Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Same Thing, Only Different

Next week, of course, is when the next bar examination will be administered.  But, for me, next week is also the first week of introductory classes for some of our incoming 1L students.  The semester does not officially begin until the end of August, but like many law schools, mine offers a special program to students who want to learn something about the American legal system and law school expectations before substantive classes begin.  So next week is going to be a little strange for me -- sort of like missing the wedding of one of my children because I will be busy attending the birth of another.

What strikes me now, as it did last year at this time, and as I suspect it will every year at this time, is how things feel simultaneously the same and different from years past.  There's an almost nostalgic sense of repetition. On Monday, I'll meet my first batch of eager, naive new students, enthusiastic to argue for justice, and perplexed by the density and obliquity of case law and lectures.  On Tuesday, I let go of the graduates I worked with all summer, and some for the previous two years, and they have to pass their most demanding test on their own.  These changes are as reliable as the seasons.  At the same time, when I look back to where I was last year, and consider what I thought I knew then about teaching and supporting all these students and alumni, I feel like I'm on a different planet entirely.  I'm questioning assumptions I once took for granted.  I'm noticing trends and relationships that were camouflaged before.  I am alternately worried and comforted by circumstances that previously had seemed either mundane or invisible to me -- things like students' financial situations or their relationships to other students.

It's a minor paradox of teaching: our goal, year in and year out, is to help make sure that our students learn a certain portion of a nearly fixed chunk of the universe. In law school, it's about reading a case, fashioning a sound legal argument, memorizing important rules, managing one's time and attention, and developing sound judgment.  The things we want our students to learn change glacially, and therefore imperceptibly.  What we wanted our students to learn this year is substantially identical to what we wanted them to learn last year, and to what we will want them to learn next year.  And this reliability is one of the anchors of both legal academia and legal practice.

But as individual teachers, the things we want to learn ourselves change substantially from year to year.  There are some things we wanted to understand -- say, the statistical relationships between first-year performance and eventual bar passage -- that we investigate, and we uncover, and we take that knowledge and run with it, because now it's not something to discover, it's something to use.  There are other things like new learning theories or suspicions about our students' law school experience that we thought might be important or useful, and we look into them, and they turn out to be negligible.  And there is always something new -- some fresh line of inquiry to follow, some previously overlooked problem to be solved, some new mountain to be climbed that we couldn't even see until we had gotten to the top of the previous mountain.  

It's always true, but to me it seems most true at this time of year.  We are always trying to learn different new skills and knowledge to help our students learn the same old skills and knowledge.  I see my 1L students coming in, and I want them to learn everything my most successful graduates have learned to achieve that success, and yet it seems like conveying those things in exactly the same way would be a dereliction of duty.  We want our students to be the fittest, so they have the best chance of survival, but in a way we are the ones doing the evolving.

[Bill MacDonald]

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2019/07/the-same-thing-only-different.html

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