Friday, November 6, 2015
The Way We Teach Now
The other day, I had lunch with a friend who is preparing to teach a course for the first time. I asked him how his preparation was going, and he told me that he was reading a book by a law professor on the subject matter of the course. That is a perfectly reasonable way to prepare to teach a course.
But it's not what I do.
After our conversation, it occurred to me that I now increasingly bifurcate my mind between subjects about which I write and subjects that I teach. In cases where I write about what I teach, I read one set of materials for scholarship and another set to prepare for teaching. There is very little overlap.
In order to write scholarship, I read books and law review articles, as well as case law and other relevant primary sources of law. In order to teach, I review the cases I am teaching, as well as the supplementary material that I assign -- usually a treatise or a book from the Examples & Explanations series, (or something similar) and then spend most of the rest of my preparation time designing exercises and reading students' work product. Of course, I have various electronic news feeds that keep me abreast of developments relevant to the fields I teach, but it is rare that developments in the law change my approach to teaching contracts. I still read books and law review articles about contracts in pursuit of a scholarly agenda (and for fun!), but what I read rarely affects the way I present the material.
I spent the evening after my conversation with my friend giving myself a 40-question multiple choice exam on contracts. The questions were provided by a vendor with which my law school has contracted. The vendor provides bar-style questions to help our students review material. I wanted to make certain that the questions were appropriate for my students and that the test-designers understood the material the same way I did. Of the 40 questions, I found that 22 were appropriate for my students, and so I decided to warn them away from just jumping into the quiz bank. Too many of the questions related to sales topics not covered in the first year course or to other topics that I don't get to in a four-credit course. Instead, I edited the 40 questions I reviewed in order to come up with two practice quizzes for my students.
This approach to teaching has become mine through a slow process that I did not notice until I spoke with my friend and then later reflected on how it had struck me as quaint that he was preparing to teach a new course by reading a book of scholarship with a distinctive and unorthodox take on the subject matter. I remember that the doctrinal courses that I took in law school were not just about doctrine; many of my teachers were able to teach me doctrine in the context of a semester-long or year-long sustained argument incorporating overarching themes that my professors used to organize, understand and critique the doctrine. They were not just teaching the law; they were teaching an approach to the law, and they were trusting us to sort things out.
Perhaps I do so as well, and I don't read scholarship in connection with teaching anymore because, twelve years into teaching, I have read enough scholarship on contracts to suffice for a lifetime of 1L teaching. But I think slipping bar passage rates are also a factor in the transformation of my approach to teaching. I worry that introducing critical perspectives and theoretical approaches will confuse more than enlighten. I still encourage students to engage critically with the case law, but I tend to do so by asking them to think about the facts and the law from each party's perspective rather than by encouraging them to question the doctrines.
Is your colleague new to law teaching or just taking on a new course? Regardless, once through one of the major hornbooks should be sufficient doctrinal background. Then study your casebook’s Teachers’ Manual, and maybe read through the TMs of a couple of the leading casebooks. It’s the next best thing to sitting down with the masters in the field and chatting about how they cover the cases. Priceless.
Then, if new to law teaching, concentrate on teaching methodology. Two helpful books are What the Best Law Teachers Do (2013) http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674049147
and Teaching Law Practice: Preparing the Next Generation of Lawyers (2013) http://vandeplaspublishing.com/products/teaching-law-practice-preparing-the-next-generation-of-lawyers. And he or she would find much helpful information in an article in the May 2015 Journal of Legal Education: “How to Be the World’s Best Law Professor.” No kidding.
Posted by: otto stockmeyer | Nov 7, 2015 8:07:32 AM