Thursday, July 28, 2011

Environmental Law, Day 1

It's now that time of year when I realize that summer will soon end, classes will start, and my syllabus needs an update.  Which has me thinking about a recurring problem with my environmental law course: day 1.

I know what I want to accomplish.  I want to give the students some sense of the content of the course, and why it matters, and I want them to walk away thinking that the course will be intriguing, engaging, and challenging.  I also want to convince them--lost cause, perhaps--that in my classes, at least, they should never follow Twitter or Facebook, buy anything on EBay, check espn.com, or do all the other things I know perfectly well that some of them will spend half the semester doing.  And I want to give them a story or case or other little tidbit that provides a preview of and window into the wonders of environmental law.  Instead, I usually wind up providing a somewhat dull course summary, then do some climate change 101, then try to extract participation from students who seem like they just need a little more coffee to get through the post-summer hangover.  Class two usually is great, as is everything else until the students crash into the Clean Air Act like bugs spattering onto a windshield.  But class one, to me, usually feels like a dud.

So, dear readers, what to do?  This blog hasn't provoked a lot of commentary, but we know you're out there.  Professors, how do you dazzle your students on day one?  Students, current and former, what works for you?  I'd love to know.

-Dave Owen

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After getting through the personal introductions, I've got a slideshow titled "Scrapbook of Bad Memories" I've compiled over the years. Included are separate slides on Donora, Penn.; the Cuyahoga on fire; the anatomy of the Bhopal accident and its aftermath; the extinction of the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon in the same year; the Woburn leukemia cluster; the Dust Bowl and Katrina; the worldwide uptake of PFOS, etc. With each slide, I give the class some background, then explain each of these defining disasters caused some reaction in environmental law. Each year seems to bring another slide/anecdote to add: BP, Fukashima. This seems to get the students very engaged from the start with an understanding that this stuff really matters.

Posted by: Steve C. | Aug 1, 2011 2:59:40 PM

I ask the students a hypothetical question: Suppose you are the general counsel of the university. The university president asks you what environmental laws apply to university operations. This elicits responses about energy generation, solid waste disposal, handling of laboratory chemicals, the chlorine for the swimming pool, maintenance of the vehicle fleet, the laws relevant to the construction of a new classroom building, etc., etc., and it gets students thinking about the pervasive relevance of environmental law, and how to look at situations through the lens of an environmental lawyer.

Posted by: Michael Gerrard | Jul 31, 2011 4:24:29 AM

One of my professors in law school walked around the lecture hall while he talked. This discouraged other activities greatly. As for what to say, i agree with the Sara C. about a personal story to bring people in.

Posted by: lurker | Jul 29, 2011 1:53:28 PM

Why don't you do exactly what you'd like to do? Is it that hard not to "provid[] a somewhat dull course summary, then do some climate change 101, then try to extract participation from students who seem like they just need a little more coffee to get through the post-summer hangover." Fire up! Tell them why it matters and relate at least on case per regulatory program that had a significant impact in the world - some foreshadowing if you will. That way, when we get to the enigmatic CAA, we know why we are parsing through those technicalities.

As a student, I'd love my professor to be and seem passionate about the subject. "Dull course summaries" are the last thing I (and probably many other students) want.

Posted by: Leo | Jul 29, 2011 7:54:49 AM

I am going to repeat an experiential learning module I tried last year, and about which I presented at Pace's "Practically Grounded" symposium in May and wrote about for the forthcoming online symposium issue of the PELR. I spend the first 15 minutes or so with a basic introduction to me, the syllabus, and some over-arching themes. Then we jump into the competing values systems and analytic frameworks afforded by economics, ecology and ethics - the point here is make sure that there is a very basic, first-look comprehension of the vocabularies, not a refined understanding of the complexities each system involves. In the second half of class I give students a problem that becomes a take-home assignment: last year it was legal reform in the wake of the BP oil spill, this year it will be re-licensing Indian Point and Vermont Yankee post-Fukushima. I give a Powerpoint with a bunch of information about natural causes, engineering causes, legal regimes, taxes & subsidies, and climate change dynamics, and then students are given an assignment, all of which gets posted on Blackboard/Sakai: 1) come up with a one paragraph legal answer (how should law be reformed to prevent future deepwater blowouts/should these plants be relicensed under existing regs), 2) provide a one paragraph explanation of how values systems played into their analysis (giving priority to economic efficiency, science, or anthropocentric/ecocentric/biocentric values), and 3) respond to at least one other student. The interactivity and dynamism accomplished a lot last year. I'm hoping the students will put the same effort into it this year.

Posted by: Mike Burger | Jul 29, 2011 6:12:49 AM

I start by asking everyone to close their eyes and think of their favourite place for a moment or two. Then ask them to write down some key things about it - what colour predominates, is it rugged or flat, is there water there, is it a city etc etc. We then discuss the findings and usually conclude that there is no common thread. The point is that the environment means different things to different people and we treasure different aspects of it; so environmental law has the almost impossible challenge of meeting all these aspirations. If time permits I remind them of research that showed that most people chose an african grassland as their favourite landscape when offered a choice of landscape photos to choose from. This was supposed to indicate a deep-seated memory of the origins of humans (can't remember who did the research I'm afraid).

Posted by: lynda warren | Jul 29, 2011 2:32:33 AM

Just my impressions as a former student, so take it for what its worth. Tell a story - preferably a personal one, maybe about why you're interested in environmental law or the particular subjects you plan on teaching. If you don't have a good one, read a story from someone who does - Edward Abbey, John Muir, etc. I also like when teachers ask everyone to introduce themselves, and its better if you can get students to really tell you something, besides just a name. Maybe a good time to ask them why they're into environmental law as well. Please don't do any real work - students just aren't ready for that yet! Good luck!

Posted by: Sara C. | Jul 28, 2011 9:01:52 PM

A lot of environmental law texts begin by talking about environmental ethics. I think that this is a mistake. I am not sure what to tell you, but I generally start by talking about themes through the lens of a case study (last year I assigned some readings about the BP Oil Spill). I think that this year, I am going to start with public nuisance and then draw out the themes through Missouri v. Illinois. I also struggle with Day 1. I look forward to hear what other people think.

Posted by: Brigham | Jul 28, 2011 6:13:50 PM

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