Monday, February 19, 2007

Hello(?)

The question mark at the end of the title of this post is not to ask whether anyone's listening (or reading), but rather to ask (1) whether I'm "doing it right," i.e., clicking the right buttons to get this thing up on the blog; and, if I am, (2) whether I can think of anything worthwhile to say. But here goes. Of course, my thanks to Dan and everyone who asked me to participate in this, and watch out, because I already see that it's just another forum in which I get to run on and on...

There is so much useful stuff in the posts I've read - more than enough to create several years of academic support program content. Of course I'll add to the suggestions, tips, etc. when I have something I think works, but at the moment, I've got to talk about the academic support section of torts I'm teaching. Obviously, an academic support section of a required course is not news: Kris Knaplund did it at UCLA for a long time, with great success; Michael Hunter Schwartz did it at Washburn, in a breathtakingly thougthful and comprehensive manner; and those are just the two who come to mind immediately. It's a first for me, and a natural extension of the way our ASP runs, which includes substantial participation on my part in the first-year lecture classes, with twice-weekly skills classes drawing from both the content and process of those classes. It also allows me to try out so many of the exhortations I've been passing on to our faculty members for so long.

So far it has been an exhilirating experience, at least for me. For now, I just want to share a couple of observations. First, some basic premises: I am taking the liberty of the academic support designation very seriously, with a massive infusion of the skills dimension. One form that has taken is the explicit discussion of the skills required to participate in the discussion of doctrine. In class last week, it took the unexpected turn of abandoning torts doctrine entirely, and talking about method/skills/technique in their most abstract form. The digression stemmed from my continued perception that the students' participation, i.e., their comments or responses to my questions, felt random to me, as if they weren't designed to even aim at what i wanted. (Classic example: David: "How many elements in this court's rule for proximate cause?" Student: Well, they're talking about...." David (to class in general): "Let's critique that response from the teacher's point of view. Comments?" Class: (silence) David: OK, let me be more precise. is there anything wrong with this picture (repeats question and answer)? Student: "Well, I guess if you mean that a question that begins with the words 'How many?" usually is answered by a number.") Answers that didn't reflect taking aim.

We discussed our backgrouds, both professional and academic, and the role that technique has played in our personal and professional lives. It was a worthwhile reminder to me that many of our students come to us from academic experiences that neither require nor particularly benefit from the use of a fairly consistent underlying structure. Of course that's not strictly true - it's just that those underlying structures are deeper, less articulated, less explicit, perhaps more deeply integrated into life itself. So I have been playing with bringing them up from wherever they lurk, e.g., everything from everyday activities like driving a car and (in New York, at least) taking the subway, to family matters like raising kids, to the arts, athletics (not my best forum), on to academic endeavors. We've talked a lot about the role of technique; if it's valuable, why; the downsides of mindless devotion to it; etc. I came away from that discussion with the quite clear impression that students have a deeply-held belief that "technique" is simply some form of cheating or is an inappropriate crutch or will turn their minds to mush. One student's brother is studying with American Ballet Theater, and his comments brought in a radically different perspective. People with kids seemed to appreciate the role that building blocks can play, but were susceptible to the idea that they're ok for kids but not for grownups. I know that I have talked to students about the novice-expert learner data, and learned that for many, "novice" was a clearly perforative description.

I will reach out to our Writing Center, staffed by graduate students (non-lawyers, non JD students), to talk about the relationship between creative writing and technique, form and substance. Other suggestions or observations would be welcome.

The class has been enlightening on so many levels, so fast. So here's my first tip - it takes a really long time to do this; and, if it has merit (remains to be seen), it requires a radically different time slot. At the moment, I would plan to double the class time next year. The students in the torts class have bonded in a way we in ASP see in summer programs and in other settings, but here it is in torts - they are willing to hold extra classes at night, on the weekends, early in the morning (am I?) because they have not experienced our discussions as a waste of time, but valuable in terms of their classes. And the TWEN site is bursting with rule statements, sections of outlines, comments, etc.

I think I've noticed a difference too; their conributions in class are more focused, less like a random shot in the dark, and get us through the material faster. So who knows? Maybe it works after all. I'm having a great time. (David Nadvorney)

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