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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Multiple sections, multiple professors

This story, about a professor at Cal State-Fullerton reprimanded for not using the department-prescribed textbook (because it costs $ 180), is only tangentially related to the law-school-specific question I want to raise:

How much coordination and identity should there be among multiple sections of a law-school course taught by different professors? Should we be coordinating syllabii, at least to ensure common coverage? Should we be using the same books? The same teaching approach? Is it enough that the students come away from any class with a knowledge base that will enable them to a) go forward in law school and b) pass the bar, regardless of which section or professor they take?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 28, 2015 at 11:17 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


I think many Professors have the attitude that at $50,000+ tuition, the cost of books does not (should not) matter, but it certainly does to students so it makes sense to use the same book for those few classes that are two semesters. I think it is less of an issue that all Professors teaching a course (Con Law, Torts) should use the same book, and I think it is particularly bad if Professor were ordered/encouraged to use the book of a senior colleague.

Posted by: MLS | Oct 30, 2015 10:32:30 AM

I would think it might depend on whether this was a required 1L course (or other required course) or an elective course, e.g., Contracts versus Admin.

Posted by: nona | Oct 29, 2015 4:22:50 PM

I agree completely with James. I was a visitor at Wake Forest teaching contracts in the fall of 2005. As I recall, there were four 1L sections of roughly forty students each. There were Contracts I and Contracts II in the fall and spring, respectively, but the professors swapped sections at mid-year. There was an understanding that all would use the same casebook (Knapp). Each professor otherwise had the freedom to do as he or she pleased, roughly following the order in the casebook, and we simply communicated with each other from time to time about how far along we had gotten so that the Contracts II professor would know where to pick up for that section.

The system, which was informal among the contracts professors and enforced more than anything by a longstanding community standard, had the benefit both of being relatively uniform in coverage AND exposing students to more than one style of professor.

I thought the system was superior to anything I've experienced since then.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Oct 29, 2015 9:56:52 AM

Hi Howard -- One issue that has sometime come up at our place has to do with casebook-selection in Constitutional Law, given that many students -- after taking the required Con Law I course in their first year -- choose to take Con Law II (here, an elective) later on. Most casebooks, as you know, cover (or attempt to) both "structure" and "rights" and so, in an ideal world, students taking Con Law II could use the same book, and save some money. Unfortunately, I think this doesn't happen more often than it does. (It would be nice if it were standard practice for casebooks to be available chapter-by-chapter . . .).

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 29, 2015 9:54:14 AM

Substantively, there is no one right answer to this question. Sometimes, having different professors with different takes gives students valuable choice to pick one that suits their learning styles and goals for the course. Sometimes, having uniform coverage is important because it places students on the same footing for later courses. And so on. There are a lot of considerations, depending on the course, the school, the professors, and much more.

But procedurally, there is a clearly right answer, one that most law schools miss most of the time. The professors should get together and talk about it, work through the considerations, and agree on where their sections will converge and where they will diverge. Indeed, these conversations ought to be institutionalized: the faculty involved should write down what they agreed on and discuss it with the professors who will be teaching the course in the future, and all of this should feed into a similar set of conversations across courses. There is little reason to think that the typical current system -- centralized assignment of professors to courses followed by decentralized curricular decisions within each course -- is anywhere close to ideal.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Oct 29, 2015 12:37:09 AM

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