Saturday, December 31, 2005

Offering a Course in Scholarly Writing

In an attempt to provide more support for upper-level students who are tackling their R&W requirements, UMKC's Law Library Director, Paul Callister, and I developed a course in scholarly writing last spring.  You might consider proposing a similar course for your law school as part of your ASP efforts.

The course is designed as a one-credit, pass/fail offering that takes students from the initial stages of topic development through strategies for getting their articles published in appropriate journals.  Using two outstanding texts, Mary R. Falk's Scholarly Writing for Law Students and Eugene Volokh's Academic Legal Writing, we use a "writer's workshop" approach that includes direct instruction in the writing process and advanced research techniques, as well as numerous opportunities for the students to share their research and drafts with one another for critique and advice. 

Paul provides most of the instruction in research; and I provide most of the instruction in writing, each of us playing off the other's focus to create as best we can an integrated approach to the material.  We do not grade the students' work or even provide much reading or critique because we believe that such input should come from their individual faculty advisers.  Our objective is to give the students strategies and techniques they may not get from advisers and to help them work through writing and research difficulties as they arise.  As long as they attend the class and participate fully, they can earn the credit.

One of the most important and appreciated facets of the class, we have found, is the workshop approach that allows students to bounce ideas off each other and obtain feedback as their projects develop.  They are not allowed to edit each other's work, of course, or to collaborate inappropriately; but they seem to benefit tremendously from the workshop interaction as they test their own theses and those of their peers.  It is intriguing to watch them as they talk through conceptual difficulties with one another and find their thinking crystallizing into more coherent and focused approaches to their projects.

The class is scheduled to meet for an hour, once a week.  When the students' schedules permit, however, we sometimes take a couple of weeks off to allow them to work on their drafts and then reconvene for an extended session that allows for more extensive group work.  Last spring, we were able to schedule two class times during the week to give ourselves more flexibility in class meetings, given that a one-hour course need only meet once per week.  This fall, however, our students' schedules made such an arrangement impractical; so we stuck with once a week.  Nevertheless, the interactions were rich and beneficial.

We are still massaging the course and experimenting with our approach, but students seem to have found it quite helpful so far.  Because we have avoided the grading load, the course has not been particularly burdensome, as writing courses go; and our rapport with the students has had more of a "coaching" feel than is sometimes true of first-year writing courses, where students and professors have to deal with disappointing grades on the students' assignments. 

All in all, our feeling is that the course has been a success and has addressed an important need for students.  You might want to explore a similar offering, perhaps using a larger team of instructors or guest lecturers from among the scholars, writing professors, and librarians on your faculty.  The resources are there; with a little creativity, you can offer an important set of resources without creating too much strain on anyone's already crowded schedule. (dbw)

December 31, 2005 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Helping Students with Their Upper-level R&W Requirements

As you are preparing your spring ASP program, you might consider adding a scholarly writing component.  Many students arrive at law school already struggling with writing generally, and their struggles are compounded as they strive to master writing for legal contexts.  The problem becomes even more complex as they attempt to move from the instrumental legal writing they learned in the first year to the scholarly writing demanded by their upper-level R&W requirements.  Some ASP workshops on scholarly writing or even a full-blown scholarly writing course can be a great help.

Consider what many students face as they enter law school.  They come in with poor training in writing and a "how much baloney must I pour into this paper to get to the page limit" approach to research-based writing assignments.  They must learn to research what for them are dizzyingly complex legal problems in a completely foreign library system.  They must learn to write with precision for an exacting audience that will consist mainly of lawyers and judges who have no patience for sloppy research or fuzzy legal thinking and writing.  They must learn to tailor this research and writing to resolving specific legal questions raised by hypothetical fact patterns and either predict how a court would likely rule or persuade a court to rule in a particular way.  They learn IRAC.

Then comes the upper-level research and writing requirement.  No longer focused upon a discrete set of facts that raise a set of specific legal issues, the R&W requirement forces students to cast their nets into a legal ocean they have barely learned to navigate (and even that navigation has been learned mostly close to shore) and come up with something interesting and novel to say about a legal topic they barely understand. 

When they begin their first tentative forays into the world of academic legal writing, they find that their seemingly fresh, new topics have already been the subject of intense scholarly exploration by seasoned law professors.  Finally, even if they can come up with something useful and novel to say, they find that because there is no hypothetical fact pattern to which their research and writing must be tailored, IRAC is useless as an organizational tool.

They could use some help.

One way to help might be to create a series of workshops on scholarly research and writing for legal audiences.  The ASP professional need not be the one who actually conducts all of the workshops, of course.  Recruiting other law faculty and librarians to deliver the sessions can be an excellent way to provide the students with very practical and insightful advice on developing topics, using research tools not covered in first-year writing courses, and tailoring writing to academic audiences.  After all, a law faculty is made up of scholars, and the law library is filled with people who think about research problems all day long.  Many of those people are rich sources of experience and expertise and would be delighted to help.

It is true, of course, that students have individual faculty advisors for their R&W assignments.  Those advisors, however, may not always have thought deeply about the processes of legal reseach and writing. They may have produced extremely important scholarhip in their particular areas of law, but ironically their extensive backgrounds can sometimes make it difficult for them to explain to a novice how to discover and develop a novel topic when everything in the field seems novel. 

Some of those scholars, on the other hand, are quite interested in and thoughtful about the processes that drive good scholarship; and they can provide an abundance of practical advice for novice scholars.  It makes sense for the ASP professional to tap such expertise for the student body as a whole whenever possible.

Librarians are also a treasure trove of research strategies that students have yet to encounter.  Students learn basic legal research in the first year; but good research librarians can open up a much larger world of strategies and resources for budding legal scholars, a world even many faculty advisors may not realize exists.

Finally, and certainly not least, legal writing professionals are often well-established scholars for whom thinking deliberately about the writing process is second nature.  Many would relish the opportunity to share what they know about scholarly writing and its similarities to and differences from the instrumental writing students encounter in the first year.

A step beyond a workshop series would be a full-blown course in scholarly writing.  Later this week, I'll describe how such a course might work.  (dbw)

December 28, 2005 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Taking Notes: Custom Paper?

Do you teach your students how to take notes?

"I don't know what to write down," is a refrain I hear from wunnellesand it doesn't end with the end of the first semester.

It's not just what you write down, of course, it's how you write it, and what you do with what you've written.

I have recommended a variation of the "Cornell Note-Taking" system for quite a while (I have attached a few paragraphs explaining the method I suggest).  Imagine how surprised I was to find that students can now generate their own customized paper for taking notes!

Yes, yesterday my wife, Kristy, discovered an online resource we can direct students to, so theyKristy  need not depend on the bookstore anymore. 

How many lines per inch would you like on your paper?  Just how wide should that left-hand margin be?

Thanks, Kristy! (djt)

December 27, 2005 in Advice, Miscellany, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Writing Their Lives

Professor James R. Elkins (College of Law, West Virginia University), featured on this blog before (Looking Before One Leaps), came up with an idea (more than a decade ago) that I think might have considerable usefulness in Academic Support Programs.

In "Writing Our Lives: Making Introspective Writing a Part of Legal Education" (on the web now under an abbreviated title, but first published at 29 Willamette Law Review 345 (1993)), Professor Elkins describes the value and power of the law school journal.

No, not that journal ... the personal, introspective one.

His journal concept is based on trust.  "If you trust your students, many will perform in ways that exceed the demands that you make on them. Ask students to teach themselves and significant numbers of them will do exactly that. Ask students to teach each other and they find a way to do it. Ask students to teach you and they will. They will surprise you and delight you in their good-faith attempt to do what excellence demands of them."

Encouraging students to keep introspective journals has a definite valuehe believes that it allows for a weaving "...into the tapestry of professionalism the feelings, perceptions, values, ideals, dreams, and fantasies of those who seek to make a life in law."  Professor Elkins explains that writing a journal does not necessitate disclosure of "intimate matters or personal secrets" (thank goodness).  Introspective writing, he correctly points out (to his students) "need not be overtly confessional."

Professor Elkins first asked students to write journals in an Intro to Law course, as an option in lieu of a final examination.

"The writings of my students about their experience in legal education and how it has affected their lives has touched me deeply. Their stories of concern, anger, and outrage, fear and anxiety, and resilient hope have made me a critic of what we do in the name of legal education. When students write about their lives, we learn that there is more going on in the barren hallways, regimented law school classrooms, and inevitable late-night musings of students than any one of us might have imagined. Reading the introspective writing of law students has changed my teaching and the way I think about legal education."

Did he, the Professor, place anything on the line?  Yes, indeed.  He explains succinctly: "I was writing along with my students."

Do you suppose there is a place in our Academic Support Programs for journal writing?  I'm interested in your comments.
(djt)

December 27, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)