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Thursday, August 04, 2011

ICYMI: Ten (okay, Nineteen) Tips for New Law Professors

I wrote this a while ago and offer it again in case it may be of use.

1.  Begin a little more strictly than you mean to go on.  If you start out strict and stern, you have room to lighten up. If you start out lax, you will pay a real price if you need to impose order later on.

2.  If you put a policy in the syllabus, stick to it even if you think you might have been wrong.  I learned this the hard way.  The first time I taught Professional Responsibility, I stated in the syllabus and in class that the exam would be a two-hour exam.  After I wrote it, I decided it was a bit too hard and I would be "nice" and give them an extra hour to complete it.  I had a young woman in my office 30 minute before the exam so angry I thought she would spit on me. I told her she was welcome to finish in two hours instead of three, but that didn't placate her. I finally told her she'd have to take it up with the associate dean, and I'll be damned if she didn't march down there and do just that.  Thankfully, he backed me up, but I never again made a major policy shift midstream.  She wasn't the only disgruntled student that day, either.

 3. Put everything you can think of in the syllabus, even things that should go without saying.  For example, if you are teaching a seminar, you should consider a policy stating that plagiarism is a ground for failing the course, and you should have an extended explanation in the syllabus explaining what plagiarism is.  You might think that everyone accepted to law school already knows what plagiarism is, but you would be wrong.  More importantly, by explaining what plagiarism is in the syllabus, you deprive the student of the ARGUMENT that s/he didn't know s/he was committing plagiarism.  Another example of something you might want to put in the syllabus is a statement that it is rude and disruptive to come late to class, to come and go during class, or to leave class early without notifying the professor beforehand.  Frankly, I'm not sure I realized how distracting these habits are before I started teaching, and many of your students won't, either.

 4. "Don't be moody." 

This is a piece of advice I received early on from a relatively new law teacher, and it has always stuck in my head. The person who gave me the advice was male, and he evidently had gotten burned  by violating it.  What the advice boils down to, I think, is that students desparately need you to be predictable. It is comforting to them when they know roughly what to expect each day. 

5. Students decide very, very quickly whether you're on their side or not. If they decide you are, they will forgive a multitude of mistakes. If they decide you're not, nothing you do will be right.  I've been teaching for 19 years, and I only had one class that hated me.  They decided early on that I was mean, and everything I did provided confirmation.  They even hated how I started the class and what I wore. (I'd given birth the month before the class started, and my wardrobe was limited). Frankly, I grew to dislike most of them, too.  However, in telling this story, I'm violating the next tip in my list.

6. Be careful about generalizing how "the class" feels.  A communications researcher would probably insist that, in fact, there is no such thing as a "class." (See Ien Ang).  Instead, a "class" is a collection of individuals with disparate needs and interests and judgments about the classroom experience.  That said, it is easy to assume that outspoken students represent the feelings of the entire group.  It so happens that what I think of as "the class that hated me" (discussed above) included two especially delightful students, who took one of the most fun Media Law classes I ever taught. I still keep in touch with them even though they graduated more than a decade ago.

7. Watch out for group dynamics.  Let's say you have a student who is engaging in disruptive behavior. You may be tempted to call the student out for his or her behavior in front of the whole class, but this is usually a bad idea.  Even if other students started out being annoyed at the disruptive student, they may turn on you if you come down too harshly on the student or make him lose face. What should you do instead? I use what I call "class regulation by raised eyebrow."  For example, if a student is late, I may visibly lose my train of thought and stare at him with a completely blank expression on my face for a few seconds--just long enough to be socially awkward.  That does the trick 99 percent of the time.  If you try informal means of "discipline" and they don't work, however, the next step is to call the student into your office. The student won't lose face, and you won't run the risk of having the entire class turn against you for being "mean."

8. Try not to project insecurity. In other words, fake it until you make it.  Although you may be tempted to reveal to the class that you are brand new or are learning the material for the first time, you certainly don't have to and some would argue you shouldn't.  Remember that the students are lucky to have a teacher who is energetic and curious and enthusiastic and can reach them at their level.  Also remember that as little as you think you know, you still can read a case far better than even your brightest student.  So project confidence, but . . . [see next rule.]

9. When you make mistakes, fix them.  When I first taught Torts, I slept with the Prosser & Keeton hornbook by my bedside.  I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking "what if they ask me X?" I would then flip through Prosser & Keeton, read it, perhaps even take notes, and then go back to sleep.  I realize now that every first-time teacher makes mistakes; it is just a question of how you handle them.  Sometimes you will just have to say, "I don't know. Let me research that and get back to you tomorrow." [But make sure you have the answer when you promised it.]   One classic dodge is to say:  "Hold that question. We'll get to that later in the class (or tomorrow or next week)." [Make sure you research the answer and come back to it when you said you would.]  If you realize you didn't explain something well or your explanation was misleading, one way to handle it is to say at the start of next class:  "I'd like to begin by clarifying X that we were discussing yesterday." [Then give your 5-10 minute summary/totally correct explanation.]  Occasionally, you will realize that you said something completely wrong and you will just have to apologize and fix it. As consolation, remember that you are modelling for them how to handle mistakes, and it may be one of the most valuable lessons you can teach future lawyers.  Law is a complicated business, and we all make mistakes from time to time no matter how hard we try or how smart we are.

10.  Trade-offs are inevitable.  More depth or more coverage? Encourage participation and intellectual curiosity, or hew to an organizational scheme?  Stick to your syllabus, or spend more time on the things the class seems interested in or doesn't understand readily? There are lots of other trade-offs of this sort that you'll have to make and then re-make when you realize you've tilted the balance too far toward one value at the expense of another.

11. Make ideas "sticky." Try to come up with ways to make the material you teach memorable.  Silly is sticky.  Graphics (pictures, drawings on the board) are sticky. Funny is sticky. Music is sticky. My Trusts and Estates professor even danced on the table to reinforce a principle, and I remember it (the dancing) twenty years later.  The principle had something to do with whether separate property acquired after the marriage becomes community property or not.  Okay, so the idea wasn't that sticky, but my point still holds.

12. Use the board more than you think you need to. It helps keep the class structured, and it helps the visual learners in the class.   Conversely, use Power Point less than you think you need to.   Power Point is good for pictures and videos, and it can be used to examine closely the text of a rule or to convey highly detailed and technical material through lecture.  Do NOT put giant blocks of text on Power Point and then simply read to the class from the slides. EVER.   

13. It's not about you; it's about the students. Try to keep their needs foremost, instead of your own desire for ego gratification or anything else.  

14. Keep a degree of formal distance between you and your students.  You can treat them like future colleagues, but you cannot be friends with students until they have left your class.  Your role requires you to sit in judgment of your students when you grade them, and that role can be compromised if you don't maintain formal distance.

15. Never use the same exam twice!!  Violate this rule at your extreme peril.

16. Ask colleagues for advice, but remember you don't have to take all the advice you receive.

17. You will teach a class best the third time you teach it.

18. If you are teaching a large class and don't feel that voice projection is one of your gifts, consider wearing a microphone. This tip was shared by my anonymous source. I've never had this problem, but I've heard plenty of complaints from students about being unable to hear some of my colleagues. It is impossible to be an effective teacher if the students cannot hear you.

19. Consider wearing a suit. Even if you don't plan to wear it forever, it may help as a crutch for faking it until you make it and can help you maintain some formal distance from the students. This tip also came from my anonymous source, but I fully concur. I don't wear a suit every single day now, but I believe in signalling I take the endeavor seriously by dressing professionally.



Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on August 4, 2011 at 12:26 AM in Life of Law Schools, Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Posted by: Luigi | Aug 11, 2014 1:41:55 PM

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Posted by: Bill Bridge | Aug 19, 2011 12:50:09 PM

If you keep #13 in mind, the rest of the points fit in well. I also second Brad Wendel's observation.

Posted by: David Friedman | Aug 18, 2011 3:25:05 PM

Thank you for this list. If would add one more for the group's consideration:

Give praise and encouragement but only when earned based on the work.
Constant praise, no praise or only pointing out the deficiencies of a
student's work can undermine the student's learning process. It is of
no assistance to the students if they think you give out praise even for
mediocre work and/or are unwilling to recognize when a student has done
very good work or shown improvement based on hard work.

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Posted by: Alex | Aug 17, 2011 11:06:05 AM

This is awesome. Re #10, remember the corollary, which is if you make a decision that involves tradeoffs, you'll get hammered by some students on your evals and praised by others. That's inevitable. Every year my torts evals contain about equal numbers of:

(1) Too unstructured, kind of blows around in the wind, no clear sense of where class is going.


(2) Very responsive to student questions, not too rigid, willing to tailor the discussion to the interests of students.

The comments are the reflection of the same pedagogical choice, which some students may like and others may dislike. There may be a way to finesse the tradeoff (I try to do a structured explanation in the first 5-10 min. to tie together what we've been doing and summarize the point of yesterday's discussion), but if tradeoffs are inevitable, and they are, prepare yourself to be praised and blamed in roughly equal proportions.

Posted by: Brad Wendel | Aug 5, 2011 10:53:21 PM

Lyrissa, many thanks! I think #11 (sticky ideas) is particularly important. If you know what "take-aways" you are aiming for, it keeps you and the students better focused. Over the years, I've shifted from a focus on subject-specific sticky ideas to those that generalize to all or many fields of law.

Posted by: Michael Carroll | Aug 5, 2011 8:48:34 AM

Hand out your syllabus in increments. That way the students never know that you were insanely overambitious in what you thought you could cover in the semester. It also gives you room to adjust if this particular group has trouble with an important concept and you need to devote more time to it. If you skip topics or assignments that are on your syllabus, the students worry that they are missing something they should have gotten, and it makes you look disorganized.

Posted by: rebecca bratspies | Aug 4, 2011 4:55:36 PM

Love #17. I had the same exact experience but I did not realize it is universal. I think that the first two times you teach a class, you do not know enough. After the third time, you know too much!

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Aug 4, 2011 1:50:13 PM

This is very helpful and thought I would add a couple of other quick thoughts. One is on pure mechanics, but simple things like starting and ending class on time, staying on the syllabus (I do my syllabi in segments to avoid falling off) or if you do not have a detailed syllabus, letting students know in advance what will be covered. The other advice I was given that I found helpful is try to have someone you know and trust sit in on a class one day not as part of the tenure and promotion process but just as some friendly advice that no one else will see. The person who did that for me (and then threw his notes out) kept asking me what I was trying to get at or accomplish, and I think that is a useful thing to keep in mind, particularly if you are using the socratic method. What value are you adding as a teacher? It seems so obvious but I think sometimes we just proceed through material without a clear sense of what we are trying to do. Finally, again so basic but helpful, don't try to be someone you are not -- people have different styles and many different styles (other than I think disorganized, uninformed or spoonfeeding) can work very well, and it is important to be comfortable in your own style.

Posted by: MS | Aug 4, 2011 1:12:43 PM

This is a great list. I would add two practical suggestions. First, after each class session take a couple of minutes to write down what worked and what didn't, what took longer than expected, what got the students excited, etc. Looking back on these notes has helped immensely in preparing to teach the course again.

Also, be yourself. If a teaching style doesn't feel authentic to you, it will come across the same way to your students.

Posted by: Jordy Singer | Aug 4, 2011 10:04:52 AM

All great, but #9 is especially important. I think a number of students don't speak up in class because they're afraid of looking stupid in front of their classmates. Creating an atmosphere in which one can make mistakes without judgment makes things more comfortable for everyone. Plus, it's good practice for faculty meetings and workshops. ;-)

Posted by: Laura Heymann | Aug 4, 2011 9:50:52 AM

As a new prof (torts even), I thank you for this!

Posted by: anon | Aug 4, 2011 9:32:36 AM

This is perfect. I'm going to distribute it to our new profs, too. Thanks!

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Aug 4, 2011 9:08:09 AM

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