she seems to have good ideas (perhaps on the theory that editors can be found to improve the problem)? Is it fair to criticize an article that a candidate wrote on nights and weekend while practicing law for not surveying the secondary literature or at least showing thorough familiarity with it? I tend to be quite critical of mediocre writing, but I am often willing to forgive a mediocre presentation. Are these the right standards to apply?  [By the way, I've seen numerous candidates both this year and over the last 16 years, so this is more an abstract question I've been asking myself as I see the annual parade of candidates than a question about a particular individual.]

Let me give another example. I believe that you insult the intelligence and abilities of your students if you don't set high expectations for them. I expect my students to be prepared, but I don't browbeat them if they're not. I just promise to call on them the next class period, and I try to remember to always follow through. Am I setting my expectations too low by not having more severe consequences? Or am I being unduly punitive by potentially causing embarrassment for the student who hasn't read? Have I struck the right balance with my policy? You never know what is going on in the personal lives of any of your students. Perhaps you just called on a student whose spouse just asked for a divorce, whose child was in the hospital all weekend, or who is simply terrified of speaking in class when put on the spot. Or perhaps you called on a perennial slacker who was out drinking the night before.  Should it matter to you that it could be the former rather than the latter? I can hear you saying it will not matter to the judge, but the point is that we are not judges. The classroom is not the courtroom: the stakes simply are not that high. Moreover, I am trying to set a tone where students feel safe to experiment with ideas and arguments and to make the inevitable mistakes that go with that experimentation. Should I demand more? or less?  [My gut instinct is to say more.]

In addition to the examples above, I had an uncomfortable realization today concerning the standards I set for myself, or rather, my failure to realize them to the extent I would like. I try hard to never miss a deadline set by a co-author or a publisher. I also try hard to have an open door policy and to see students who drop by when they drop by if at all possible. But I realized that, although my door is open, I sometimes am not evincing the open door attitude I'm striving for because I'm feeling the pressure of conflicting obligations. Maybe I would actually be more welcoming if I restricted students to my office hours, and if the ordinary scheduled amount of hours seem too meager, I could add more.

I could go on in this vein. [Did I mention that my three sons just got their report cards or that I feel guilty this isn't a "substantive" blog post?]

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on November 9, 2010 at 10:21 PM in Life of Law Schools, Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law | Permalink


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As to "demands" on students in terms of participation in a doctrinal class (as opposed to a "demand" that they rise to the intellectual level substantively that you think is appropriate), Lyrissa, my sense is that professors think they have far more influence than they in fact do have, and I would do whatever feels right.

As I look back on a 26 year career both as litigator and corporate lawyer, and another six as a professor, I think I can honestly say that it has never occurred to me once that getting called on a few times over the course of my first year of law school made one whit of difference in my ability to argue a motion to a judge or be quick on my feet in a corporate negotiation. On the other hand, many professors made an impression on me in terms of the contents of their minds and their ability to affect my view of the world, and many made an impression on me as to the kind of behavior I either admired or detested.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Nov 12, 2010 6:04:28 AM

It's certainly true that not all people initially react well to being called on in class. But this doesn't mean that the right response for a prof is to stay away from those folks, and to have a class discussion only with students who come into law school comfortable in the classroom setting. If anything the opposite may be right, because those people are in the most need of developing the skill of speaking and reasoning in a public setting and under some time pressure. In other words, merely because you aren't well-suited to speaking in class at the outset of law school doesn't necessarily mean that you can't or shouldn't change and develop this ability.

How to encourage this is a harder question. I allow flexibility in my class for students who are unprepared a couple times a semester, but I wouldn't allow a student a permanent pass simply because they don't like to participate in class discussions. I don't think browbeating students is ever productive, but tactfully but firmly insisting that everyone to be part of the discussion can be helpful especially to students who don't appreciate that they are actually entirely capable of being strong extemporaneous speakers/reasoners.

Posted by: Dave | Nov 11, 2010 6:03:04 PM


I don't judge VAPs more harshly, at least I don't think I do. I just try to figure out how much help the candidate has received by those in the know, and I factor that in when I try to get a sense of how good their work is going to be in the future when everyone is on a more level playing field. It's a pretty context-sensitive judgement, but what I'm worried about is the candidate who isn't very smart and won't work very hard but knows how to play the game to create the right impression at the entry level.


I don't think I follow the question, and if I do, that I have such a fine-grained answer. My point is just that I try to make a prediction about what a particular candidate is likely to do in the future.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 10, 2010 6:03:52 PM

for the law student: if you can't speak confidently in class in front of your clueless classmates, imagine yourself arguing a dispositive motion for the first time in court. or in the corporate world, negotiations require quick thinking and speaking like you have the answers.

Orin: do you judge an assistant prof different from a tenured assoc prof in the same ratio as an assoc prof to a full prof/endowed chair? suppose 12 cr teaching load, on p&t committee but no SO/kids and 2 journal articles (30-50pg length) over a calendar year?

Lyrissa: don't be afraid of being harsh on your students. it can't be harsher than the real world.
as for judging papers...an uncut diamond looks like crap but still has a derivable value, whereas a polished turd is still just a turd.

Posted by: Marc | Nov 10, 2010 5:56:55 PM

Orin, does this mean that having a VAP position could actually work to a candidate's detriment because you are judging them by a higher standard?

SRA, I do realize that some people are more put off than others by the prospect of speaking in front of the class, and I don't call on people who ask me not to before class (though this isn't a formal policy). I am sorry that it doesn't sound like you are enjoying law school very much. I'm curious what your background was before law school and what do you think could be done to make things better. I know I have students like you, and I wonder what I can do to reach them. I hope it gets better!

Posted by: Lyrissa | Nov 10, 2010 5:02:27 PM

I am a current law student. I am not the type of student who learns well by participating orally in class. I absorb and process internally, and being forced to speak about something before I am ready impedes that process for me and makes me feel very uncomfortable. I feel like I read in order to be prepared for the ridiculous details I will be asked about in class instead of reading for an understanding of the law. So, I am most hateful of the socratic method, and law school-style pedagogy in general. Of course, that method is not going anywhere, so introverted types like me have to deal with it.

But the classes that make me the least anxious are the ones where I know that I can pass when called on and the professor won't make me feel like a dumb shit. My favorite version (read: least hated) is a professor who calls on people randomly, asks if the student is ok to talk about such and such case, and then the student either says yeah or passes. If they pass, it's not guaranteed that the student will be called on the next day, but my prof usually gets back to that person in the next few sessions, and everyone seems to expect that if you pass you need to be more on your game for the next little while. The fact that you can pass if you need to takes the pressure off, and no one has abused that privilege.

I also have a professor who passes around a chart with our names on it everyday, and we mark an X by our names if we are prepared to be called on. The chart gets back to him by the time he is done with his introductory spiel for the day, and then he calls on people. We are allowed to not be prepared for 10 classes, which is rather generous. But just knowing that you can bow out of talking on a day where you really feel uncomfortable with the material is nice. Knowing that you control your fate, even though the calling is still random, makes people like me feel more comfortable.

I don't think professors should try to lower the expectations they have of their students' preparation and participation, but I think they should understand that students are different and learn differently. Just because I would never speak in your class if I didn't have to doesn't mean I desire any less to learn and be prepared and do well. I just want to do it my way. You are always going to have the type of learner who processes her thoughts best by posing questions in class or responding to your questions orally. But not everyone's like that. Nor is that a bad thing. It just is. I wish law school were more forgiving of that fact.

Posted by: Sra | Nov 10, 2010 4:08:37 AM

Maybe this is quirky, but I tend to judge an entry-level's candidate's job talk article by trying to guess how much help they received on the article and how much time they had to write it. If they had a VAP and are presenting their big article from the VAP, I assume the article will be better than their articles once they are a tenure-track prof. They probably had a lot of help in the writing and research of the job talk article, after all, including lots of comments from more advanced scholars. On the other hand, if they just wrote the article on nights and weekends while keeping another job and don't have a big network of people to help them, I assume their work will improve and become more polished once they're on the tenure-track.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 9, 2010 11:36:00 PM

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