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Friday, April 27, 2012

Yale Law Women's Eye Opening "Speak Up" Report

I have just finished reading through the Yale Law Women's brand new report on the status of male and female law students at Yale.  The "Speak Up" report revisits an important topic that the same organization had reported on in 2002 and assesses progress over the last decade.  The phrase "must read" is horribly over-used, but I genuinely believe that every professor and administrator in the legal academy ought to print out this report and read it over the weekend.  The students at Yale who worked on the report should be commended for gathering a great deal of illuminating quantitative and qualitative data to assess the experiences of students and faculty.

There are a bunch of different findings that could be highlighted, so I want to comment briefly on a few that jumped out at me.  First, the disparities between men and women speaking up in class remain substantial.  I suspect New Haven is hardly unique in that regard.  The Speak Up Report somewhat sheepishly mentions an obvious solution, which seems to have substantial majority support from the Yale students surveyed: Cold-calling via the Socratic method, especially what the Report calls "warm-hearted cold calling."  A great virtue of cold-calling is that everybody speaks.  While the report details various sensible steps that can encourage more women to speak up in class, it seems nothing will work better than having the majority of the class time be devoted to Socratic discussion rather than lecture followed by Q & A from volunteers.  As someone who has used [hopefully] "warm-hearted cold calling" for a decade, it's my impression that the comments of students who never raise their hands are, on average, better than the comments of students who regularly raise their hands.  Talking in class, and being peppered with hard but fair questions from a professor, are big parts of the education that students are paying for.  And I think that perk ought to be spread as equally as possible. 

Some of the other key findings report similar levels of disatisfaction among male and female students. A second eye opener is the report's discussion of the small group experience.  Every Yale 1L take one substantive fall semester class in a very small section.  It is a big selling point for Yale.  As a Deputy Dean who helps build Chicago's teaching schedule, I can tell you that Yale's resource investment in its small groups must be enormous.  Even wealthy schools like ours would have a hard time duplicating what Yale does without either growing the faculty substantially or relying very heavily on adjuncts to teach 2Ls and 3Ls.  Yet, for all this investment, Yale's results are disappointing.  Less than half of Yale students describe their small-group experience as a positive one.  I don't know what to make of this finding.  Maybe Yale students' expectations are unrealistically high?  Maybe Yale doesn't have the right faculty teaching small groups? Maybe the small-group experience would add more value in the 2L or 3L year?  The student response rate was pretty darn high, so I really wonder what is going on.  The report also concludes that the faculty and administration at Yale do not reward good teaching, and if true, then that could explain the problem.  For what it's worth, my own small group experience at Yale in 1997 (with Peter Schuck) was wonderful, and Peter became an extremely generous mentor  through my three years at Yale and thereafter.  

That brings me to point three: mentoring.  There might not be enough Peter Schucks to go around.  Neither female nor male students seem satisfied, even attending the law school that can lavish more faculty resources on each student than any otherschool.   51% of Yale law students report that they feel no one on the Yale faculty is a mentor to them.  That is depressing.  72% of Yale law students report dissatisfaction with faculty mentorship.  That is more depressing.   To be sure, comparable figures may be even higher at some other elite schools that haven't bothered to survey their students on these questions.  But the reported figure suggests that official, sunnier accounts of the student experience at Yale, in which one-on-one faculty mentors are "offered to every student at Yale as a matter of course"  and "all students get to know faculty very well," are more aspiration than reality.  I don't mean to pick on Yale.  It is admirable that people within the school are forthrightly confronting what it would need to do to improve the student experience.  And I would be surprised if the faculty weren't already giving these issues a great deal of thought.  Hopefully creative action will follow. Yale has led the legal profession on many vital issues in the past, and it would be nice to see the law school lead on the issues of instruction and student mentorship.

I am sure that every law school confronts many of the same issues that were raised in the Speak Up report.  I am curious about what the comparable data would look like at my own school and have asked my administrative colleagues today whether we can conduct similar surveys of our own students and faculty.  In the mean time, I think it will be useful to talk about what we ought to infer as we attempt to generalize from the Yale report.  Is it that if the ultimate "haves" school has these serious problems, then they must be even more pervasive among the "have nots"?  Or is it something about the faculty culture or the expectations of students at the "haves" schools that makes these sorts of problems less pervasive at schools with fewer resources? Or is this an issue that is a bigger problem at Yale than, say, the comparably sized schools like Stanford, Chicago, and Cornell? Most importantly, what can we as legal educators do to close the mentorship gap?  And, since the Speak Up Report makes as many recommendations to students as it does to faculty about how to solve these problems, how can we get as many students as possible to help us help them? Downloading the report is a good place to start.

Posted by Lior Strahilevitz on April 27, 2012 at 03:25 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Howard, your visceral sense may be correct regarding your classes, but there are studies showing that often, women are _perceived_ to talk more even when that is not the case. That's where cold-calling can help. It adds an objective measure to something professors may perceive in an unconsciously biased way. In addition, there are both female and male students who are comfortable speaking a lot. And sure, I'm interested in getting a good mix of female/male contribution in class, but I'm also interested in getting participation from everyone. This includes male and female students who otherwise wouldn't speak up. Some are just not comfortable doing so at all, and I sympathize, but many just need the "excuse" of being called on to shine.

Posted by: anon | Apr 30, 2012 10:44:18 AM

My concern about "soft Socratic" is that if it's not employed optimally (and I seldom see it used properly) by the professor, it leads to tuning out. Some students are prepared, and see what the professor is getting at, and offer insightful answers right away. But often this process is much more drawn out, and the rest of the class is supposed to keep paying attention while the struggling student manages his way to answer, sometimes with necessary hints by the professor.

I recognize the value in Socratic for getting valuable participation that would not otherwise occur on a voluntary basis, but hard socratic, or "soft socratic with bite" seems to be the better option. Give the student a time to shine, but be willing to leave that student early on: if they're not prepared for class, you probably shouldn't go back to them, but if they just didn't see a point, go back to them for another question.

Of course, volunteer contributors also should be cut short if they have the same problems as Socratic contributors. It's just that too often soft socratic value-reducing for most of the class.

Posted by: Current Student | Apr 28, 2012 12:15:35 PM

I started to write a comment here, but it turned into a longer screed than I expected so I posted it as a blog post over at The Legal Whiteboard, where Bill Henderson generously allows me to post my screeds on a regular basis. For some reason, the comments here aren't accepting my html coding to create a link, but here's the URL: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legalwhiteboard/2012/04/reactions-to-the-reactions-to-the-yale-law-womens-speak-up-report.html.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Apr 28, 2012 6:50:27 AM

The school can, true. But does it?

Posted by: Mark | Apr 27, 2012 9:51:01 PM

I think a bit too much blame is being put on the school for the mentorship problem. The school can create all kinds of opportunities--small groups, informal lunches, formal meet-ups--but the student still has to make an effort to engage.

Posted by: TDG | Apr 27, 2012 6:32:23 PM

Great post, and (as a YLS alum and a VAP) I can't wait to read the report! I had a really wonderful overall experience at YLS, but I too would give lower marks for mentorship and small group than in other categories. I think the latter relates to the first commenter's point--the way that LRW is taught through the small group, but by other students, not BY the small group professor, can be problematic. As for mentorship, I would be curious to see how that number stacks up against students' satisfaction with mentorship at other schools. It's probably relatively high, unfortunately.

I agree that warm-hearted socratic, including the approach many take when only a portion of the class is on call on any given day, can be a nice equalizer. I don't know how much it relates to my being female, but I do know my confidence level took a beating at YLS. I went in far more confident (and eager to speak up) than I was when I left.

Posted by: nutmegger | Apr 27, 2012 4:12:59 PM

I don't cold call, but I always have had a visceral sense that the male/female participation is proportionate and that many of the most vocal students are women. In fact, I got nailed on class evals a few years ago for allegedly calling on women too often. My perception could be off, but that has been my sense. And, FWIW, 18 of the 19 2L members of our Law Review this year were women and all of our topic editors next year are women.

We may be highly unusual (and there are some demographic reasons for this,in any event).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 27, 2012 3:55:08 PM

If you're wondering how those law review stats, at least, compare at the University of Chicago, you don't have to look far. Zero women in top masthead positions. Second and third-year women will make up about a third of available masthead positions. And the law review selection process does nothing to prevent those same statistics from replicating themselves year after year. The University of Chicago Law School desperately needs the kind of self-analysis that Yale has modeled. Please, by all means, Dean Strahilevitz, make it happen.

Posted by: Annie | Apr 27, 2012 3:49:28 PM

At most law schools, legal writing teachers are the best mentors for first-year law students. They are used to dealing with students on an individual basis. This is one of the reasons why it is important for law schools to have full-time legal writing professors with security.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Apr 27, 2012 3:44:02 PM

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