Monday, November 2, 2009
There is nothing like teaching students in the first semester of law school. They are excited to be there and eager to learn. They are not shy about sharing their knowledge and their opinions, and crucially, as they have not yet received any grades, for all they know, each student may think herself the smartest person in the room. They speak with a natural confidence and self-assuredness earned through prior educational, work and life experiences. First-year law students are often comfortable with themselves and that renders them open to new stimuli, of which law school ought to offer many. They are even open to the idea of getting something out of class discussion other than a rule of black-letter law.
But there is a problem with first-year students. Each Fall, I walk into a room of about 70 strangers, and it is hard for us to get comfortable with one another. There are always a few class clowns and eager participants with whom I can quickly establish a kind of rapport, but I worry about what mental processes are at work in the other minds, which often seem so inaccessible to me. I have tried various approaches for getting to know my first-year students. For a few years, I went out to lunch with them in small groups. That was a big time commitment, and it did not always pay off. Having lunch with your professor is awkward. Sometimes the dynamics worked, sometimes it just felt like we were running out the clock, and at the end of the semester, some of the students remained as mysterious to me as they had been on that first day. And perhaps I was just as inscrutable to them despite my jangle-nerved loquacity.
This year, I just didn't have time to do the lunch thing. I invited my students to join me on a bike ride through the lovely, flat countryside surrounding Valparaiso. The turn-out was disappointing -- last year three students came along; this year, the turn-out was a perfect 10, except that the 1 was missing. Oh well, as my students reminded me, I would have been riding on my own anyway.
And so . . . bowling. Last week, I went bowling with about 35 of my students. Bowling has a lovely leveling effect. None of us were especially good at it, and nobody bothered too much about the scores. We just hung out, flung some balls at pins, bopped about to whatever music happened to come on the loudspeakers and enjoyed ourselves. At least, that's my side of the story. Although everybody in my group bowled, you don't actually have to bowl to enjoy yourself at a bowling alley.
In any case, I recommend this activity to law profs who are interested in breaking down the fourth wall. It really should be a weekly activity, but that's up to the students to organize in my view. I got to chat with some students whom I hadn't had a chance to talk with outside of Socratic exchanges and I got to speak with others in the novel context in which I was not the professor, but The Telminator, Destroyer of Pins.