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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Getting to Know You...

One of the things that I always look forward the most is getting to know my new students.  By "getting to know," I am not referring to the experience of mispronouncing their names on the first day, cold-calling on them, or even running into them at the grocery store in my Saturday-least-best attire, when I am making a beer run as a break from some late-summer painting project.  I mean learning the reasons why my students went to law school, what they did before, what they hope to do after, why they took my class (ok, for torts, that's an easy one), and what they like to do in their spare time.  But in a larger first-year course, that can be pretty challenging.

The last time I taught Torts, I came up with a (voluntary) "Torts and Tortes" plan where interested students could sign up in groups of six to have dinner with me at a local restaurant.  That proved to be a lot of fun.  But this fall, I'm stuck.  I can't easily implement Torts and Tortes again, because my 10-month-old has food allergies and  so I have to modify my diet accordingly.  So I have thought up a new plan to implement--a "book club" of sorts where interested students can read a book or two over the course of the semester and get together at a local watering hole to discuss them.  

For Law and Medicine, my selections are (I think) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and, for fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (though I am torn between that and My Sister's Keeper).  But I can't seem to think of a second book for Torts.  So far I've selected Ken Feinberg's What is Life Worth, about the 9-11 compensation fund.  I can't seem to decide on a second book.  I'm not thrilled about obvious picks like A Civil Action or The Buffalo Creek  Disaster.  Most of the other titles that spring to mind are criminal law-oriented.  Any suggestions? 


Posted by Jody Madeira on August 12, 2012 at 11:59 PM | Permalink


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I'm printing the book suggestions!

Posted by: Lyrissa | Aug 15, 2012 10:06:02 AM

I agree that coffee/tea or BYOL are good options for socializing without dietary restrictions getting in the way. If you want to incorporate the outside reading but avoid piling on a lot of extra pages, here are a couple of poems about torts:

Philip Levine, "Possession" (trespass)
William Matthews, "Negligence" (intentional infliction of emotional distress)
Denise Duhamel, "What Happened This Week" (false imprisonment)
Charles Reznikoff, "Machine Age" (negligence)
Emily Dickinson, "I Had Some Things that I Called Mine" (property torts)

Posted by: alex roberts | Aug 13, 2012 10:07:24 PM

Please, God, not My Cousin Vinny.

Posted by: Took evidence with Nesson | Aug 13, 2012 9:31:42 PM

While I agree that coffee or bag lunches are the better way to get to know your students, I do think an occasional informal book club (or movie night) would be great. Anyone have ideas for a good book to read for an Evidence class?

Posted by: Donna Coker | Aug 13, 2012 8:31:11 PM

Typo. I meant Anita Bernstein. Sorry Anita.

Posted by: Adam Zimmerman | Aug 13, 2012 6:43:42 PM


A nice idea. You might want to consider Ken's new book, Who Gets What? In addition to the September 11 Fund, he also discusses BP. (If you do either, I'm happy to talk to your group about the September 11 Fund, if you'd like.)

I suppose you could also use some of the short essays from Tort Stories; the readings are short, accessible, and may stoke some good conversation about the stories behind the cases. Then again, that kind of reading list seem more like extra homework than as material for a reading club. (I used to require it in class, but have cut it because of time constraints. But I love Anita Berstein's piece on the DES cases, Peter Shuck's background research into Tarasoff, Ken Simon's story and exhibits from Murray v. Steeplechase, and Geistfeld on Escola).

Finally, and maybe this is also an obvious choice, but Peter Schuck's Agent Orange on Trial, is also a classic.

All my best.


Posted by: Adam Zimmerman | Aug 13, 2012 6:41:19 PM

Thanks for the "scrumptious punniness" remark, dybbuk ;D I do tend to have terrible taste in humor.

I very much like the alternative suggestions--packing a lunch and doing the coffee/dessert thing. Both are excellent, and I will take advantage of those suggestions. I was wondering if there would be "pressure" to read the books, even if it was clear that it was completely voluntary and unexpected. I really like the idea of a book club to peak interest in other dimensions that are not usually covered in torts (like mass tort compensation) but maybe 1 book per semester would be enough. Students would also be welcome to come even if they didn't read or finish the book. I got the idea from informal reading groups that popped up with professors while I was in grad school and law school. Perhaps if there are "combo" opportunities for students to engage in different ways (lunch + reading group) that would be even better.

Posted by: Jody Madeira | Aug 13, 2012 3:23:05 PM

I offer students the chance to sign up for BYOL ("Bring Your Own Lunch") opportunities once or twice a month. Groups of up to four students may sign up and meet me at my office. We then proceed to our school's open space atrium to share lunch and discuss whatever they want to discuss--assignments, jobs, pop culture, ways to improve the class, etc. It works really well for me and, if you're packing your own lunch, you can pack around the dietary constraints without restricting the students' choices. p.s. I share the above-stated reservations about extra reading and less time to learn about about the students themselves. I also see some "he favored the students that participated in his silly book club" comments on evaluations which, valid or not, may be of concern to some people. Regardless of what method you choose, I think socializing while treating the students as near equals makes a big difference toward getting the students to think of law school as professional school instead of 17th grade. That may not be a problem at every school but it certainly is one at mine.

Posted by: Heidi R. Anderson | Aug 13, 2012 3:03:58 PM

I don't think a book club is a good substitute. The purpose of T&T was to get to know more about your students, why they're in law school, what they're planning to do with their life, and which version of Angry Birds they spend the most time playing in class. Discussing whatever book is selected won't get at that end. You will learn a bit about your students, but in an extremely roundabout way.

Having a book club also just piles on to the reading they're already doing for class. Having the meet ups come with a significant time investment is going to severely hurt participation rates. Even if you find rather leisurely books to read, it's not very relaxing to read after a long day of reading.

A better substitute might be to find a restaurant or cafe where you can take out a group of students for coffee and desert. That should fit in with your dietary concerns much easier, while still keeping the basic format the same.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 13, 2012 12:00:29 PM

John Henry Faulk's "Fear on Trial" along with Louis Nizer's "My Life in Court" regarding the Blacklisting are good reads.

Posted by: Jimbino | Aug 13, 2012 11:07:35 AM

Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions (and for bringing some needed titles to my "to read" pile)!

2nd Year VAP, I don't think that this is relatively common. I think most professors just about everywhere usually don't do such things. I got 100% acceptance as well. This kind of activity is more "graduate school" informality than law school. In my masters/Ph.D. activities, these types of things were much more common, but then again the class sizes were smaller too.

Posted by: Jody Madeira | Aug 13, 2012 11:00:00 AM

I did something similar (lunch or dinner) with my students last year, but got the sense that it was not relatively common.

Do you know if your colleagues do something similar? I got 100% take up last semester.

Posted by: 2nd year VAP | Aug 13, 2012 10:09:57 AM

For a novel, Zoe Heller's "What Was She Thinking"

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Aug 13, 2012 9:44:03 AM

Although I haven’t read it, you might want to have a look at Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007). It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 13, 2012 8:10:31 AM

See Zahr K. Said’s discussion of why he uses Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter (1991) in his first-year tort law course: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2016583

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 13, 2012 7:39:47 AM

I will have to check that out...thanks so much for the suggestion! Now to Amazon...

Posted by: Jody Madeira | Aug 13, 2012 1:19:03 AM

Another alternative to "Never Let Me Go" is "The Unit" by Ninni Holmqvist.


It's similar thematically, but rather than clones, it centers on older citizens the state has decided are "unneeded" and hence are made available for organ "donations" in preference for those with children, job responsibilities, etc. There is also a lot of interesting stuff about Scandinavian laws designed to guarantee gender equality, though it's been long enough since I've read the book that I can't remember the specifics on that front.

Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | Aug 13, 2012 12:59:12 AM

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