Tuesday, September 10, 2019

To Serve Law Students

I was in my office, polishing that day's lecture for my 1L class, when the alien appeared soundlessly outside my door, as tall and dazzling as the ones I had seen on the news.  They had been on Earth for two weeks now, appearing one by one or in small groups -- at the United Nations, in research laboratories, in churches and legislatures and boardrooms and newsrooms -- each time sharing a book, or a piece of art, or a technological contraption, describing briefly the gift they were giving, and then disappearing has suddenly as they had come.  The world's armies and scientists had confirmed that a huge spacecraft was parked at the L4 point in the moon's orbit, and it was presumed that was the aliens' home base.  But no one knew how they were coming down to the planet.  Or why, precisely.

My alien was huge -- as he stepped into my office, he had to bend forward stiffly to fit through the door frame, and even then his broad shoulders brushed the door jambs on each side.  It was like watching a rockslide.  But once inside, he lifted his craggy head and smiled.  With his chalky skin, and an enormous row of teeth that shimmered like the effervescent material of his robes, he looked like a James Bond villain who had repented and joined a Las Vegas monastery.

"You teach," he said, in a deep stony voice that seemed to simultaneously ask and answer the question.  I nodded dumbly.  He then pulled from a fold of his robes what looked like a dark packet of some kind, and held it out to me.  As I took it, I realized it was a book, hand bound in rich Corinthian leather, with words embossed in silver across the front: TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS.

"What is this?" I said aloud, not to the alien but to myself.  I looked up at him, and with a nod he let me know that it was permissible to open the book.  I ran my hand over the cover -- I had never felt a volume so warm, so soothing, like a puppy's belly -- and I lifted the book to look at the words inside.  Then I felt the strangest sensation.  The characters on the page made no sense at all to me; they might have been Cyrillic or katakana or Ge'ez jumbled together for all I knew.  But somehow, touching that warm cover, I knew what the text meant.  I knew what I was meant to do -- that afternoon, in class, with the entire 1L class before me. I would --

A sudden high-pitched gasp interrupted my reverie, and I reflexively slammed the book shut.  In the hallway, eyes agape, stood my student assistant, Patty.  She looked from my alien to  me and back again, not sure what she should do next.  Before I could say either "Run!" or "Come in!", the alien resolved the situation.  He growled, "Teach, you," and then vanished.  It was like a light bulb burning out -- a brief flare, and then instantly the room seemed darkened by his absence.  But he left the book.

Patty ran in.  "Professor MacDonald, was that an alien?  What did it leave you?"  She came around to my side of the desk, like a referee repositioning herself, so she could read the cover.

"It says, 'TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS,'" I pointed out.  "That's what I do.  I think it's a gift to help me do more for my students."  I flipped open the book, turning the pages without touching the cover.  "The language -- well, it all looks like gibberish to me.  But the book . . . spoke to me somehow.  I'm taking it with me to class this afternoon."

Patty's brow wrinkled.  "I can't read any of this, but it looks like it might be some kind of code."  She pulled out her phone.  "Can I scan the pages?  Maybe I can figure out what it says."

I nodded, and Patty snapped images of the two visible pages.  I turned the rest of the pages slowly, giving her time to capture the entire text.  It didn't take long.  The pages were large and the font small, so there were only about forty pages total.  Patty never touched the cover, so I don't think she "felt" the meaning of the book the way I did.  But I thought that might be better -- perhaps, uninfluenced by that perception, she might be able to come up with a more precise, more literal translation of the text.  I told her of my intention to bring the text to my 1L class that afternoon, and Patty, who enjoyed British crossword puzzles, happily left to try to crack the code.

Two hours later, I was standing at the podium at the front of our largest classroom, getting ready to teach the entire class of first-year law students.  Since the start of the school year, I had been introducing them to the particular challenges and expectations of law school, with the goal of making sure that each of them would be fully prepared by the end of the semester for the final exams that would determine their GPAs, and perhaps their fates.  Mine was the only class in which every 1L student was enrolled.  This was a boon, because it gave me the chance to introduce Academic Success and the resources available there to all of our students.  It gave me an opportunity to lay for every student the groundwork for successful performance, no matter how much familiarity they had had upon matriculation with the practice of law, law school, or even just basic sound study habits.  But it was also a challenge, because it meant holding the attention of, and delivering value to, 150+ students with different aptitudes, different levels of familiarity or experience, and different degrees of confidence in their abilities.  I would lose some of those students if I moved too quickly, and I would lose some of those students if I moved too slowly, and I wasn't sure there was a pace that would keep everyone engaged.

But today!  Today I had the book, and it was telling me how TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS, and as the second hand swept around the face of the clock at the back of the room, bringing us closer and closer to the official start of class, I began to salivate with anticipation.  I knew this would be . . . delicious.

The hand crossed the 11, and as it neared the 12, I opened my mouth and took a full breath.  Gripping the book, I prepared to begin.  But just as the red hand reached its zenith, a door at the back of the room slammed open, and Patty stumbled in, breathless and wild-eyed, clutching a batch of paper in one hand.  Every head in the room swiveled to look at her, but she looked past them all.  Her eyes found me at the podium, where I had instinctively pulled the book to my chest, and she called out.  "Professor MacDonald, put it down!  You can't use that book!  IT'S A COOKBOOK!"

There was a jittery fluttering, like the sound of 150 startled sparrows, as the students all turned their heads back to me.

"Um, not exactly," I said.  "It's more like a menu."

The sparrows rustled uneasily, as if they were about to fly.

"But look," I continued, turning to the students, "you're not on the menu.  It's a menu for you.  Look, all teachers know a bunch of recipes that we can use to help this student construct a useful case brief or to help that student learn to support her analysis with facts.  And if I'm working one-on-one with a student, or working with a small group of students who are all craving the same helping, it's great to be able to focus on a particular recipe.  But with a big group like this, I have to do more than just work through one recipe at a time.  The students who have already mastered that recipe, who've had their fill of that dish, will stop paying attention.  Sure, there are some basic recipes I have to make sure everyone knows, because maybe there are some students who thought they had learned it already, but they are actually missing some ingredients.  Or maybe they just never learned it.  But to keep everyone else in the class engaged, I have to put those recipes in the context of the wider menu.  Are there variations that people can try once they've mastered the basic recipe?  Maybe variations for particular occasions or circumstances?  Are there more advanced recipes that build on the basic recipe?  I can't teach these all in this class, but I can let you all know they exist."

The students relaxed, nestling in their seats.

"In a big class like this, it helps to move back and forth between the recipes and the menu.  To make sure everyone knows how to do certain things, but also to remind people that there are always more recipes to learn if they feel they've already mastered the basics."

"Ohhhhh." It was Patty, in the back of the room, examining the papers in her hand.  "I see where I went wrong.  A menu, not a cookbook!  And yet--"

There was a flash, and then the alien was there in the back of the room, standing next to Patty.  Over the excited murmuring of the class, I heard his gravelly voice say to Patty, "You clever.  Only human to decode Kanamit script.  Come to our ship.  We would like to toast you."  He offered her his hand.  She reached up to take it.

Before I could warn her, there was a flash, and they were both gone.

[Bill MacDonald]

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2019/09/to-serve-law-students.html

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