February 23, 2007
Order Out of Chaos (Again)
Students often ask me for advice on how to write scholarly articles to fulfill upper-level research and writing requirements, and one of the chief difficulties they face is how to take a mass of research and organize it into an outline. Last spring I suggested a series of questions that students can pose for themselves as a way of developing the structure of their articles. Here they are again:
I first make certain that they know two things:
1) that they have to discover a clear thesis – a point they wish to make that can be stated in a sentence or so; and
2) that they should arrange their material by considering it from the reader's point of view – a reader who is relatively uninformed, skeptical, and possibly hostile to the thesis the student is asserting.
Given those two principles, they should see all of the questions as an extrapolation of one key question:
What does the reader need to know, understand, and believe in order to accept my basic point, i.e., my thesis?
From that question come several useful questions they should ask themselves to spur their thinking:
1. What is the point that I am trying to make – i.e., what is my thesis?
2. Why is my thesis important? (Why should the reader care?)
- Does it solve a problem?
- Does it expose a problem that needs to be solved?
- an injustice?
- an inconsistency in the law?
- an inefficiency in the law?
3. What legal theories and doctrines underlie my thesis?
4. What policies or values does my thesis exemplify or reflect, and are they likely to be shared by the reader?
5. What changes in current theories or doctrine does my thesis require in order to be accepted?
6. What practical obstacles exist to the implementation of my thesis?
7. What must be done to overcome the obstacles?
8. What shared values can I appeal to?
Given the answers to 1-8:
9. What must the reader know?
- The nature of the problem or the origin of the problem, for example.
10. What must the reader understand?
- The effect of the problem?
- The logic of the theories or doctrines underlying or setting up my thesis?
- The logic underlying my thesis?
11. What must the reader come to believe in to accept my thesis?
- The need for a solution?
- The importance of the problem?
- The importance of my thesis?
- The validity of the theories or doctrines underlying my thesis?
12. What are the logical steps for a reader to go from uninformed and unconvinced to informed and
The list is hardly exhaustive, of course, and the sub-questions under each larger question are merely examples; but I have found that the list largely reflects the implicit and explicit questions I ask myself when I structure an article. From such questions the writer can identify the necessary concepts the reader must grasp and begin to see potential structures that would help the reader do so.
The writer will likely discover that several effective structures might work but will also likely discover that certain concepts must be clear before others will make sense; so only those structures that respect that fact will actually work.
I thought my students might find an explicit list of questions helpful to spur their thinking and give direction to their writing, so I scratched out this list. I thought you might also find the questions helpful (or a better list of your own making) if students ask you how to begin to bring order out of the chaos of their research. (dbw)
February 21, 2007
How About Rhode Island?
Roger Williams University School of Law is looking for a new Assistant Dean of Students. The job posting is below. (dbw)
Assistant Dean of Students
Roger Williams University School of Law, in Bristol, RI, invites applications for the position of
Assistant Dean of Students. Start date is scheduled for June 1, 2007. This is a full-time, nontenure
track, administrative position.
Responsible for advising, counseling, and generally serving as an advocates and liaison for
students on issues relating to their law school experience, the Assistant Dean serves the needs of
students inside and outside the classroom, while providing services and information to students
navigating the complex realities of law school life. The Assistant Dean reports directly to the
Dean and is a member of the Dean’s Senior Staff.
In particular, the Assistant Dean provides law students with academic and non-academic
counseling and assists with referrals to resources on and off-campus; assists with issues of
performance, adjustment concerns, stress reduction, and other personal matters; develops and
coordinates Orientation and Pre-Orientation programming; attends and participates in many law
school functions on and off campus; works closely with the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs
on a range of student-centered academic matters and supervises Academic Support personnel and
programs. The Assistant Dean processes student requests for educational accommodations based
on handicap or disability while providing assistance, counseling, programs, and support to
students from diverse backgrounds.
The successful candidate will have:
• a strong educational record, academic and otherwise;
• a J.D. from an ABA-accredited law school;
• membership in good standing in a state bar association;
• at least five years of professional experience in a law-related setting;
• ability to work well with a diverse student body;
• ability to work collaboratively with faculty and staff;
• ability to manage multiple priorities under deadlines;
• managerial and supervisory experience;
• accessibility to Senior Staff and students during and outside of normal hours of law
school operation; and
• ability to handle highly sensitive matters with complete discretion.
Preference will be given to candidates with experience in student services (law school student
services experience is highly desirable).
Roger Williams University offers an outstanding benefits package and salary commensurate with
experience. Interested applicants should send cover letter and resume to: Human Resources,
Roger Williams University, One Old Ferry Road, Bristol, RI 02809 or
firstname.lastname@example.org indicating Ref. # 07-123.
Roger Williams University is an Equal Opportunity Employer committed to inclusive excellence and
encourages applications from underrepresented populations.
February 19, 2007
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)