Friday, September 11, 2020
This semester at my school, some 1L courses are being offered only online (like the one I teach, legal research and writing), while for others (e.g., contracts, torts, and crim law) students have the option of either attending in person or synchronously from their computers at home (what our school is calling the “BlendFlex” model of learning). Based on an informal survey of my LRW students, many 1Ls are choosing to stay home for the entire semester and not set foot in the building at all. Whether that’s due to the convenience of taking classes at home in their pajamas, because of health concerns, or a combination of both, I don’t know. As an aside, however, I myself was very worried about Covid at the start of the semester because of what I expected would be heavy foot traffic around the building. As it turns out, so many people are staying away (including faculty and staff), that our law school building has, ironically, become what seems like one of the safest “public” spaces in all of South Florida which is otherwise one of the world’s hotspots for Covid at the moment.
Given that so many 1Ls are staying away from the building for the entire semester, after we’d gotten a couple of classes under our collective belt, I asked my students if they wanted me to help them find classmates to form study groups or, more generally, did they need my help to meet each other outside of class. I know other profs spend the first class of the semester doing icebreaking exercises intended to help students get to know each other but I’ve never been a fan of that sort of thing. While I understand why others do it, for me it just doesn’t fit my teaching style or philosophy. I’ve always felt pretty strongly that my job is to spend class time focused on substance. There already isn’t nearly enough time in the semester to get done what we need to accomplish. So I’ve always felt that it would be squandering that time to spend the first class playing camp counselor or matchmaker. Insofar as students are nervous on the first day of class about what to expect, I’ve also always felt that the best way to handle that is to dive right into the material rather than delay the inevitable any further.
Nonetheless, I feel even more strongly that having students form study groups is an absolutely critical part of the 1L learning experience. That’s true even though as a student myself I never liked group projects or homework assignments. For law students, though, it’s a key part of learning to “think like a lawyer” that they find a group of peers to collaborate with, use as a sounding board without fear of judgment, compare class notes, and brainstorm about outlines and study strategies. Obviously with so many 1Ls this year not even setting foot in the building due to Covid, finding a study group may be especially difficult for some of them. Related to that, they’re also missing out on the important opportunity to interact and connect with upper-class students who are a valuable source of intel, advice, and mentorship about their 1L profs, how to prepare course outlines, and exam-taking strategy among other bits of wisdom.
Thus, even though I don’t ordinarily believe in spending class time on student icebreaking exercises (under normal school conditions, most students seem to gravitate toward likeminded peers anyway), given the extraordinary circumstances of this semester, I’m more actively helping students connect with each other outside the classroom. First, I take a few moments at the start of class to check-in with them, make sure they’re doing OK in terms of their morale and spirits (I acknowledge with them the stress that months of social isolation is having on all of us). Then I ask if they want me to facilitate introductions or help them find a study group to work with, whether for my class or any other one. Specifically, I’ve told them to email me at any time during the semester if they’d like me to help them connect with their classmates or would like me to help them form study groups. It’s only been a couple of classes but so far I don’t have any takers. But the semester is still young so I’ll keep checking back with them. And while I still don’t believe in using precious class time for those icebreaking exercises, Covid is forcing me to rethink everything I do in the classroom. Perhaps going forward once this pandemic is over I’ll decide that the professor should take a more active role in helping students find a study group or simply help them connect with their classmates.