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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

5 Lessons from 5 years in the Legal Academy (with Credit where it is Due)

About 5 years ago, while a fellow, I accepted the generous offer of Dan M. et al. to blog on Prawsblawg. I thought I'd take the opportunity to reflect on a few lessons I have learned that might be useful to others starting out, and to give credit to those who taught them to me:

  1. Office location matters: Especially in a big school where all the faculty are not together, where you locate your office matters. I largely lucked out by choosing a location which was near at least one other person who taught Civ Pro, whose office I could pop into when I didn’t understand something the first time through (which was often!) and who was extremely patient and generous with their time.  By contrast, I am a bit far in location from the other two faculty members who are closest to me in terms of subject matter of writing, but we make appointments and otherwise look for opportunities to catch up.  Think about what you need and want because there may only be a limited number of people with whom you can have a “water cooler talk” type of relationship.
  2. The optimal level of tenure anxiety is what you should aim for, neither the maximal nor the minimal. I worry about not getting tenure. I think this is just a fact of life in my home institution, and is true of all the juniors to some extent. What I did not immediately recognize is that this is a good thing…to a point… I would not push myself nearly as hard or be as entrepreneurial if I did not feel the need to distinguish myself in my field in order to maintain my job. What I constantly have to do, though, is aim for the optimal anxiety over tenure. I don’t lie awake at night paralyzed with fear or ever feel plagued with self-doubt, but a little anxiety can be very healthy.
  3. Not everything you communicate has to be communicated verbally to your students. There are many things that your students need to learn, for which in-class time (be it lecture or socratic) is a total waste because it is just not suited for that format. Martha Minow gave me the advice, that sometimes the best way to communicate material is in writing. Thus I have inserted into my “reader” for Civ Pro several “cheat sheets” that walk students through particular subjects (like service of process) I want them to know but do not want to lecture on in class. It has gone very well thus far.
  4. Monitor your food intake. At least at Harvard, there is very often food provided at various meetings and times of the day. It is easy to get fat. At the same time, I have come to realize that I need some caffeine and sugar flowing into my system while teaching. Through trial and error I have discovered the odd combination o Coke Zero and Swedish Fish make an excellent in-class snack. The fish are small enough that I can chew them while my students are answering a question I just asked.
  5. Learning names matters to students. In my 1L contracts class, Christine Jolls (who taught me) memorized all 140 of our names by day one of the class. This stuck with me all these years, so I undertook to do the same the first year I taught Civ Pro (luckily class sizes had shrunk to 80 by then, which makes Jolls’ feat even more remarkable). I combine it with a trick I picked up from Peter Hutt to get them to submit one page information sheets on themselves and then call them for particular cases or hypos based on things they had done (e.g., “Mr. X, you were a beat cop in NYC, how would you evaluate the chase in Scott v. Harris? Would the court’s holding change the way you approached your job?”) I had thought this would be a good parlor trick of sorts, that it would make the students believe I was watching out for them and also that I took teaching seriously (both of which I do!) What I never anticipated was how much of a difference it made to them. They routinely tell me in person and on evaluations that it made them feel as though someone in the law school really knew and cared about them. So even though it is a pain every year to do it, I have kept doing it and recommend it to anyone.

Posted by Glenn Cohen on December 13, 2011 at 11:07 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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HLS still uses those giant seating charts; there are just 80 pictures instead of 120.

Posted by: anon candidate | Dec 16, 2011 4:55:00 PM

Back in the days before HLS became a comfortable place, one of my classmates got crammed into an elevator with the great Louis Loss. Loss was carrying one of those giant seating charts all the 1L professors used that had the students' pictures pasted on them. Loss explained that he was too busy to learn students' names.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. | Dec 16, 2011 4:38:10 PM

Jane, your first sentence is a fragment. Also, I bet you are a lot of fun at parties.

Posted by: IGC Rocks | Dec 15, 2011 11:43:01 AM

Umm, communicate "verbally" is not the same as communicate "orally". I'm assuming that your reader for Civ Pro is in words and not images. Therefore, you have communicated that reader and cheat sheet to students "verbally".

Posted by: Jane | Dec 15, 2011 12:26:14 AM

Matt -- The fish are small and chewable enough that I've not run into this problem.

Dan Goldberg -- I have used it for seminars too, but there I sometimes ask more targeted questions to help me modulate the way I teach (e.g., do you have any political philosophy or bioethics background?).

Matt/Jarod: I've always thought that Peter Hutt's relationship with 3 Aces was a little bit of Ahab and the whale. Alas, Three Aces has been closed for a few years now.
I have also stolen from Peter Hutt the tradition of having a party for my students at one point during the semester, but I do it at my home rather than at 3 Aces as Hutt used to do it (though for my 80 person Civ Pro class I split them into two shifts of two hours each and serve drinks and pies from Petsi's).

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Dec 14, 2011 11:27:43 PM

Professor Strahilevitz at Chicago used a shorter version of the information sheet in his 1L property class. Chicago collects a brief bit from each student on hometown, past profession, and hobbies. Students began to try to predict who would be called on in each class, which added a certain element of fun to the practice. It also reminded us, as 1Ls, that we had some relative expertise in something, whether based on past work or regions of the country where we'd lived.

Strahilevitz seems to frequently get chosen as one of the faculty hooders come graduation day, so if avoiding graduation ceremonies is one of your goals, this might not be your method.

Posted by: ALB | Dec 14, 2011 8:31:12 PM

What! Three Aces is closed? That's terrible news. What about Half-Shell down Mass Ave--away from Harvard Square?

Posted by: Jarod Bona | Dec 14, 2011 5:05:56 PM

Just to be clear, I kid! I kid! I had nothing but good experiences at the Tres. Sorry to see they are gone.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Dec 14, 2011 3:37:17 PM

Peter Hutt has published a great personal journal of his experience teaching food & drug law over the winter term. However, I must admit that his expertise was called into question when he made this admission: "Thus began my love affair with the Three Aces at 1613 Massachusetts Avenue." Peter Barton Hutt, Food and Drug Law: Journal of an Academic Adventure, 46 J. Legal Educ. 1, 6 (1996). It looks like the place has closed down, just like Nick's Beef & Beer House, but as a former customer, trust me -- an FDA lawyer should not have had a love affair with that place.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Dec 14, 2011 3:26:04 PM

Hey Glenn,

These are great suggestions, even for a nonlawprof. Quick question, though: would you still implement the one-page information sheet in a smaller class (say 15-20 students)?

I can see why the imperative for doing so diminishes with the number of students, but it still might help with the rapport and the exchange, which could in theory be even more important in a smaller, almost seminar-style class.

Posted by: Daniel S. Goldberg | Dec 14, 2011 12:51:11 PM

Um, has it really been 5 years? That's bizarre. Of course, Prawfs is turning 7 this spring, and that seems just as weird...(cue: sunrise, sunset).

Posted by: Dan Markel | Dec 14, 2011 11:45:31 AM

Thanks! I think these are really great ideas.

Posted by: Future prof | Dec 14, 2011 10:05:19 AM

I ask them for a general description of themselves and their life thus far, but specifically to include where they were born, grew up, went to school, favorite movies, books, TV shows, and any significant work experiences they have had before coming to law school.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Dec 14, 2011 9:47:57 AM

What questions do you ask on the one-page information sheet?

Posted by: Future prof | Dec 14, 2011 9:43:35 AM

This sounds like good advice. But, don't the swedish fish gum your teeth all up? I worry that I'd sound like, "glurp, slup, glurp" if I tried to eat swedish fish, yummy thought they may be, while teaching.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 13, 2011 11:14:30 PM

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