Friday, July 13, 2012

Is a Law Student Any Different Than a Horse? What If Buck Brannaman Were a Law Professor?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Buck_poster2I've been reflecting this summer on the student evaluations from my evening first-year contracts class, and the creation of learning environments.   Here's what the data tells me.   In my upper-level classes (securities regulation and unincorporated business entities), I get numerical evaluations that are substantially above the school's mean scores.  In my contracts class, however, the scores are below the mean, reflecting what I think is a fairly bi-modal distribution.  

There are lots of nice comments, but the negative ones about which I am most concerned are that I am not sufficiently kind to many student questions or discussion that I think are going to lead nowhere helpful.  (To be fair to myself, there are also students who are happy that I do this.)   My reasoned conclusion is that the upper-level classes are significantly more self-selecting.  The students who stay long enough to fill out evaluations like my style.  The first-year students have no choice in the matter.

I had already come up with a technical solution for next year.  I decided that I would institute a "question period" at the end of each class, and what I would call (taking a cue from something we used in the corporate world) the "parking lot" - i.e., interesting question or comments, but "may we place that in the parking lot so as not to lose the thread we are on now?"

Then I watched a movie the other night that my riding instructor, Nadine DeYoung, of Torch Valley 2174950
 in Ellsworth, Michigan (right), recommended to me.  Those of you who are already sick of my ad nauseam horseback riding learning metaphors can stop here, but it's my most intense ongoing learning experience, and it's hard not to see the application when I'm on the other side of the figurative podium.

The movie is Bucka documentary that won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  It is about Buck Brannaman, who was the technical adviser on Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer.  Brannaman tours the country teaching his particular method of horsemanship.  I won't try to say much more about it, except that it is an inspirational story of someone who survived his own abusive father and appears, by sheer act of will, to have overcome blame.  He has a dual commitment to excellence and learning that, it seems to me, can only arise from both an unshakeable confidence and a concomitant humility.  

I was awed by his technical riding and roping skills (he can rope a horse's back leg), but the law professor teaching insight I took from the film is that the solution to my issue is not merely technical.  There's a question of "feel" in both riding and teaching, and acquiring the feel is a matter of doing, not thinking.   (I should add that Nadine's best and most effective teaching statement to me this summer has been:  "Your problem is that you think too much and get in your own way.  Stop thinking.")

IMG_0250The scene I recommend to every teacher is the one in which Brannaman demonstrates to riders what it feels like to the horse to be yanked on with the reins and the bit.  The rider stands on the ground , holding the rope in front of him as though he were the horse.  Brannaman stands next to him, holding the ends of the rope as though they were reins.  Then he jerks them a couple times and the rider flinches.  After a couple instances of this, Brannaman only needs to move his hands (not the rope) to make the rider flinch.

The lesson is that horses, who are a lot dumber than humans (in some ways), learn to fear the very tools that the trainer is using as the means of teaching.  (A piece of wisdom from another of my trainers, Alyce McNeil, at Verrill Farm Stable in Concord, Massachusetts, along the same lines, when talking about a horse that bites while getting tacked up:  "We don't get bad horses; we make them.")  It doesn't mean being a spineless wimp either:  Brannaman's motto is "Gentle in what you do; firm in how you do it."

The non-technical or "affective" lesson is that students (horses and humans) are not objects, but subjects.  There needs to be an empathetic "aha" moment of "otherness" even to understand that there's a problem in the first place.  Some students, like some horses, don't mind you jerking on the reins.  But some do, and the question is whether that means something.

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Being a fan of this doc film and familiar with the horse industry, this post resonates with me. Further, being a lawyer and thinking back on my days in school the question of how I was "broken" to be a lawyer creeped into my head. Law profs take a lot of pride out of taking our minds "full of mush" and fashioning them into a brain that thinks like a lawyer. Too often the goal detracts from the method.

In law students as in horses - you can get peak perfromance out of training methodlogy - hard broken or Buck's method - call it whispering. A hard broken horse - given that that is how the majority are still trained - can be a top performer. Under Buck's method, a horse too can be a top perfomer. The goal's of each method are the same. Yet under Buck's method there is much less stress both on the horse AND on the trainer. It is a much more efficient traning model too (Buck can "break" a horse in an afternoon while the hard method takes weeks if not months).

So perhaps the question for legal ed is whether it is valuable to search for newer methods of training that achieve the same goal? A new method that is more efficient and less stresful for all perhaps?

I think this is a role that education technology could play. Using ed-tech makes the law prof more efficienct (if not scalable) while also talking more of the students' (digital natives) language. Just a thought.

Posted by: Joshua Kubicki | Jul 13, 2012 2:00:56 PM

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