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Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Classroom Without Paternalism?

Slide1As my last post on cold-calling seemed to stir the pot, I'm going to close out the month by trying to do it again.  But this time without being a nattering nabob of negativism ($200 in Jeopardy! if you can identify the source of that line - answer below the break).  (As to cold-calling as a means of generating participation, by the way, I admire the alternatives suggested in Steven Baicker-McKee's subsequent "Flipping the Classroom" post.  I mean to try some of that.)

One of Douglas Levene's comments in the earlier post captures my own bias perfectly: "I figure they are all adults and will get out of the class what they put into it."

Indeed, one of my lines on the first day of class, as I am walking through my own expectations of classroom protocol is the following: "Nobody in this building will care more about and work harder at leading you to water than I will, but nobody will care less than I about whether you choose to drink." That usually comes right before or after I tell them I don't care where they sit, how they take notes, or whether they surf the internet during class.

To be clear, I am not suggesting this is the way I would run a primary or secondary school or even an undergrad class. But I do believe pretty firmly that once you are a graduate student bound, even if prospectively, to a code of ethics and disciplinary rules and within three or four years of licensure and accountability by way of grievance or malpractice, you have first to be accountable to yourself and not to your professors.  That includes deciding, in the face of the performance standards you don't control (like what counts toward getting a good grade), how you want to go about meeting the standards.  That was the source of my nattering negativity about cold-calling. I believe oral participation in a first-year contract law classroom (as opposed to a legal practice skills class) is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and something of a paternal imposition on my part if I demand it without consent.  My primary learning objectives are (a) how to translate real world narratives involving promises, commitments, and transactions into legal theories that produce legal consequences, and (b) how to use some of the rules within the contract law canon to achieve that.  (Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds Disclaimer #1:  I start the year with on-call "panels" that tend to fade out over time.  Why bother at all?  I don't know.)

Below the break, some positive thoughts about running a moderately non-paternalistic class.  I will don my Kevlar "Jim Harbaugh khakis" and leave the comments open.

220px-Spiro_AgnewSeating charts.  Why bother?  There's a reason why Kingsfield is unrolling one at the beginning of The Paper Chase.  It's so he can know where the student on whom he wants to focus his attention is sitting.  If you don't really believe in cold-calling, then there is no reason at all to have one.  Or, worse, it's just a pure power play.  "I am the professor and can move wherever I want.  You are the student and have to sit where I tell you."

I much prefer Howard Katz's suggestion in the comments to the earlier post.  Our school issues the students name cards that even I can see when they are used up in the back row.  Now, in the early days, when I'm still using the on-call panels, it means I have to spend a minute before class begins scanning the room to find where the six or seven students are perched.  That gets pretty easy because, even without a mandatory seating chart, students tend to sit in the same place all semester.  Foolish Consistency Disclaimer #2:  Sometimes I will walk into class, not see very many name cards up, and announce that anybody without a name card showing is on call.  This usually has the effect of causing the name cards to go up.  I acknowledge, however, that this is my preference - wanting to know student names.  I suppose, taking anti-paternalism to its extreme, it's really up to the student to decide whether the student wants me to know his, her, or their name.  

Laptops.  I acknowledge, with some reservations, the controlled studies indicating that as to certain matters, the mean performance of a population of students who take handwritten notes exceeds, to a statistically significant extent, the mean performance of a population of students listening to the same material but taking notes on a computer.  Here are my reservations (with disclaimer that I am not an expert in the interpretation of statistical data - I have consulted with someone who knows a lot more about this than me and am waiting to hear back, so what follows could be wrong).  First, the studies do not show what I think is a problematic counter-factual - how would the specific student taking notes one way in the study perform if the student took notes the other way?  That is, the studies only speak to the average performance of populations, not to the impact of note-taking methodology on individual students.  Second, in my quick look at the studies, I cannot see whether there was any evaluation of the homo- or heteroscedacity of the data.  In other words, are the variances consistent across all sub-populations or do they vary?  Do better students vary less than poorer students when changing note-taking styles?

My real problem with laptop bans, however, is again the paternalism of it all.  I have not handwritten anything of passing importance in probably twenty-five years.  If bored students are going to surf the internet on their laptops, and I ban laptops, they can use their phone or their Apple watches to play games, text, disturb other nearby students, or otherwise ignore me.  Short of making the classroom door look like the security entrance at the airport, I think it's an illusion of control on the professor's part. (I am still waiting for laptop ban proponents to agree that they must deposit all electronic devices outside the faculty meeting room.)

I do do some things designed to encourage more thinking and less verbatim note-taking, whether by hand or keyboard.  All Power Point slides are available on Blackboard from the beginning of the year (or from when I create it if I make up a new one). I audio record all of my classes and make the recording available through a link Media Services creates on Blackboard.  I organize classes in units.  Upon the completion of each one, I post my class notes on Blackboard as well.  All of this is in the manner of "lead you to water."

Having thought this through as writing this post, however, I have decided to abandon my former "don't care if you drink" approach with disclosure regulation.  Starting this fall, it's going to be something like this:  "I don't care what your manner of note-taking is.  Be aware that there are studies showing that the mean performance of a population of students who take handwritten notes exceeds, to a statistically significant extent, the mean performance of a population of students listening to the same material but taking notes on a computer.  I do not know what that means for an individual student.  I know that I would prefer to take notes on a keyboard, but you need to make your own decision about what is best for you."

Verbal interaction.  I would agree that my classes tend to be more about what I have to say on a subject than what students have to say.  I pose questions to the class or even to individual students all the time.  I would agree with the Socraticists that I want each student in the class individually to be processing what the answer to the question should be.  My own experience as a student, again, recalling from many years ago, is that I tuned out most of the student responses, focused on my own working through of the problem, and waited to see what the professor had to say about it.  As a student, I certainly tuned out any student questions or comments that struck me as going far afield of the point being made.

I confess to not having a lot of patience merely to have students debate an issue capable of different outcomes depending on the rule applied or the manner in which a single rule gets applied.  My consistent point is that what makes non-trivial lawsuits non-trivial is that there is sufficient play in the fact situation to point the case toward one analogous prototype or another.  Hence my ubiquitous Venn diagrams of competing issues (the above picture on trying to figure out if a conditional promise creates a bargain or a gift being an example). Sometimes it takes one of those debates to demonstrate that play, but I don't believe that there are philosophically determinate answers in the Venn diagram overlap, so the debates quickly have diminishing pedagogical returns (at least in my view).

As I mentioned above, the "flipping the classroom" techniques look interesting as a way of promoting engagement without paternalism.

Evaluation.  I do a lot of evaluation.  All of the evaluation is completely open book and open note but must be completed individually (enforced solely by Honor Code commitment as to the quizzes). In first year contracts, there are eight units in the first semester and twelve in the second.  In Business Entity Fundamentals, there are nine units.  After each unit, I post an online multiple choice quiz that is generally due one week later.  So by the end of the year, the contracts students will have done 200 multiple choice questions and the BEF students close to that many.  There is an all-essay final at the end of each semester.  The quizzes count one-third of the total grade in each semester.  I design most of the quiz questions (particularly after the first couple quizzes) so that the student should be able to read the narrative and the call of the question and then think about what the essay answer would be before looking at the proffered answers and distractors.

The point is that I create all of the multiple choice and essay questions from my class notes.  Hence, students who don't engage (whether orally or otherwise) in what is going on in the classroom are at a distinct disadvantage.

Alright.  Kevlar khakis are on.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on August 1, 2018 at 10:15 AM in Lipshaw, Teaching Law | Permalink


I want to call attention to the part of your post I liked the most, which really underscores my problem with most of the conversation around laptop bans. Namely, you’re exactly right - the data we have is on populations, not individuals. The data is entirely consistent with the existence of individuals who may perform better *with* laptops than without them, even if the *averages* are higher for non-laptop users.

Generally, when one is being “paternalistic,” one is forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do, but that is actually better for them. Laptop bans aren’t even paternalistic, because they have the effect of forcing at least some proportion of people to do something they don’t want to do and that is actively going to be bad for them. I’m not willing to do that. If part of my job is to correct my students “epistemic deficiencies” (which is such overly academic jargon for “things they don’t know,” IMO), then I’m happy to share with them what the research says so they can reflect on themselves and make their own choices. I’m not willing to decide for them, especially since one of *my* epistemic deficiencies is that I am incapable of knowing what is best for any particular student.

And while I agree this is controversial, and even though it comes up in every post like this and people don’t like to accept it, I still firmly believe that laptop bans are discriminatory against people with disabilities that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to take notes by hand. Even exceptions to the ban for disabilities calls attention to people in a discriminatory way. I simply can’t see a way around laptop bans furthering discrimination and I can't forcing already marginalized students to bear the costs associated with whatever potential benefits may or may not exist from implementing a ban. That's just me though.

(I basically agree with all your other points as well, but this is one of my high horses.)

Posted by: J | Aug 7, 2018 7:08:55 PM

As I have noted in other places I don't respond to anonymous comments, but ctr and I had a nice exchange privately. I think, in fairness, ctr thinks I am displaying undue hard-boiled wit here and to the students at the expense of an accurate description of how I actually feel.

I agree completely about my epistemic advantage in the "what" and "how" to learn. I suspect what stokes my curmudgeonliness is stuff related to taking responsibility like, for example, reading the syllabus or the instructions to the exam that I post a month before the semester ends. And if I can't assume adulthood and professionalism now, then when?

As to laptops, bottles of whiskey, bocce balls and their family resemblance of "wrongness" in particular settings, I may be able to test this empirically. I'm going to bring a laptop to the next faculty meeting and, about ten minutes in, quietly and non-disruptively put it away and take out instead a bottle of whiskey and some bocce balls!

I've also let DKG know that I use a lot of PowerPoint but like any tool it’s all in how you use it. I never use it in the traditional mind-numbing bullet point manner which bores and annoys me to no end. I see no difference between posting bullet points of the text you are lecturing and simply reading your notes.

My stuff is all graphics or occasionally a piece of shared text we are analyzing. Occasionally it's a bit of humor as when I point out the facial resemblance between Benjamin Cardozo and Conan O'Brien.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 3, 2018 11:08:28 AM

I am more willing to impose some paternalism; after all this is a school. They are here because they seek to overcome a certain epistemic deficiency, which likely applies to both knowledge and meta-knowledge. My experience and education provides me with epistemic advantages as to both what to learn and how to learn it.

More generally, a bachelors degree is no longer a strong proxy of professionalism and adulthood (if it ever was).

But I think there are also plenty of non-paternalistic reasons to keep all the students in the class focused, engaged, and non-distracted. A laptop makes only a little more sense than a bottle of whiskey or a set of bocce balls. Wrong time, wrong place, for what we (collectively) are trying to do in this room.

Posted by: ctr | Aug 3, 2018 10:40:00 AM

Thank you for those thoughts, and agree with 99% of your suggestions. But do you really use PPPs? I try to avoid those at all costs, they even bore me while I am presenting them. I feel like it's an automatic way to induce eye glaze and resort to the very laptop facilitated entertainment that we try to avoid with laptop bans...

Posted by: DKG | Aug 3, 2018 9:59:55 AM

This is pithy, but surely not true. "Nobody in this building will care more about and work harder at leading you to water than I will, but nobody will care less than I about whether you choose to drink.". If you don't care about whether your students actually learn, then why not double your salary and go back into practice?

Posted by: Ctr | Aug 3, 2018 7:38:20 AM

i appreciate this thoughtful post and enjoyed it. thank you. (even if my own practices differ from yours considerably--i enjoyed the thoughts and experience you convey.)

one note on the laptop issue. after much research, i have begun discouraging (but not outright prohibiting*) laptops, and in doing so, i started feeling guilty about how much i "multitask" during conferences, as howard also mentions. multitask of course means basically zone out.

So...i've been trying to survive most conference sessions, at least ones in my field, with just a legal pad and a pen. And...so far so good! I've learned a lot more, is the honest truth, and come away with lots of substantive notes and questions. (as for faculty meetings...no way.)

* i do prohibit internet use, although i haven't yet busted anyone for violating this "prohibition."

Posted by: cbprof | Aug 1, 2018 3:47:27 PM

I like the sit-where-you-like idea except: 1) The majority of students seem constitutionally incapable of keeping their name cards; 2) I use a combination of the cards and the seating chart to help me figure out who is who (something I am not good at); 3) I use that combination to remind myself after class who participated and how, thus allowing me to grade class performance. I do use sit-where-you-want in smaller classes. Unsurprisingly, everyone sits in the same seat every class.

A tepid defense of cold-calling and assigned searing: The only class in which cold call is Evidence, which is almost entirely problem-based. We work through a couple hundred evidence problems based on a set of materials, splitting the room into sides on a problem and going around the room. I need assigned seats for that to work.

I have made my views on laptops clear over the years (although touche on law faculty at faculty meetings or any other kind of conference or meeting--we're the worse offenders). I accept that I am being paternalistic on this one--I don't care.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 1, 2018 1:45:11 PM

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