Monday, September 10, 2007

Casebooks, Teaching plans and factors to consider

You're probably thinking to yourself: Alex, this is an an odd time to address the topics of "choosing a casebook" and "creating a syllabus."  We're starting Week 3 of the semester, shouldn't you have discussed this at the outset? 

Well, I intentionally waited until now because I wanted to assess my casebook choice in light of its actual use, and whether my factors of consideration (that I applied in May) mattered in application. 

First, regarding my choice of casebook.  As a new professor teaching a subject for the first time the casebook choice is step one.  In a class like Civil Procedure we receive at least 5 CASES of books, all touting the merits of their approach with titles that may suggest something about what the author's approach is, and others which don't suggest anything other than the topic.  This coupled with the catalogs which also tout the approach chosen by the author, or the "widely regarded" acclaim of the casebook which is in its 10th, 12th, whatever edition leave a new professor feeling as though they are drinking from a firehose.  Consider the titles: Civil Procedure: Cass and problems;  Civil Procedure: Decisions, Practice and Context; Civil Procedure: Theory and Practice; Civil Procedure: Cases and Problems (different authors); Cases and Materials on Civil Procedure; Civil Procedure Cases, Materials and Questions; Civil Procedure; Civil Procedure: A Contemporary Approach ----you get the point. 

Honestly, they all look the same, some are red, some are blue, some are brown, some are black.  I know, I know, don't judge a book by its cover.  So, if I'm not judging a book by its cover how am I judging it.  It was quite simple, what I considered most important (in no particular order) were: Table of Contents (e.g. what are they covering and in what order), Roadmapping (the "stuff" at the beginning of a case/section), Questions and thoughts for consideration (the "stuff" at the end of a case/section), Teacher's manual, Other helpful teaching tools.  One thing that did not matter to me, but which many said to consider was what my colleagues were using to teach.  I took a different approach to this question because I had all summer to prep.  So rather than going with a casebook merely b/c colleagues used it (and possibly finding myself wed to it for years), I wanted to ensure the casebook was one which reflected my style. 

So, of the listed factors what mattered?  (bear in mind, at this point in time I'm looking for reasons to get rid of a casebook so I can get into preparing)

  • Table of Contents (e.g. what are they covering)
    This was relatively straightforward, and for the most part the casebooks were covering similar things.  HOWEVER, what became clear to me was some casebooks had not been updated to reflect changes in the law (sure they have supplements).  Oftentimes this ensured I kicked a casebook---for example, if the casebook didn't give much treatment to "Internet contacts" a hypo/question that ALWAYS comes up in class with today's tech savvy students I would kick the casebook.  A second ground for kicking the casebook was the ORDER in which the casebook authors decided to cover things.  I wanted to start with Personal Jurisdiction and I didn't want first year students to wonder why we were starting at page 500 or 300 in the book.  That meant some otherwise good casebooks were kicked b/c the authors chose a different sequence. 
  • Roadmapping (the "stuff" at the beginning of a case/section)
    Does the casebook give students a clear idea what to expect in the section and critical points to consider?  Does the casebook provide guideposts along the way so a student knows where they are (especially in relation to what they just covered).  Do the page headers and section headings appropriately key the student in on to where they are in theory as well as what this relates to in practice.  Believe it or not, some casebooks failed miserably on this point. 
  • Questions and thoughts for consideration (the "stuff" at the end of a case/section) 
    This was an extremely important factor for me.  I was looking for questions which were more akin to points for discussion.  I wanted those questions to relate to what we were covering in the case.  So, for example in Burger King, the court cites to McGee a case we had covered earlier in the semester.  A sharp student while reading BK would say to themself "Whoa, McGee I remember that case.  Why is it cited here, did it change here?"  But, sometimes students will miss that on the first pass.  Good thoughts for consideration in my mind would key the student in on that.  So the casebook I chose includes a quote from B.K. and asks questions about McGee and whether the quote is consistent with McGee or whether McGee has been overruled.  Such points for consideration force the student to go back and critically reread the case, and also compare and contrast the case to prior cases.

    Some readers may think this is giving the student too much, and perhaps it is.  But playing "I've got it, you guess it" seems to me an unfair way to teach and many casebooks followed an approach where the questions seemed designed to baffle, not illuminate.  Moreover, many casebooks only had questions and did not have summary points for discussion or consideration.  All of these factors helped me to narrow my field.
  • Teacher's manual
    Once the field was narrowed to a casebook that was consistent with my teaching style/approach and philosophy about student learning the teacher's manual was the DECIDING FACTOR.  I was looking for a TM which helped pull out what students needed to know from the case and why that case was important for student learning.  Why it is important to us CivPro nerds for scholarship was far less important to me than why the case helped illustrate the development of an important concept.  The TM had to adequately answer any questions posed in the book and had to summarize key points from the points for discussion.  If that wasn't in the TM I likely wouldn't cover it in class, and students would quickly learn that the hypos and points for discussion were not important.  Other key factors, although not dispositive (in fact the Casebook I chose does not have enough of these) was whether the TM referred to pages in the CASEBOOK.  Oftentimes a TM would highlight a passage from the case.  I know students will want to know where that passage came from, and having a page number handy makes for easy reference for all involved.  I've had to find those myself and go back and forth between my TM, my teaching notes and the Casebook.  Seamless integration of the TM and Casebook was key. 
  • Other helpful teaching tools
    Finally, additional teaching tools definitely helped make my ultimate decision easier.  Some of those include PowerPoint slides of lessons/cases, PowerPoint slides of hypos/questions/points for discussion.  Also, sample syllabi that provide different options for different Credit Hour/Class Time scenarios is key.  I teach a 3 credit one semester class, the two semester 6 credit syllabus is not helpful to me.  I know that many casebook authors will happily provide this info, but not every new professor will feel comfortable calling up or emailing authors---if they have the time! 

    Finally, what I didn't see, but which would have made for a GREAT selling point was an Exam Bank with a sample answer key/grading template.

    You're probably wondering which casebook I chose.  The ultimate winner after applying these factors was A. Benjamin Spencer's Civil Procedure: A Contemporary Approach.  This is the newest and most innovative Civ Pro casebook on the market.  The students get both a Hardcopy and an Electronic Version of the book, available at .  The instructor has all the same access, plus the entire TM is in electronic format, as are the slides for hypos, sample syllabi and other helpful materials.  This means that I can copy and paste portions of the TM directly into my teaching notes.  The interactive casebook also means that when I say to the students "Where do we find this concept of 'fairplay and substantial justice.'" They can keyword search the casebook and find it, making their laptop useful not only for notetaking but also for researching and learning. (and less used for IM'ing, Facebook'ing, shoe shopping, etc.).  One other great thing about the casebook from an author's perspective is that to access the online material students must purchase a NEW casebook, b/c the activation card that comes with the casebook expires after a year.  This is something undergraduate and non-law graduate programs have been doing for awhile, and it seems that Thomson-West has figured out a way to monetize this in the law school setting. 

    The features of the casebook itself that mattered the most to me, in addition to the factors I described above were:

    • Overall format.   The casebook is designed for ease of reading.  The pages don't look anything like a standard casebook which reads something like a dictionary.  The fonts are clear, the margins have ample room for notes (my copy is filled with notes). 
    • A Sample Litigation Diagram.  This appears at the beginning of each chapter and helps the student understand where they are in the course.  I reference it, and our syllabus repeatedly to provide big picture context.
    • Text Boxes.  These are throughout the casebook and make reference to things such as Practice Pointers that highlight something in the case for students to remember when they practice, Latin definitions, pointers to online resources, descriptions of major themes in sections/cases, make the connection boxes that help the student to connect info in CivPro to other law school classes, FYI's which discuss useful or interesting info related to the case.  Most of these things, if they appear in another casebook appear as footnotes.  These appear in Spencer's casebook as colorful graphic boxes.  SIMPLY GREAT
    • The Executive Summary.  At the end of each case it summarizes main "top-level points," "deeper themes," and helpful additional resources. 

    So how has this fared so far?

    Student response to the casebook has been overwhelmingly positive.  Many have remarked to me that it is far easier for them to spend the time digging into the material with this casebook than in any of their other classes.  They also like the fact that the points for discussion oftentimes relate to what I'm actually going to discuss in class (due to the relationback of the TM to the Points). 

    Relating the casebook to the order in which I want to teach was CRITICALLY important.  We are marching through the casebook in order, and my questions, the casebook questions and points for discussion all relate back as they should and also look forward in the order in which we will deal with topics. 

    Teaching in this manner ensures that no part of the book presumes knowledge the student does not yet have.  Where doctrines such as personal jurisdiction build upon standards articulated in prior cases this is vital.  It also makes it easy when dealing with first year students who want to find every reason in the world to blame a professor for their failure to grasp the material.  Consider some examples we all remember from law school or which we may have heard in teaching: "it's his first time teaching the class," "the casebook is confusing," "the professor started at page 300, how are we supposed to know what's happening," "the questions in the book don't have anything to do with what we talk about in class," and my personal favorite "just give me the modern day rule."  A casebook and syllabus constructed to allay some of these barriers to learning coupled with an instructor who has a vision for how the pieces fit together makes for a much better learning environment for students. 

    The linear nature of this teaching approach also allows the instructor to table questions about later topics until that point in the semester without looking like a dodge---because it's not!  If a student in my class asks a thoughtful question about subject matter jurisdiction or a question that sounds like Erie.  I can say "Good question, but remember where we are at in the course and in litigation.  We're on personal jurisdiction, we're trying to determine whether this court has the power to adjudicate this dispute.  We'll get into those other questions later, make sure you master the detailed contours of this concept now."  That helps the student stay focused and ensures those other students who are struggling don't get lost by writing down the answer to a relevant question from a different area of the course. 

    That summarizes casebooks and general teaching approaches.  I hope current authors and profs found this helpful and I welcome comments.   



    | Permalink

    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Casebooks, Teaching plans and factors to consider:


    Post a comment