Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sorry, FDR, but I fear fear

When you ask a question of a student, what kind of answer do you want?  When I first started teaching just four years ago, I would have replied, "the correct answer, of course."  Now, I say, "I want an answer that's wrong in a helpful way."  The process of bringing the student from helpfully wrong to precisely right is, in my opinion, more valuable to the rest of the class than hearing the correct answer from a student the first time you ask the question.  I can't give you a precise definition of "helpfully wrong," except to say that such an answer is usually the product of a talented student's valiant struggle with difficult and unfamiliar material. 

Of course, the helpfully wrong answer is not the only kind of wrong answer.  There's also what I call the "grinding halt" answer, named for what it does to the class.  That's the answer where other students (ordinarily sympathetic to the person being questioned) do one or more of the following:  turn and stare at the answering student, sigh loudly, bury their face in their hands, and/or roll their eyes.  The grinding halt answer is the one that makes me wonder if I've just called upon a college freshman who got lost on the way to his American History seminar.  It's the answer that flies in the face of every CivPro concept, rule, and doctrine with which the student ought to be familiar.  As often as not, the grinding halt answer is a product of the student's fear of being called on, not a lack of aptitude or preparation. 

Most students feel some anxiety the first time they are called on, but every so often I find a student who is paralyzed by fear.  As a teacher, I struggle with this issue.  I fear this fear.  On the one hand, the student's anxiety at being called on may have no affect on test performance.  On the other hand, isn't the paralyzing fear going to be a bigger problem for the student than not knowing some detail of the law of procedure? 



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One data point: I remember studying in a small group for your Civil Procedure class, waaay back two years ago. We discussed the cases for the day, trying to develop a good working knowledge of each one. We went to class, and one of our group was called on to discuss a case. She was asked for a minor fact from the case, not obscure, but not part of what we (in our first-quarter wisdom) had thought was part of the "point" of the case. She was rattled, and when you pressed her she became paralyzed with fear, just as you describe above. You weren't terribly harsh with her, and she got over it. She has since overcome her nervousness, and now stands and delivers with aplomb in Practice Court. I was reminiscing with her about CivPro just a few days ago, and she characterized this incident as a valuable learning experience. I don't know if I can properly generalize from her attitude, but I suspect that you need not have much fear of this fear.

On the other hand, the CivPro discussion included another "grinding halt" answer from that class. We recently re-visited Piper v. Reyno in PC, and it brought back vivid memories. I don't know if you remember this case discussion, but I may never forget it. It lasted two days, and began with the student's assertion that "the decedents brought suit" and sought a "forum non conveniens venue transfer." It went downhill from there. We listened, amazed and discomfited, and waited for a hammer of wrath that never descended. It was made less uncomfortable by the fact that he showed no sign of fear, anxiety, or any sort of awareness of how very wrong his answers were. It was the polar opposite of "paralyzed by fear." For me, at least, it was a valuable object lesson in not being too sure that I've grasped a case simply because I've read it.

I suggest that there is a slight hazard in use of the "helpfully wrong" answer. Some of my fellow students misperceive the ensuing discussion as nitpicking, or worse, as taking the student down a notch. They hear an answer that seems correct (or "good enough") to them, and then a correction that sounds almost the same. While this probably doesn't prevent them from getting the intended benefit, it does seem to breed resentment. I cannot, however, recall a class in which the professor didn't work hard to counter this, and it is defused by the slow increase in appreciation for precision and fine distinctions that we all have developed over several quarters of classes.

Posted by: Evan Simpson | Apr 5, 2007 4:19:52 PM

The paralyzation always fades, and the nerves calm. The right answer may not always come, but over time we learn to deal with the pressure. I forget who said that "if it's not worth getting nervous about, then it's not worth doing," but they were right. The performance on the test may be dismal because we get stuck on a finer point of venue, but our fear of that result makes us work that much harder. Performance is what we do, and we come to you to learn how to do it well. As Paul pointed out, and you reminded, "fear is the mind killer," and we'll get over it eventually.


Posted by: Matt | Apr 5, 2007 7:12:20 PM

Fear of being called on will destroy you (or at least seriously damage you) at Baylor. And there isn't much room for fear in practice either. Then again, those with too little fear play a dangerous game. A healthy balance is probably the answer.

Posted by: Benham | Apr 6, 2007 9:00:28 AM

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