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Friday, September 07, 2018

ICYMI: Ten (okay, Nineteen) Tips for New Law Professors

I wrote this a while ago and offer it again in case it may be of use.

1.  Begin a little more strictly than you mean to go on.  If you start out strict and stern, you have room to lighten up. If you start out lax, you will pay a real price if you need to impose order later on.

2.  If you put a policy in the syllabus, stick to it even if you think you might have been wrong.  I learned this the hard way.  The first time I taught Professional Responsibility, I stated in the syllabus and in class that the exam would be a two-hour exam.  After I wrote it, I decided it was a bit too hard and I would be "nice" and give them an extra hour to complete it.  I had a young woman in my office 30 minute before the exam so angry I thought she would spit on me. I told her she was welcome to finish in two hours instead of three, but that didn't placate her. I finally told her she'd have to take it up with the associate dean, and I'll be damned if she didn't march down there and do just that.  Thankfully, he backed me up, but I never again made a major policy shift midstream.  She wasn't the only disgruntled student that day, either.

 3. Put everything you can think of in the syllabus, even things that should go without saying.  For example, if you are teaching a seminar, you should consider a policy stating that plagiarism is a ground for failing the course, and you should have an extended explanation in the syllabus explaining what plagiarism is.  You might think that everyone accepted to law school already knows what plagiarism is, but you would be wrong.  More importantly, by explaining what plagiarism is in the syllabus, you deprive the student of the ARGUMENT that s/he didn't know s/he was committing plagiarism.  Another example of something you might want to put in the syllabus is a statement that it is rude and disruptive to come late to class, to come and go during class, or to leave class early without notifying the professor beforehand.  Frankly, I'm not sure I realized how distracting these habits are before I started teaching, and many of your students won't, either.

 4. "Don't be moody." 

This is a piece of advice I received early on from a relatively new law teacher, and it has always stuck in my head. The person who gave me the advice was male, and he evidently had gotten burned  by violating it.  What the advice boils down to, I think, is that students desparately need you to be predictable. It is comforting to them when they know roughly what to expect each day. 

5. Students decide very, very quickly whether you're on their side or not. If they decide you are, they will forgive a multitude of mistakes. If they decide you're not, nothing you do will be right.  I've been teaching for 19 years, and I only had one class that hated me.  They decided early on that I was mean, and everything I did provided confirmation.  They even hated how I started the class and what I wore. (I'd given birth the month before the class started, and my wardrobe was limited). Frankly, I grew to dislike most of them, too.  However, in telling this story, I'm violating the next tip in my list.

6. Be careful about generalizing how "the class" feels.  A communications researcher would probably insist that, in fact, there is no such thing as a "class." (See Ien Ang).  Instead, a "class" is a collection of individuals with disparate needs and interests and judgments about the classroom experience.  That said, it is easy to assume that outspoken students represent the feelings of the entire group.  It so happens that what I think of as "the class that hated me" (discussed above) included two especially delightful students, who took one of the most fun Media Law classes I ever taught. I still keep in touch with them even though they graduated more than a decade ago.

7. Watch out for group dynamics.  Let's say you have a student who is engaging in disruptive behavior. You may be tempted to call the student out for his or her behavior in front of the whole class, but this is usually a bad idea.  Even if other students started out being annoyed at the disruptive student, they may turn on you if you come down too harshly on the student or make him lose face. What should you do instead? I use what I call "class regulation by raised eyebrow."  For example, if a student is late, I may visibly lose my train of thought and stare at him with a completely blank expression on my face for a few seconds--just long enough to be socially awkward.  That does the trick 99 percent of the time.  If you try informal means of "discipline" and they don't work, however, the next step is to call the student into your office. The student won't lose face, and you won't run the risk of having the entire class turn against you for being "mean."

8. Try not to project insecurity. In other words, fake it until you make it.  Although you may be tempted to reveal to the class that you are brand new or are learning the material for the first time, you certainly don't have to and some would argue you shouldn't.  Remember that the students are lucky to have a teacher who is energetic and curious and enthusiastic and can reach them at their level.  Also remember that as little as you think you know, you still can read a case far better than even your brightest student.  So project confidence, but . . . [see next rule.]

9. When you make mistakes, fix them.  When I first taught Torts, I slept with the Prosser & Keeton hornbook by my bedside.  I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking "what if they ask me X?" I would then flip through Prosser & Keeton, read it, perhaps even take notes, and then go back to sleep.  I realize now that every first-time teacher makes mistakes; it is just a question of how you handle them.  Sometimes you will just have to say, "I don't know. Let me research that and get back to you tomorrow." [But make sure you have the answer when you promised it.]   One classic dodge is to say:  "Hold that question. We'll get to that later in the class (or tomorrow or next week)." [Make sure you research the answer and come back to it when you said you would.]  If you realize you didn't explain something well or your explanation was misleading, one way to handle it is to say at the start of next class:  "I'd like to begin by clarifying X that we were discussing yesterday." [Then give your 5-10 minute summary/totally correct explanation.]  Occasionally, you will realize that you said something completely wrong and you will just have to apologize and fix it. As consolation, remember that you are modelling for them how to handle mistakes, and it may be one of the most valuable lessons you can teach future lawyers.  Law is a complicated business, and we all make mistakes from time to time no matter how hard we try or how smart we are.

10.  Trade-offs are inevitable.  More depth or more coverage? Encourage participation and intellectual curiosity, or hew to an organizational scheme?  Stick to your syllabus, or spend more time on the things the class seems interested in or doesn't understand readily? There are lots of other trade-offs of this sort that you'll have to make and then re-make when you realize you've tilted the balance too far toward one value at the expense of another.

11. Make ideas "sticky." Try to come up with ways to make the material you teach memorable.  Silly is sticky.  Graphics (pictures, drawings on the board) are sticky. Funny is sticky. Music is sticky. My Trusts and Estates professor even danced on the table to reinforce a principle, and I remember it (the dancing) twenty years later.  The principle had something to do with whether separate property acquired after the marriage becomes community property or not.  Okay, so the idea wasn't that sticky, but my point still holds.

12. Use the board more than you think you need to. It helps keep the class structured, and it helps the visual learners in the class.   Conversely, use Power Point less than you think you need to.   Power Point is good for pictures and videos, and it can be used to examine closely the text of a rule or to convey highly detailed and technical material through lecture.  Do NOT put giant blocks of text on Power Point and then simply read to the class from the slides. EVER.   

13. It's not about you; it's about the students. Try to keep their needs foremost, instead of your own desire for ego gratification or anything else.  

14. Keep a degree of formal distance between you and your students.  You can treat them like future colleagues, but you cannot be friends with students until they have left your class.  Your role requires you to sit in judgment of your students when you grade them, and that role can be compromised if you don't maintain formal distance.

15. Never use the same exam twice!!  Violate this rule at your extreme peril.

16. Ask colleagues for advice, but remember you don't have to take all the advice you receive.

17. You will teach a class best the third time you teach it.

18. If you are teaching a large class and don't feel that voice projection is one of your gifts, consider wearing a microphone. This tip was shared by my anonymous source. I've never had this problem, but I've heard plenty of complaints from students about being unable to hear some of my colleagues. It is impossible to be an effective teacher if the students cannot hear you.

19. Consider wearing a suit. Even if you don't plan to wear it forever, it may help as a crutch for faking it until you make it and can help you maintain some formal distance from the students. This tip also came from my anonymous source, but I fully concur. I don't wear a suit every single day now, but I believe in signalling I take the endeavor seriously by dressing professionally.

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on September 7, 2018 at 11:56 AM in Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law | Permalink


With respect to #8 and #9, students can usually tell when a professor is "faking it." While avoiding insecurity is important, the professor must also project sincerity in order to create and sustain credibility. Honestly saying, "I don't know" is far better than faking it.

I say "create" credibility because you don't automatically have it by virtue of your position behind the lectern. I started every class in law school with four questions on my mind: what will I learn, what must I do, how will my performance be assessed, and who is this person standing in front of me and why should I believe them?

I think #13 is the most important. Think far more about your students' experience and far less about your own performance. Your job is to create conditions for learning. If you want to be a performer, switch to the theater or music departments.

Posted by: Phil | Sep 10, 2018 4:13:03 PM

The umpire in the US Open Women’s Final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka violated #13.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Sep 9, 2018 3:05:46 PM

I like this list, excellent discussion about classroom dynamics/discipline. IMHO it's one of my least favorite parts of teaching and something I wish I could do less of, but seems to be necessary.

Posted by: Miriam A. Cherry | Sep 9, 2018 12:33:33 PM

Great advice. I would add that a midterm check in is always a good idea, especially when starting out. Give the students note cards and ask them to anonymously give you feedback. You could ask some of the questions that your schools uses on student evals or just leave it open-ended. (Leave the room and make it optional.) Then review the comments with the students during the next class. I think this helps to show them that you care, it allows you to explain your approach to students who may have the wrong impression, and it can let you change things that aren't working (but I agree with #2). The University of Dayton actually has an optional program where an experienced professor from outside the law school does this and then has a conversation with the students. The professor then gives the feedback and advice to the new professor. I think this even better if you have a good friend on the faculty.

Along the same lines, always sell your policies. If you ban laptops, explain why and cite studies supporting your approach. If you heavily use the Socratic method, take a minute to acknowledge the drawbacks of the approach (and how you will work to ameliorate them) but explain why you think it is best. Even if the students don't agree, they will respect your candor and thoughtfulness.

Posted by: Jeff Schmitt | Sep 9, 2018 9:57:14 AM

This really is a first rate list. A couple observations.

11. Absolutely. It just has to be memorable. For example, §1-103 of the UCC is the provision that releases you, to among other things, the common law of contracts if there's nothing on point in the UCC. I describe it in terms of the door from which Truman escapes the bubble at the end of the movie "The Truman Show."

12. My experience over time (and this was something another colleague encouraged) is that some board work naturally migrates to PowerPoint, particularly if you use the animation function.

13. I think of this far broader than a lot of people (see my blog posts on paternalism) and it ties back into #5. If you think of the classroom as your world and everybody else is just living in it, all sorts of things become about you - students arriving late, a cell phone going off, etc. My experience is that students appreciate being seen as adults - don't sweat the small stuff and treat the slightly bigger stuff with humor.

17. Yeah. Because after the third time you have it down so pat that you can do it on auto-pilot and some things surprise you. Example. Do I always go back and re-read the chestnut cases before teaching them for the umpteenth time? Uh... no. And if I do, do I read them like I did as a 1L or when I taught for the first time? No. The other day I was teaching the famous "adequacy of consideration" case, Batsakis. My notes on it were dead-on correct and posed the question about the issue in the appellate court: "Did the trial court err in addressing the sufficiency of the consideration?" The answer to that question was "yes." What I had forgotten, or perhaps never cared about, was that the appellate court could have reversed and remanded, but instead affirmed and "reformed" the judgment. Procedurally it is six of one half a dozen of another, and not relevant to the pedagogical point, but couple students picked up on it and we had to spend a few minutes after the break "clarifying" it.

The other thing I would add is "transparency." Over the years I have gotten more and more liberal in making everything available to students. This is somewhat more difficult in the early years when you are just barely staying ahead of the students. So I post all PowerPoints and other materials on Blackboard before class. I record all classes and make them available. After each unit, I post my lecture notes.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Sep 8, 2018 9:31:20 AM

Excellent list!

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 7, 2018 4:26:35 PM

Exceptionally good advice -- thank you for sharing!

Posted by: Michael Higdon | Sep 7, 2018 3:51:44 PM

Keep a teaching diary! Jot down what went well, what didn't, what you would do differently next time, such as taking longer, offering more hypotheticals. This record will help you sleep at night, instead of indulging in self-flagelation over mistakes. It will also help you revise the course for the next time. You think you will remember important changes, but that is harder to do than you expect.

Posted by: Ellen P Aprill | Sep 7, 2018 1:36:02 PM

These are all excellent tips - of course some of them are easier said than done :-)

But all are things you should try to do. I would add that you should employ 'careful humility' - it's a delicate balance and I'll admit to getting burned using it before I was able to find a good balance - it interacts with a number of the points above.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Sep 7, 2018 1:02:57 PM

" Consider wearing a suit."

If you are or even look young, then change "consider" to "Always show up." I find colleagues who look older (even if they have equal experience levels) get automatic deference, while the opposite may be true for others. Unfair as that may be, you may have to maintain outward signs of skill and professionalism at first, until your skill and professionalism at teaching can demonstrate themselves.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 7, 2018 12:51:53 PM

It is also a wonderful list of touchstones for the experienced teacher.

Posted by: Joe Miller | Sep 7, 2018 12:21:51 PM

Super advice from head to toe. I've reliably mentioned some of the same advice, and will make sure to add that which I haven't. Thanks.

Posted by: Ed | Sep 7, 2018 12:15:06 PM

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