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Monday, July 20, 2015

Teaching Open Source Civ Pro: My (current) Hybrid Approach

This month I am blogging about my journey to try and teach civil procedure from completely open source materials.  This post is a bit of a confession -- I have not yet made it all the way to completely open source materials.  After the jump, I'll outline why I'm still reliant on a book (although not a casebook), and my plans to eliminate this reliance within the next year or so.

When I decided to undertake the project of teaching from my own materials, I didn't realize quite how big the project would be.  I figured it wouldn't be too time consuming: after all, I was already fairly certain about what cases I like to teach, so I thought that preparing the materials would just be a matter of editing the cases, putting them in order, and adding a few notes and comments where necessary.  Boy, did I underestimate how much work this would be.  (Note:  civil procedure is a five credit course at Brooklyn Law School where I teach, so doing this for a 3 or 4 credit course would, presumably, be slightly less time consuming).

I had a few part time research assistants do the initial work.  They downloaded the text of cases, removed all hyperlinks, and all extraneous information (syllabus, extended captions, parallel citations, unnecessary string citations, etc.).  I then had them take a first pass at editing the cases themselves.  Each RA had copies of a few casebooks to work from, and I told them what I liked and disliked about the editing style in each book.  After they edited the cases, they submitted the documents to me in "track changes" format, and I made the final edits.  I have to say that this process was very instructive for me.  In many cases, this was the first time in several years that I had read the full text of many of the cases that I routinely teach.  This reread was refreshing and made me think very hard about the edits.  It had a very big and, I think, a very positive influence on what I teach and how I teach it.  But that, of course, took a good deal of time.  

As it turned out, it took more or less a whole summer just to edit and format the cases and put together the statutory and rule supplement.  I was able to write notes and comments for one chapter, however, they were still a bit rough and "not ready for prime time."  My RAs had other full time work (work that I insist they prioritize and take seriously -- after all, that is the work that will be much more important to their careers), and I was using my summer to write an article.*

This left me with a problem:  could I really teach the class entirely from cases, statutes, and rules with no other materials whatsoever?  I quickly decided against this.  For one thing, civil procedure (at my institution) is taught to first year students in their first semester.  While I might consider teaching from cases only to upper-level students, I think that starting law school is disorienting enough without the complete "hide the ball" approach that is a stack of edited cases with no commentary.  Short summaries of the history of certain doctrines, and summaries of other decisions provide a vital context for understanding many of the topics.  Moreover, some topics are better taught through pure narrative and explanation rather than the "case method," such as the mechanics of service of process or the mechanics of discovery.

I decided to solve this problem by assigning my students a treatise that I had formerly ordered as a recommended book, Introduction to Civil Procedure (Rich Freer) from Aspen's student treatise series.  On the syllabus I gave two different types of reading assignments from Freer:  One set were the pages that are mandatory.  This served as the notes and comments and contextual material that one might ordinarily get from the text book.  The second set were "recommended pairings," meaning that these were the pages that the students might want to read for extra help and context to go along with the topics we studied.  In my past experience teaching from a casebook, my students had frequently cited Freer as the most helpful text on their course evaluations, and it was based largely on this student endorsement that I felt comfortable assigning this text.  It was already a book that I recommended highly to students and that many of them were already buying.

This, of course, means that I am far from teaching a "free" course.  Currently, students must obtain the course packet, either by downloading and printing it themselves, or by buying a printed copy from the school for $20.  The Freer treatise costs about $70, but is available cheaper if it is rented or bought used.    While this is an improvement over a $200+ casebook and a $40+ statutory supplement (plus a $70 recommended hornbook or outline), it is certainly not free.

I have found that this worked smoothly as a matter of teaching.  The students did not seem to mind switching between the two texts.  In the meantime, I've been slowly writing my own interstitial materials for each unit of materials, and I'm about halfway there.   My hope is to be free of the treatise by the fall of 2016 or 2017, and return to assigning the treatise (and other supplemental materials) as a recommended text.

A final note on teaching more directly from the treatise:  it has enhanced class discussion.  Because a student treatise will be more direct in summarizing cases, their facts, and their holdings, I have been able to use class for a more thorough discussion of reasoning, policy and doctrine.  This is a modified and light form of the "flipped classroom" that has become popular as of late.  I have enjoyed this innovation, and it has influenced how I've been writing the introductory material and notes for my own materials.

*Yes, I do spend my summers writing articles.  It has been debated ad nauseum on this and other blogs whether this is a good or appropriate use of professors' time and compensation.  Suffice it to say that I accept the world as it is: a world in which I am expected to produce scholarship and in which I enjoy doing so.  It was not realistic for me to abandon scholarship wholesale for an entire summer so that I could write a casebook.  But it should also be noted that I have been able to undertake this teaching project without sacrificing the ability to write altogether.

Posted by Robin Effron on July 20, 2015 at 02:53 PM in Civil Procedure, Teaching Law | Permalink


Robin, I was most interested in the fact that your research is done in the summers. I would think that's exactly the time when professors should be doing research because it is less likely to interfere with teaching loads. I mean, that seems like a great middle ground. Have more intense teaching loads during Fall/Winter and do the bulk of research during Summer. (Not trying to de-rail your post - which I have enjoyed immensely! - I'm just honestly confused about any objection to doing research in the summer.)

Posted by: Bryan G. | Jul 21, 2015 5:37:32 PM

The debate usually plays out in the comments, although there have been a few proper posts about it. The case against scholarship is that it amounts to having students subsidize professor's scholarship (which may or may not be useful to them and to the world) through their tuition. The argument is often that professors should have a heavier teaching load so as to cut down on faculty costs, or should not be given research stipends.

Posted by: Robin Effron | Jul 21, 2015 11:53:33 AM

For my attempt at a fully online course Civ Pro course materials, freely available for anyone who wants it on H20 (or just to borrow parts of it since H20 allows you to re-mix) you can find it here https://h2o.law.harvard.edu/playlists/8624

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jul 20, 2015 8:44:16 PM

(And, for the record, my quick Google search didn't produce anything responsive.)

Posted by: Bryan G. | Jul 20, 2015 5:14:28 PM

"Yes, I do spend my summers writing articles. It has been debated ad nauseum on this and other blogs whether this is a good or appropriate use of professors' time and compensation."

So I keep an eye on many blawgs, and I haven't seen this debate play out before. Could you link me to a discussion of the issue or summarize the case against it being "a good or approriate use of professors' time and compensation?"

Posted by: Bryan G. | Jul 20, 2015 5:13:50 PM

I will second the importance/need of some treatise to fill the gaps, based on my experience teaching Civ Pro from a case-only book (no notes) and teaching Civil Rights from raw cases. Even if not mandatory or discussed in class, that extra bit of background, context, and synthesis is important. In Civ Pro, I finally landed (at the suggestion of some Prafws readers) on Glannon's; in Civil Rights, I wrote the supplement myself.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 20, 2015 4:39:25 PM

This is all extremely valuable, Robin! I've seen a couple of web-based, open-source platform like Harvard's H2O. Did you find that simply writing from scratch from the primary cases, rather than building on an existing platform, was a better method? Or, perhaps, because a web-based platform ran into some of the electronic v. print issues you'd mentioned in an earlier post?

Posted by: Derek Muller | Jul 20, 2015 3:38:59 PM

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