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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Summarizing the Entire Class During Week 1

Here's something I do when I teach Administrative Law.  The thing I like most about teaching Ad Law is that it's all interconnected.  I mean, I know that other subjects share this feature to some degree--the law is a seamless web and all that--but for me, Ad Law is more interconnected by far than any other course I teach.  To understand and evaluate the separation of powers stuff that I teach at the beginning of the course, it's kind of necessary to understand the procedural requirements for making policy that come later.  To understand the procedural requirements, it's kind of necessary to understand the judicial review stuff that comes toward the end.  And so on and vice versa.  This is also one of the reasons the class is hard to teach and the subject matter is hard to learn.  For many years I dealt with this by warning the students that this interconnectedness feature was going to be a problem and that they weren't going to fully understand everything until they could put it all together at the very end.  But about five years ago, I tried something different--I started devoting the second class of the semester to a 2 hour summary of the entire course, going through everything we will cover and explaining the main themes and how things are going to fit together.  Of course I don't cover the material in the same amount of detail that I do when we actually get to it in the course.  And I realize (and tell the students this) that they're still going to be confused to some degree despite the overview.  But I've found that this technique, which I now do every year, is very helpful in setting up the course.  Feedback from students on the full-class overview has always been very positive, and not because it spoon feeds them the course and makes everything crystal clear (this is not a danger in Ad Law).  I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on this kind of technique and whether others use something similar in their courses?

Posted by Jay Wexler on August 28, 2012 at 01:25 PM | Permalink


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My first class in Civ Pro includes an overview of the federal and state judicial systems and the process of civil litigation and identifies which pieces of civil litigation we are going to be focusing on. I agree that it is important to provide an overall context in which students always can go back to fit the individual trees as the class progresses.

Another way to do something similar is to identify five or so explicit "themes" that will pervade the class and spend the introductory session(s) discussing those themes and maybe previewing some examples. This again provides a context into which individual doctrine can be placed.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 29, 2012 10:50:48 AM

I do something similar with employment law - first couple of classes I teach themes that run through all the subfields and then start with the legal boundaries of the employment relationship - defining employee/employer which again give a sense of how this puzzle connects all the substantive topics of employment law.

Posted by: orly lobel | Aug 29, 2012 10:50:14 AM

Prof Sargentich at HLS starts his Torts course with an overview of private law generally, a sort of allegory of the emergence of property, contract, and tort. I found it straightforward and fascinating. I think I was in the minority. This was 5-6 years ago at this point, but knowing him, it's always been and continues to be the same (and no complaints from me!).

Posted by: anon | Aug 28, 2012 11:21:07 PM

I have taken this approach in my Torts class for the past two semesters, but not with my Administrative Law course. I spend my first two Torts classes, which totals four hours, performing an overview that hits most of the basic principles we will cover in the course. So far, my students have responded fairly positively. Because so much of the 1L Torts class focuses on a single cause of action -- negligence -- students appear less lost, and more engaged, as we examine its constituent elements and theory in detail.

Using this kind of overview also has given me a little more freedom to experiment with a project-based curriculum. Students seem more willing to take risks in assigned oral arguments and negotiations, and more willing to engage the underlying policy debates, when they can see the bigger picture from the beginning. Just as Glenn describes above, I end up teaching the course three times: as an overview for the first week, as a substantive 13 week course, and in an intensive review relying on a single case student that covers the major topics of the class. Eric Johnson describes a somewhat similar approach to his Torts class in the Journal of Legal Education. See, e.g., Eric Johnson, A Populist Manefesto for Learning the Law, 60 J. Legal Ed. 41, 57 (2010), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1666952.

In my Administrative Law course, I devote the first day to a case study designed to survey the major topics of the course (The Place of the Administrative State in the Government—The Constitutional Framework, The Fundamental Procedural Categories of Agency Decisionmaking (Rulemaking and Adjudication), and The Scope and Availability of Judicial Review). But in the past, I've been light on specifics and hard on major themes, just to keep it accessible and manageable. I may change that next semester.

Posted by: Adam Zimmerman | Aug 28, 2012 10:37:49 PM

I like this approach. I think it is too easy for students to see the "bricks" of a subject rather than the wall. Giving them an overview of the wall early on helps them see how the bricks fit together. I have used versions of this approach in securities law and found it useful.

Posted by: Thomas | Aug 28, 2012 7:51:27 PM

MS, which case? I would like to look at it when I teach contracts.

Posted by: Jlinford | Aug 28, 2012 7:38:44 PM

I often spend the first full week providing this kind of overview, and recently did so in Contracts. The tricky part there was finding a case to fit but I did a case study of a recent and fun case involving whether a burrito was a sandwich, a blog favorite, and it all seemed to work well. It is also a way of demistifying the entire process at least when done in a first-year class, as students find themselves jumping right in and making legal sounding arguments even before they know any of the accompanying legal concepts.

Posted by: MS | Aug 28, 2012 7:23:34 PM

The only issue I see is the possibility that you don't cover everything you promise to cover in the overview, which makes some students feel like they've missed out on something important (and ding you in the evals for that).

It also seems like it's course-dependent. I teach the unincorporated business entities class out of the casebook I joined as a co-author with the late great Larry Ribstein. The book and our syllabi were organized in the traditional progression from agency to partnership to limited partnership to LLC, but Larry and I, before his passing, had talked about reorganizing the book so that we presented the issues topically and comparatively as among business forms, the way that a lawyer in real life would deal with them. I taught the course that way last year, which necessitated skipping around in the book, and it meant doing a broad overview of the business forms in the first couple weeks. The students seemed to respond to it, at least by the comments on the evaluations.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 28, 2012 7:16:17 PM

The Friedenthal, Miller, Sexton, Hershkoff Civil Procedure text book is actually designed with 45 pages of "illustrative cases" from the various major stages of the course and additional introductory note material with the idea that professors can teach a "mini-course" on the big issues and then return to them in-depth as they go. I have always thought this was a very clever way of designing the textbook (one I was surprised not to see other writers copy) and I know that Arthur Miller (when he taught me) and my colleague Bill Rubenstein now use it to essentially teach the course three times -- once in the first two weeks of class using these materials, once in the rest of the semester going through the book, and once at the end of the course in an intensive review.
With the reduction of our Civ Pro class to 4 credits, I have never been able to pull this off myself, but I think it is a great idea and one other casebook authors may want to think about.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Aug 28, 2012 3:42:24 PM

I have found this method beneficial in the first year Contracts course. I don't devote an entire class period (although I might next time I teach it!) but in the very beginning I introduce the many doctrines (mutual assent, consideration, breach, damages, etc.) and talk a little bit about how they all connect in the big scheme of things. Without any comments good or bad on evaluations, I have only anecdotes from students that this is relatively helpful to place into perspective the conversations going forward. I definitely reiterate Michael's comments, though - I have to be careful not to overwhelm (especially 1Ls).

Posted by: Amelia Rinehart | Aug 28, 2012 3:24:02 PM

Jay, I too teach Ad Law and work with the text of Prof. Funk, et al. The text does a good deal of what your are talking about in the opening couple of chapters. I think the overview is important. However, I've also found that I have to be careful not to overwhelm students. This is especially true if they perceive preexisting weaknesses in their own backgrounds that will interfere with learning Ad Law. So if I say something early on about procedural due process their initial reaction might be, "oh, no! I never understood that in Con Law," without really appreciating that they likely did not cover much if any PDP in Con law and that, in any case, the experience will "feel" different coming out of a unit in APA adjudication. So I like providing them with a conceptual "container" but am careful not to make the container look too daunting. Needless to say, some years go better than others.

Posted by: Michael Duff | Aug 28, 2012 2:25:51 PM

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