Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Just to be clear, law students are not dogs. Law students are people, full of humanity, volition, self-awareness, and agency. Dogs, in contrast, are full of caninity, impulsiveness, incomprehension, and opportunism. If a dog sees you after a one-week absence, she will yelp and leap excitedly, as if witnessing your literal resurrection from the dead. A law student, on the other hand, will just shrug, or perhaps nod, understanding that class only meets once a week, and that you are not killed and eaten by bears in between meetings.
Nevertheless, learning to be a better dog owner had helped me learn to be a better law student teacher, too. This is *not* because law students and dogs are similar. Law students have never bitten, drooled upon, or shed on me, and they do not think of squirrels as morsel-toys. No, what has helped has been the realization that I make some of the same mistakes with my puppy that I sometimes make with law students, but with dogs the consequences are more readily noticeable. Tula provides me with an immediate feedback loop that helps me realize the errors of my ways more quickly:
- Using inconsistent language. When I am walking my dog and she pulls ahead of me, I invariably find a variety of ways to show my disapproval. "Tula, come here." "Tula, back it up!" "Tula, no pulling." These all mean essentially the same thing to me, and, in a sense, they mean the same thing to Tula, as well, except from her perspective what they mean is nothing. Why? Because when I taught her to walk next to me, I told her to "Heel!". When I say "Heel!", she knows to walk alongside me. When I say "Back it up!", I might as well be speaking Orcish, and she merrily ignores me. Students are not so obvious when they are puzzled by a change in vocabulary, so I might not notice that I have confused them if I switch spontaneously from "meeting of the minds" to "mutual assent" without explanation. But an overeager German shepherd quickly promotes consistent terminology.
- Failing to spot trouble coming. A peaceful walk around the neighborhood can become a nerve-jangling melee of barking, yanking, and tangled leash if I do not notice the squirrel that my pooch has fixed her gaze upon or the approaching tween walking her poodle. Tula means well, but her fervent enthusiasm would lead her into trouble if I had not quickly learned to watch out for temptation. Law students, too, face hazards to their success -- substantive misunderstandings, time management issues, overconfidence, etc. --- but these dangers can smolder, unaddressed, for weeks or even months before finally leading to very visible, and sometimes catastrophic, misadventures. Having to learn to control a fanged furry beastie has impressed upon me the importance of spotting and dealing with trouble before it generates an emergency.
- Ignoring personality and mood. Every dog owner dreams of having the perfectly-behaved pet that responds instantly and consistently to every command, like a fuzzy predictable robot. I have seen a few of these animals -- they are really scary, like police K-9 dogs, trained through thousands of hours of repetition to such automaticity you can practically hear them barking, "I'll be back!" The rest of us all have to contend with real dogs. They mean well, really they do; but if your dog (like mine) is just a quivering bundle of excitement, then you have to accept that you cannot always turn your back on them after commanding them to sit. And if they are tired, or hungry, or frightened, then you have to adjust your expectations and adjust your guidance accordingly if you want to see the behavior you are used to seeing. If you don't, then you will see things go awry very quickly. Law students are not dogs, which have no control over the expressions of their moods or personalities; people, sometimes with very good reasons, can subdue their reactions. But those reactions matter -- they affect perception, motivation, and intention -- and their effects might show immediately, or might not make themselves clear until much later. A good teacher will attend to each individual student's personality and mood and adapt their teaching strategies to take them into account.
Dogs are terrible models for law students -- they do not read books, once one of them starts yapping they all have to jump in, and they would probably sleep through every class. But dog owners might have something useful to teach law professors.