Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What Should Law Schools Do Now to Plan for the Fall Semester: Guest Blog Post from Mary Garvey Algero -- A Response to Professor Josh Blackman's "Typical University Day in the COVID-19 Era"

Professor Josh Blackman is a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and the President of the Harlan Institute. Professor Blackman recently posted an essay on the Volokh Conspiracy regarding what our law schools would look like in fall 2020 if we are on the ground. At the end of his essay, "A Typical University Day in the COVID-19 Era," he admits it "was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek" but that he hoped to convey that "Nostalgia for 'in-person' classes may distort judgments about what this experience will look like in the fall."
Mary Garvey AlgeroDean Mary Garvey Algero wrote a response to Professor Blackman's essay, and we're publishing it here on the Legal Writing Prof Blog. Dean Algero is the Associate Dean of Faculty Development and Academic Affairs, the Philip and Eugenie Brooks Distinguished Professor of Law and the Warren E. Mouledoux Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
Here is Dean Algero's response:

What Should Law Schools Do Now to Plan for the Fall Semester

Inspired by Josh Blackman’s essay of 5/22

by Mary Garvey Algero

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” (An English proverb of unknown origin, meaning that ingenious solutions often come from difficult situations.)

Imagine if law schools had given up in March 2020 when the pandemic was imminent, and we had simply told students we would resume law school once we had a vaccine or even a cure for Covid-19.  We could have said that only classes that faculty had previously designated as online classes would be able to continue and finish out the spring semester in April or May 2020; the rest would be on hold.  We could have justified that decision by pointing to the following: 1) ABA Standard 306, which limits hours earned by law students through distance education (online); 2) our own law school rules about distance education, such as rules that courses to be taught in an online format must be approved in advance of the semester by the full faculty; and 3) the reality that many of our faculty not only had never taught online, but they did not even know how or where to start and what platform to use. 

We did not do that.  We worked hard to figure out a way to complete the semester.  Moreover, we figured this out in an extremely short timeframe.  We brainstormed with ABA officials to work on waiving rules that stood in the way of teaching out the semester online.  We brainstormed with each other and with our faculty, staff, and students to figure out ways to continue the semester and complete classes from a distance.  We met with our university administrations to ensure they had contracts with platforms that allowed large online video meetings/classes and to ensure that all professors had licenses to use these services.  We scrambled to get technology in the hands of the people who needed it—faculty, staff, and students.  Some faculty had to upgrade desktop or laptop computers or purchase cameras or microphones to be ready to teach online.  Students had to do the same.  We found funds to purchase laptops, tablets, and “hotspots” to deliver to students. 

We gathered people from across our universities who either knew how to use the technology or were willing to devote the time to learn the technology so that we had a team of people who were “experts.”  These experts instructed faculty on how to use the technology to teach and function successfully online.  These experts held workshops for faculty, they met with faculty individually, and we even assigned them to assist particular faculty members as they taught until they were comfortable.  In large part, we counted on our students to figure out the technology, but we also offered them assistance from our group of experts if they needed it.  We held meetings online, both one-on-one and in large groups to reassure students, to answer their questions, and to find out what their concerns were so that we could try to respond to them. 

We held many faculty meetings.  Not only were these meetings focused on responding to individual questions or needs, but also these meetings were key to developing policies about grading and attendance and other issues that needed to be decided because of our changed circumstances.

All of this was done in an extraordinarily short time period because it had to be.  Because we, as law school administrators, faculty, and staff, were committed to providing our students with the rich education they deserve.

So, now we face decisions about the fall semester and what our law schools will look like.  We owe it to everyone involved, and especially our students, to think through all of the issues we could face with offering an on-ground experience, to prioritize the things we value most about that on-ground experience, and to determine what we can do successfully.  The Blackman essay points out some real concerns and issues that law schools face for the fall.  I appreciate the sobering reality of it all.  However, rather than resigning ourselves to the obvious difficulties of education in person before a vaccine, I think we owe it to all involved to think creatively about what can be--to think creatively through the pros and cons; to consider the issues and how we might solve for them. 

For example, if we value providing 1L students with an on-ground experience because we want them to get to know each other and us in person and feel a part of the law school community, we can work through issues of their presence on campus to provide that experience because we decide it is worth it.  We might stagger class start times so that we limit the number of students moving through the building at any given time.  We could consider dividing students into small cohorts who attend some classes in a compressed schedule only on certain days of the week, while attending other classes online.  These students could have assigned seats in only one or two classrooms for the days they are in the building, thereby limiting their need for movement and contact.  Perhaps we assign each cohort a faculty member and a staff member to be their contact with the school should issues arise.  We might have various members of the law school community visit these small cohorts throughout the semester, before or after classes, to address them on law school matters, to introduce them to the school, and to help them feel that they are a part of the larger law school community. 

Yes, if we do this we must figure out stairway traffic, restroom availability, and many other logistical issues that might seem impossible at first blush.  However, we would solve for these issues because we would have decided that this on-ground experience was valuable enough to our students and our law schools that it was worth the extra work and resources. 

What we did in March and April was not easy, but we did it.  Had someone told us at the AALS Annual meeting in January that we would move all of our courses and programs online over the course of a week or two in March with little warning, we would have laughed and rejected the possibility.  We now sit with a few months (not just a few days) to plan for a fall semester.  I suggest that law schools immediately identify what we value for us and our students in terms of on-ground experiences, we identify what we can do well at a distance, and we work to make those things happen successfully, knowing the obstacles.  Not only will providing successful on-ground experiences require ingenuity, expertise, and contingency planning, but successful distance teaching will require these same things. 

The planning for the fall 2020 semester is and will continue to be intense.  It will also likely provide us with some new ways of doing things we may choose to continue even beyond a pandemic.  So, push up your sleeves and think creatively about what your law school values, what you do well, and how you can best deliver those things.  Engage experts and stakeholders in your discussions so that you consider the many sides of the issues under consideration and figure out what is actually possible.  And, write in pencil so that you can make changes when your plans must be adjusted because of new or different circumstances.                

Mary Garvey Algero

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