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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

ICYMI: Ten (No, Make that Nineteen) Tips for New Law Professors

I wrote these tips a few years ago and reviewed them before reposting for anyone who is interested.

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 desperately need you to be predictable. It is comforting to them when they know roughly what to expect each day. I think of this advice a lot as dean, too. The Dean's "mood" affects the whole institution, and it is important to remain predictably but not Pollyanna-ishly optimistic no matter what comes along. As an aside, I think this is important as a parent, too. My motto: We'll deal!

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 25 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. Videos can be sticky. My Trusts and Estates professor even danced on the table to reinforce a principle, and I remember it (the dancing) 28 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.  [I used the whiteboard feature in zoom this summer as a replacement for the board. It worked better than powerpoint in prompting interaction.]

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. This is probably the most important piece of advice on this list. It happens to be good advice for deans, too!

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 when you're new. 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 (I do as dean!), but I believe in signalling I take the endeavor seriously by dressing professionally.

Finally, if you're new and you'd like to talk about any of the subjects I teach (mostly Torts, Media Law, Advanced Torts, First Amendment Law), I'd be happy to share any materials I have.

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on August 11, 2020 at 05:08 PM in Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink


Best advice I ever got with regard to exams: once you've written it (always a new one as Dean Lidsky says), sit down and write the answer as if you were a student taking the exam, in the permitted time frame. You will find ambiguities, you will figure out whether the question is too long, too short, too complex or too easy, and it helps you write your rubric for grading.

Posted by: Margaret Raymond | Aug 20, 2020 3:47:38 PM

Provide some real opportunities for feedback to students on their progress (and barriers) during the term... if only because that's the only way to ensure they'll do the same in return. Especially if teaching a course for the first time, a mini-take-home question during week four that is at least in the same _style_ as you intend to put on the final -- even if ungraded, even if never even turned in but followed up with a few sample answers (NOT JUST THE "A" ANSWER), can be really helpful to everyone. The response will also help YOU understand more how to really test THIS CLASS's understanding at the end.

There's nothing wrong with this being optional for the students, either; some students have lives outside of law school. Make it an opportunity and not a burden!

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Aug 12, 2020 10:08:09 AM

Great tips and comments!

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Aug 4, 2013 2:52:54 PM

1. (Variation on OP's rule 1) Start class precisely on time, do not wait for students to take their seats and stop chatting. If you wait for them, they'll learn that class doesn't really start when it says it does, and they'll start coming in later, chatting longer, etc. If you start right away, they'll learn to be ready at the appropriate time.

2. Do not give all your attention to the star performers. Many students with big scholarship packages will already have been to special receptions where they get to meet professors and future mentors. Students who get on to Law Review or win essay competitions will likewise have that extra access. Look for students who are existing on the margins of the law school society and develop relationships with them.

3. Keep in mind that your class is graded a curve and nearly half of law students will cheat at some point. Make your exams hard to cheat on. The best way is to have it in class and open note. You should also make all of your prior exams available -- some students will inevitably get them, and the only way to keep things fair is to make sure everyone has the same advantage.

4. Read OP's #15 about 100 more times. Every year there's some stories posted on ATL about professors recycling old exams and the scores getting tossed out and the whole thing just being a big mess. Writing a new exam does not require nearly the amount of time you are asking students to study for it.

5. If the school gives you a budget for taking students out to lunch or in-class snacks, use it, and try to be as inclusive as possible.

6. Use your network of practitioner friends to help set up informational interviews. You can do this in connection with the class snack budget. Take a group of students out for cupcakes or something, and ask along a couple real life working lawyers who can help your students figure out their career paths.

7. If all you require students to read are things in the public domain or available to them from Lexis for free, don't make them pay $120 for a text book.

8. If you want to write a syllabus that contains everything under the sun, understand a bit of human psychology first. Students won't read the whole thing, so put the most important stuff up front.

9. Do not gripe about how much BigLaw pays. This probably isn't as big of an issue now, but I was in school when salaries jumped from $125,000 to $145,000 and then to $160,000, and several professors started making comments about how overpaid the students would be, and didn't seem aware of the context that many of us had student debt in the ballpark of $200,000 and that those increased salaries meant longer hours to pay for them. Likewise, no one wants to hear about how you worked your way through law school or sold your car to pay for all three years of tuition. Your students would love for that to be an option, but it isn't any more.

10. Seriously, put your students in contact with more practitioners. Many of them have only a vague idea of what legal practice is like and need to start learning about different practice areas before they commit to a specific career path.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jul 31, 2013 3:18:27 PM

1. Set up "Lunch Bunches." Use the TWEN, or similar, sign up option to let five students schedule lunch with you. Go to any place they choose and everyone pays their own way. Talk about what they want to talk about and answer their questions.

2. At the first class, hand out index cards and get students to give you their names plus one interesting factoid.

Showing students you care about them as people creates a presumption working in your favor.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | Jul 30, 2013 1:51:06 AM

Great ideas.

3 more things

1.Start thinking about your final exam at the same time you are putting the course together. It is easier to get somewhere if you know where you're going.
2. Get other people to read through your exam for typos and ambiguity. As many as are willing
3. Nicole is right, names are important. But some people have an easier time learning names than others--I give each student a tent card with his or her name and ask them to bring it to class. That way i can call them by name immediately without consulting the seating chart. Some tape it to their computer

Posted by: Jennifer Bard | Jul 30, 2013 1:37:10 AM

Even if it's in your personal, short-term interest to make the syllabus explicit and "complete," I think this is a bad trend. Life and practice are full of unwritten rules and expectations. Our students need to be prepared for that reality. And no syllabi can be long enough to answer every question. Is any contract?

Posted by: 3rd anon | Jul 30, 2013 12:00:00 AM

I second Anon's point at 3:14:24 PM.

Many techniques are a double-edged sword. My first year of teaching, the last two questions of my evals for a 1L class were "what did you like best about the professor?" and "what constructive criticism would you offer?" For the first one, a few students wrote something to the effect of "he is very willing to answer questions," and then made substantially the same comment as constructive criticism (i.e., "we sure do spend a lot of time on questions in class"). Meanwhile, other students made the same "answers many questions" comment as a response to one of the eval questions but not both.

It's of course normal for a given teaching method to have mixed consequences, but the juxtaposition of the positive and negative views of the practice - from the same individual students! in questions immediately following one another! - illustrated to me that you cannot let your estimation of your teaching ability depend on pleasing even the same people all the time. I think this is an important corollary to the "there are some people you can never please" advice meme.

Posted by: Another anon | Jul 29, 2013 4:38:22 PM

Great list. I'll add one more: do your best to learn your students' names. They will appreciate the effort and feel that they've had a better classroom experience, and you will know them a bit better for it.

Posted by: Nicole Huberfeld | Jul 29, 2013 3:59:44 PM

#20: do not be crushed by student comments in end-of-semester reviews. Whiel they may provide some specific valuable information (particularly the first time you teach a class), many comments are not particularly helpful and I have heard stories of inappropriate and downright mean ones. Some students may be impossible to please, and many comments are "double-sided" in that if you change the class to appease the comment, then the students who disagree will comment in the future. So take a deep breath, read them, and then use them for what they are intended to do - provide some feedback on things you may be able to change.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 29, 2013 3:14:24 PM

Great post and great comments. Here is one more suggestion: Use "write-ups" and "cheat sheets" liberally. Very often in-class lecturing or the socratic method is not the best way to get some basic facts/ideas/rules to the students. I've learned to often write up these kinds of materials and make them directly available in written form to students, both to save time and improve their comprehension.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jul 29, 2013 2:09:06 PM

All good advice, and I would add one more thought.

For a range of reasons, many entry-level professors overestimate how much reading students can comfortably do; underestimate how much clear guidance students need about the state of the law; and overestimate the value of leaving students with the impression that the law is vague and uncertain. To many entry-level profs, assigning lots of reading and being opaque about the basic state of the law is considered rigorous: The idea is that students should be able to handle figuring it out just like practicing lawyers do, and that profs shouldn't "spoon feed" students as if they were undergrads. There are a lot of merits of that approach in the abstract, but it is common for entry-level profs to overdo it: What they may think of as "spoon feeding" may seem more like "clear teaching" to their students.

In my view, there's actually no conflict between clarity and rigor. You can state the blackletter law clearly and then spend class exploring its ambiguities and difficulties, giving students both some certainty (the blackletter law right up front) and reveling in the genuine uncertainty as to how it applies or what it means. But it's common for entry-level profs to instinctively do the latter without the former.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 29, 2013 1:10:56 PM

Great list. In addition to not using your own test twice, don't use a colleagues test (even at another a school), don't use this great hypo you saw on a private list-serv, etc. Likewise, make sure there is no (unintended) ambiguity in your questions, that the pages print correctly, and so on.

In general do everything in your power to make sure that a test debacle doesn't happen. They can never be totally fixed, and are a major headache for you and for the dean.

Posted by: brad | Jul 29, 2013 1:03:54 PM

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