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Friday, March 07, 2014

Editing Cases for Class

This is my first year teaching on the tenure track, as well as my first year teaching doctrinal courses; to a certain extent, I’m still feeling things out as far as how I’d like to run and organize my classes.  This semester, I’m teaching a class on Speech Torts.  As you might imagine, the coverage of the course is fairly idiosyncratic, which posed some problems in picking out a casebook: no casebook would hit all (or even most) of the material I wanted to cover in the course, and a significant portion of any casebook I could pick would go unused.

So I decided to put together my own case materials.  I’ve largely found the extra investment of time worth it, since I can tailor the course exactly the way I’d like it (while, of course, saving my students from having to shell out $200 for a lightly used casebook).

This has raised the issue of how (and, I suppose, if) to edit cases.  My instinct has been to edit on the heavier side so cases are lean and focused on the points I want to emphasize, which leads to more focused classroom discussions and allows me to cover more material.  On the other hand, there’s a lot of potential benefit in giving unedited (or very lightly edited) cases to students.  Many will go through law school with only limited experience in dealing with cases “in the wild,” and being able to organize multiple issues, plow through complicated procedural histories, and generally separate the wheat from the chaff are all valuable legal skills.

So a question for those of you who regularly edit cases for your classes (and those who have put together casebook­s): what is your general case-editing philosophy?  I realize that a lot of this will be tied to the specific case and material being covered, but all else being equal, do you tend to edit lightly (or not at all), or do you tend to apply a heavy hand?

Posted by David Han on March 7, 2014 at 01:30 PM | Permalink


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I find the ability to use comment boxes a great feature of self-editing cases. I use them to pose questions and to highlight turning points that first semester first years might not notice

Posted by: Jennifer Bard | Mar 11, 2014 9:21:20 PM

Heavy editing can go a long way before reaching E&E-level brevity. Judicial opinions run verbose, especially if they are younger than 50. Having done a fair amount of teaching using only self-created materials, I've been amazed by the amount of repetition I could jettison with no substantive loss.

Students probably encounter plenty of cases "in the wild." In addition to what they use for legal writing memos and the like, some do their class prep by typing case names into a search engine, which favors unedited versions.

You'll be tempted to include concurrences and dissents, but they take up a lot of space under conditions of scarcity. I'd let only one or two into the whole coursepack. A dissent is better than a concurrence, other things being equal.

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Mar 8, 2014 11:33:00 PM

Thanks to everyone for their thoughts (and keep them coming!). I realize that these sorts of decisions will often be based on a lot of different variables--class composition, class type, nature of the case, nature of the material, pedagogical preferences, etc.--but I'm finding everyone's comments really helpful in giving me a clearer sense of the general pros and cons to each approach.

Posted by: David Han | Mar 8, 2014 12:32:30 PM

I think it all depends, as most people have stated above. The value to giving them full cases is teaching them how to read them efficiently -- when they get into practice or in the summer, taking an hour to read a relatively short case will do them no good, and you have to learn to identify what is important/relevant quickly. But a lot of unedited cases will have issues in them that are totally foreign or irrelevant and that can be distracting or a waste of time for the students. So I tend to mix it up, and even in first year classes, I will occasionally give them unedited cases, complaints, briefs and one time last semester in upper level course I tried what Orin noted above, telling them to do some research to find relevant material on an emerging issue. It bombed but I think because none of them did it, not because they did not know what to look for.

Posted by: MLS | Mar 8, 2014 12:29:47 PM

I agree with many of these comments, but I'd suggest you reframe this as a "when", rather than "if" decision.

I assign a course pack that adds another 30-40 cases to the textbook. Most of these are fairly focused already, so I don't need to edit them. For the longer cases, it depends on where in the discussion you plan to use them. To address most topics manageably, you'll want to lean towards editing. But, every now and then, a particularly interesting case by justify the full treatment. Moreover, there's no reason you need to edit with monotonous consistency through the entire term. Often, I find that unedited cases in the final weeks can help students see how all the pieces fit together - something I do not recommend trying with every case you provide.

I'll add that unedited cases might work better throughout the term if your goal is less coverage and more depth. For some of the reasons Susan identifies, I'm often unsatisfied with the "bullet point" treatment a lot of doctrine gets in modern casebooks, which sacrifices focus on the methods courts use to develop the law. So, I could certainly imagine using a packet of unedited cases on say, product disparagement. But, then you have to be willing to slow things down enough to immerse the students in what's going on. In other words, I would not recommend merely substituting unedited cases, while observing the same approach to coverage as many textbooks.

Posted by: Adam | Mar 8, 2014 11:55:44 AM

I think the answer to this question depends to some extent on the subject area and the amount and nature of extraneous material.

That being said, I believe we do a tremendous disservice to students by having them read heavily edited cases. They need to understand how to separate the wheat from the chaff themselves. Heavy editing also eliminates cross-curricular teachable moments. Why not have students dissect the procedural issues of a case even if the ultimate point is about a different substantive area? Lawyers operate in multifaceted contexts; students should as well.

Posted by: Susannah Pollvogt | Mar 8, 2014 10:03:10 AM

I think the answer is, "apply a heavy hand so as to separate out the wheat from the chaff." In my view, materials should be edited so that students get all of the legally relevant material but don't have to waste time scanning through the irrelevant material. If the goal of law school readings were to recreate the conditions of practice, we would assign no reading at all. Instead, we would just tell students the day before class (or the morning of class) to go research specific areas of law on their own and be ready to discuss them in class. We don't do that because that realistic environment isn't the best way to learn. Prep time and class time is very limited. As a result, every minute students spend trying to scan through many pages of irrelevant material to find the relevant stuff is time subtracted from the time they will spend analyzing and engaging with the difficult legal issues the material presents. Better to maximize the time of the latter, I think.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 8, 2014 2:33:40 AM

The more heavily edited a case, the more closely it resembles an E&E or some other supplement.

Top 2Ls and 3Ls will learn everything without regard to how it's taught. Average students will need more structured lessons and probably won't appreciate the finer points of a case, but will learn too much by rote if not exposed to them in some detail. Poor students won't ever get it.

It's also worth remembering that the 3L year is obviously pointless, and many students could do just as well without 2L, so there's probably no need to worry too much about how heavily you edit cases.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Mar 8, 2014 12:16:36 AM

Audience matters -- teaching 1Ls is different than teaching 2Ls and 3Ls. Also, timing matters -- expectations at the start of the semester should be lower than at the end of the semester. Perhaps more hand holding (editing) early on with less later on as you place increased responsibility on the students.

Posted by: TNS | Mar 7, 2014 2:29:16 PM

David, I think it depends on a lot on your learning objectives for the course. It sounds like you want to have a focused discussion on your core topic. If so, you'll want to edit heavily. If you do not edit heavily, you'll spend a lot of time in class wading through complicated procedural histories, etc. in order to get to the core issues you want to discuss.

However, if you are willing to spend a lot of your course time discussing techniques for parsing cases, etc., then you should list that as a specific objective for the course on your syllabus, explain in your first class session that this is going to be an important component of class, think of ways to support your students as they learn to do this work and think of ways to test them on these important skills.

You need to prioritize because you cannot do everything in every class.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Mar 7, 2014 1:53:03 PM

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