First, congratulations to Prof. Childs on completing his first semester of teaching! His guest post on last week's Notes from the (Legal) Underground inspired me to write this guest post, since I have just completed my first semester of law school.
Everyone has an opinion about the law school student experience, "Working hard to be average," "Three years of hell to become the devil," "First year they scare you to death, second they work you to death, and third they bore you to death." There's so much mythology surrounding the hazing aspect of law school that it's often a self-fulfilling prophecy for students. It's a bit like watching "The Exorcist" before going to bed; is it any wonder we have nightmares?
We students do a pretty good job of providing the fodder for horror on our own. Between the gunners, the podium trolls, the deer-in-headlights, and the Silent Bobs, we're all working to freak each other out, sometimes intentionally, but mostly through mass panic.
This is my open invitation for you to help us help you. With what I promise is very little effort, you, dear law professor, can create an atmosphere in your class that will actually foster learning and increase your scores on student evaluations. Not that those matter as much as they should-we understand the tenure process needs fixing, too, but that's another guest post for another day.
So, without further delay, here's what you can do to help your students, and in return (hopefully) make your teaching experience more joyful as well:
1. Let us know the assignments for a full week in advance. You're busy. We're busy. Busy people benefit from planning and scheduling their workload. We understand that the class moves at its own pace-you don't have to date the entire syllabus. However, on the last class of the week, tell us what you would like to get through in the next week's classes. This is especially critical if you skip around in your case book. Yes, we could just read the next few items on the syllabus, but if we're not going to get to it for a long time, that would be counter-productive. And if it's going to come up in the next week, why not give us a "head's up"?
2. Respond to e-mail. I don't know how to put this without being insulting, so in advance, I apologize to the Professors who do respond to student e-mail, even if it's just to say, "This requires a more detailed response than I have time for, come see me in office hours."
To those of you who never respond to student queries--and you are out there--the year is 2005. You may have noticed that a lot of students in your class have these magic slates they are constantly peering at and pounding on during class. They are called laptop computers. You see, we use computers.
Now, you're smart, right? You must have done fairly well in school. You made it to "law professor" so you must be doing something right. So learn to use your damn e-mail! It's not that hard. The school offers you support. It's quick and it's easy. And it's a very good way for those of us who might have a regular conflict with your office hours to contact you. Seriously. Your 10 year old knows how to use it, you should, too.
3. Review sessions are helpful. We can't read your mind. We're working on it, but as of right now, we can't. The Socratic Method is great for torturing, er, developing our thought processes. But let's have a moment of candor, shall we? We all know there's a lot of "subjectivity" when it comes to grading exams. So have a review session where you can be a little less "The Paper Chase" and a little more "To Sir, With Love."
4. Recommend a Commercial Outline. Yes, yes, yes, we know they are no substitute for writing our own outlines. We know that most of them are all glitter and no gold. We know that they don't follow your syllabus exactly and we know that they are actually the tool of Satan designed to spawn walking lawyer jokes.
We are going to buy them anyway. A drowning man will grab at anything he can to stay afloat.
So do us (and yourself) a favor: throw us a line! There are a million outlines to choose from: Gilbert, Emanuel, Nutshells, Understanding... the list goes on and on. We already know you would prefer we didn't use one; you already know we will anyway. So why not point us to the one you find least offensive? And in that review session, why not point out any glaring no-nos from the commercial outline. (Such as the "proximate cause" vs. "legal cause" issue pointed out by Prof. Childs.) It will result in less frustration for you when it comes to reading our exam answers, and honestly, most of us aren't turning to these outlines as a quick and easy method of short-cutting to answers; we're turning to them because, well, to put it delicately, you're not teaching the material well enough for us to fully grasp it first time around.
5. Provide old exams. Being that we are all adults here, let's dispense with the objectivity myth. Anonymous grading is, at best, a "legal fiction." Yes, there are objective points awarded for spotting certain issues and raising certain points of discussion. But on the mandatory curves that law schools inflict upon both professors and students, we're fighting over crumbs. And those crumbs come largely from style. Every professor has personal preferences for organizational styles, writing styles, etc. That's only human.
However, we're being evaluated for an entire semester on one exam. We don't have any "trial and error" process in place which will allow us to learn what you are looking for. And you aren't all looking for the same thing. Woo, boy, this semester taught me that! Old exams (or, if you're a new professor, sample answers) provide a way for us to give you what you are looking for. I've heard arguments that we're supposed to "figure it out" or that "this is like the real world-you sink or swim" both of which are total and complete bullshit.
Any employer who is going to stay in business provides training for their employees. Think of old exams/sample answers as training manuals. I'm a non-traditional student. I've been employed as a professional for over a decade, and I have never once been given an assignment at work that went into new territory and then been denied training when I've requested it. Hell, even in the "cut throat" legal profession a first year associate will be able to look at a few other office memos before writing that memo the partner's asked for. The idea that we are supposed to go into the exam blindly, not knowing what you want from us is just plain stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
6. Consider the Students. To continue on something Prof. Childs touched on... while students shouldn't be "Faulkner on meth" when answering exams, professors shouldn't be Joyce when writing them.
(Disclaimer: I very much enjoyed Torts and the professor who taught the class, this is just an easy example, but there were others in my other courses as well.)
On my marathon, 4.5 hour, closed-book torts exam, there was a 25 point question that consisted of four, four part answers. Yes, 16 "parts" in total. Weird structure. But, okay, that alone would not be quite so tortuous except that for each part we were supposed to write one page on why one part was better than the others. Okay, a little more confusing, but not entirely incomprehensible. Then came the "corrections" sheet. This consisted of several corrections to the wording of several of the parts. Usually, it was changing one word, from "did" to "did not" or something like that (I've tried to block this from my mind, so it's hard to recall).
I did made a valiant effort not to post-mortem my exams, but I noticed everyone was talking about this section of the exam. It was just plain confusing. You might be writing a casebook, so maybe notes are on your mind, but notes on an exam are just confusing and weird. If you expect to read cogent answers, it helps to write cogent questions.
There are a ton of other suggestions I could make that would help improve the teaching skills and the classroom experience for a lot of professors, but many of those start to get into teaching style, and I don't like to impose style on anyone. I'll just say that lively discussion beats relentless questioning any day of the week. But the six suggestions I've offered above should be relatively easy for anyone to implement regardless of how your classroom is run. I don't think they would cramp anyone's style too much, unless your style is boorish ogre, and then, well, all bets are off.
About the Author: Dave! is also known as David Gulbransen, a career chameleon who has done many things over the years, a bit like Homer Simpson. He's been a film producer, a published author and an IT professional. Currently, he's flexing his IT and production muscles at a fine academic institution, while torturing himself and his poor spouse by attending night school to earn his JD. His maniacal ranting can be found at Preaching to the Perverted.