Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Today is the last day of the Legal Writing Institute Biennial Conference. I was discussing the conference this morning with some other attendees. No one has been to a bad session—all of the presenters are at the top of their game. If there is any complaint at all, it might be that sessions are too short. And obviously, that “complaint” just show how great the sessions are.
One session I attended this morning had a completely filled room. The presenters were Mary Jean Dolan and Kim D. Chanbonpin, both of The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Professor Dolan made a fascinating presentation that showed how legal writing professors can improve how they critique students based on the extensive, research-based literature on employee performance evaluations in the workplace setting. Employee evaluations—when done improperly—can be devastating and destructive. So too comments on a student’s paper. Professor Dolan emphasized that legal writing professors need to provide adequate explanations, to appear to be neutral in giving comments, and to handle evaluations with respect and dignity. Legal writing professors may also benefit from involving students more in the learning process and in setting the standards by which their work will be later judged by the professor.
Professor Chanbonpin spoke about how the use of mandatory curves in writing programs can adversely affect writing professors who are forced to give feedback on such a matrix. When students who have been told throughout college that they are stars receive negative feedback, they react badly and retaliate with bad comments on the student evaluations of their professors. Those bad comments can adversely affect retention, pay raises, promotion, and tenure. When legal writing professors are evaluated using the same teacher evaluation form as the casebook faculty, there will usually be questions on that form that may not apply to legal writing classes. Professor Chanbonpin also spoke about how fear of bad student evaluations may adversely affect how classes are taught. She suggested using “mid-term evaluations” to check on students before students receive their first graded paper. She showed how using websites such as Survey Monkey, PsychData.com, SurveyGizmo.com, and SurveyPro.com to use midterm assessments that she could later compare to comments received at the end of the semester. She spoke about how such mid-term evaluations should include not only comments about the professor, but evaluations of their own work. For example, if the form asks students “Did you complete the reading assignments for class”?” or “Did you prepare for your paper conference?” will emphasize the collaborative nature of law school learning. Professor Chanbonpin also shared some VERY funny comments that she received from a judge for whom she clerked. Using real-life feedback that she received made students feel much better about the (much nicer) comments that they would receive from their writing professor.
It has been a great conference -- top quality all the way.