Saturday, June 10, 2006

themes at the LWI conference

One of the overlaps and echoes that repeated throughout the conference was the continued importance of the tradition of the teaching of writing, one of the tributaries that contributes to the ocean of legal writing.  Other repetitions around and alongside the role of writing instruction included the necessity of taking risks, the role of writing theory, and the possibility of intentionally and deliberately intervening in students' writing process. 
Both Terri LeClercq (Univ. of Texas) in "Gerunds, Infinitives, and Set-ups, Oh No! Composition Vocabulary for Creatures You'll Uncover in the Abyss of One-L Memos" and Mary Beth Beazley (The Ohio State Univ.) in "Don't Grade a First Draft Like a Final Draft: Course Design and Composition Theory" each delivered witty, bravura performances to large, appreciative groups on topics derived from English studies. One of LeClercq's most helpful tips was simply to place some post-it notes in a set of student papers to mark particularly common or annoying errors; then type up the example sentences before class, and take just a few minutes during class to go over the sentences with students, who will be very interested because the sentences will come out of a context on which the students are working at the time.  Beazley explained the concepts of writing tasks and/or errors that come out of cognitive (understanding), formalist (rules), and social (audience-based) processes.  Another presentation that made use of writing theory was "Rethinking Basic Legal Skills: Using Theory to Guide a Substantial Overhaul of A First-Year Program," by Kate O'Neill and Carolyn Plumb (both from Univ. of Washington); unfortunately, both the Beazley and the O'Neill/Plumb presentations were given at the same time, leading to one of those wishing-to-be-in-two-places situations.  However, it's a testament to the depth of the LWI conference that so many of those situations come up. Janet Chung (Seattle) in "Creating a Positive Feedback Loop: Using Writing-to-Learn Activities to Enhance Student Learning and Focus Your Teaching" also demonstrated writing-based techniques; in addition to pair-and-share, these techniques included self-graded (high-lighted) drafts and reflective free-writes on stages of the writing process.  According to Chung, it's necessary to take risks and try incorporating some of these techniques. 
Risk is a good thing also according to Laurel Currie Oates (Seattle) and Mary Rose Strubbe (Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Tech).  In their presentation, "Legal Research in the 21st Century," they proposed that "adaptive expertise" is what writing professors should try to help students acquire.  Rather than specific and surface-y research tools, which probably will change rapidly, writing professors should endeavor to impart to students the underlying research strategies involved; more example exercises are needed, but the technique of the hypothetical can be useful, asking students to think about how they would conduct research for a different jurisdiction, issue, etc.  Just telling students that they will need to transfer a particular skill turns out to be remarkably effective, for students on their own might just file information under a topic such as "negotiation" and not automatically be able to draw upon it for other situations.  The risky part is being willing to try new research technologies with which the students may be more familiar than are their professors. 
Deliberately intervening in students' writing process was another idea that appeared in more than one presentation.  Writing professors should start with the point they want students to reach and then look back to see how to create situations that help students get there.  This kind of strategy was described by Chung, by Beazley, and also by Prof. Lawrence S. Krieger (Florida State Univ.), in his presentation "Creating the Complete Legal Professional: Balancing Between Stressors and Stress Relief in the Legal Writing Classroom."  Krieger is well-known for his project of humanizing legal education; Krieger advises adding to the semester's plan a consideration of what in the semester will/could/should support students' needs, values, and motivation.  One need everyone can relate to, faculty as well as students, is the need for autonomy, for making "choices one prefers, to do things as one wants" (Krieger handout). 
There's still more to come.
--Dr. Tarenko, Writing Specialist, Texas Tech University School of Law
(njs)

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