Friday, June 29, 2007

Teaching Tips: Of Songs and Poems

This post has been sitting on my computer for a year and, inspired by Rose's post on property songs, I thought I'd blow the dust off it and put it up.

I've been corresponding with one of my favorite former students, who's going to start her teaching career this fall.  So I've been thinking a little more than usual about teaching methods.  Plus, some of our friends over at prawfsblawg are advising new profs against preparing for weeks the summer before teaching for the first time.  Before following that (or any) suggestions, I'd recommend thinking about the following advice from James Gordon's riotously funny article "How Not to Succeed in Law School"  from the Yale Law Journal: "If you want to know what kind of people law professors are, ask yourselfthis question: 'what kind of person would give up a jillion dollar salary to drive a rusted-out Ford Pinto and wear suits made of old horse blankets?'  Think about this very carefully before asking your professor's opinion on any subject." (100 YLJ 1679, 1668 (1991)).  More recently at prawfs, Joseph Slater's been criticizing law schools for not doing enough to encourage good teaching.  Joe has some very useful suggestions on how to improve teaching.

Time will tell for sure just how important teaching vs. research turns out to be in the next decade.   I think the consumer culture is coming to universities in a big way.  One sign of this is that tenure committees (particularly at the university level) are increasingly looking at student satisfaction with teaching.  And for those who have taught, good teaching evaluations are critical in the lateral movement game.  So, obviously, is good scholarship.  In fact, standards for both teaching and scholarship are rising.  Tenure is become substantially more difficult to obtain; universities are looking very closely before making a contract that will bind them for the next twenty-five to thirty-five years.  As an aside, quality is increasingly being measured by citations and publication outlets, rather than based on a close reading of the relevant scholarship, I fear.  Citations are an important (though by no means the only) measure of the quality of legal scholarship, of law reviews and perhaps of the quality of schools publishing those reviews.  But now I'm getting rather far afield.

Property professors generally think that teaching's pretty dern' important.  Perhaps that's because our field is notoriously difficult. I'm not sure.  I'd like to suggest a couple of tips.  Obviously, knowledge of the substantive law is essential.  And once you have that down, there are some other pretty basic things to keep in mind (in my opinion).  Try to have a few basic points you want to make in each class; keep those points in mind as you structure the class and as you talk with students.  A good class is a good conversation, where you explore some ideas, treat difficult concepts in a systematic fashion, and come to some increased understanding.  New faculty often focus unduly on facts of cases; the cases are there to help structure the discussion and give some jumping-off points for further exploration of legal rules, of how those rules arose and are applied, of how we should counsel clients when faced with similar situations, of how we can avoid future litigation.  Working through problems are great ways of exploring the nuances of rules.  I always look closely at the quality of problems in picking casebooks.  There are a couple of problem-centered property casebooks, which I've been tempted to use over the years.  Then at the end of class, I think it's helpful to recap the key principles.  What's the old advice?  Tell people what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've told them?  Good law teaching doesn't so much involve telling students as talking with students--but students can really benefit from some sign-posting along the way to help them structure what often appears to be "stream of consciousness" discussions.  (I think a good property class should have some meta-themes, which we're spoken about some in the past; but each class meeting should also have some discrete, smaller themes.  I find I ask myself as I'm preparing for class: how does what we're going to talk about fit into the overall structure of the course.  And what are the key ideas and rules students need to know from this particular class.  Clarity of thinking, like charity, begins with the individual teacher.)

And bear in mind that it's hard to sit for seventy-five (or even fifty) minutes and maintain your concentration.  Every once in a while it's a good idea to sit in the (usually uncomfortable) chairs our students use in the classrooms and think about what that experience is like.  [Maybe you teach at Stanford, where they have really comfy chairs for students.  Heck, the ones in this room  are much, much nicer than the one I have at my office.  But for the rest of us, remember how uncomfortable our students are and try to do things to help them stay focused and engaged.]

One cue we can take from the trial practice teachers is the importance of re-triggering jurors' (or in this case students') attention.  Try to break the class into segments; make it possible for students who've "checked out" to check back into class.  That is, even if you lose the attention of students, have convenient places where they can return to the conversation of the class.  This relates to the material in the previous paragraph--keep sign posting and relating each segment of the class to the overall points for the day.

A Few Concrete Pieces of Advice

But the primary reason for this post is to talk about a couple of simple pieces of advice on teaching: try to connect with students and present the material in a way that makes sense to them.  I'm so out of touch with mainstream culture that it's absurd.  If, like me, you've never eaten a jello shot (or maybe don't even know what that is), you're out of touch with this generation.  Or maybe even that dates me.  I don't know.  Every now and then I watch cable television to get a sense of our students' culture.  And, to be honest, I feel like Rip Van Winkle.  Perhaps a very confused and dizzy Rip Van Winkle, because the attention span of the generation of college students (if we can use popular television as a gauge) is mighty short.

Yet, I think there are some easy ways to connect with students that even the most rigid of us can employ.  Humor's helpful; alas, I'm not a very funny person by nature.  Nor, I suspect, is the average property professor.  Yet I think that we can say things that students wouldn't at first expect--and therefore things that appear strange (and perhaps funny).

Song lyrics are decent ways of doing this, particularly if you're using cheesy 1970s lyrics.  Early on, after you've read a decision that appears unfair, you may want to invoke the immortal words of the Village People's YMCA: "I felt the whole world was so jive."  And if you start with Johnson v. McIntosh or The Antelope, as I suggested, then you can wheel that one out on the first day.

Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale's getting a little musty for our students to know.  Oh, who's kidding whom; they won't know it.  And no, we can't even expect them to know it through the Big Chill.  But wow are these great lyrics:

If music be the food of love
then laughter is its queen
and likewise if behind is in front
then dirt in truth is clean

(Though one of my students last fall did know it--he's a Procol Harum fan--and he told me that those lyrics aren't part of the version that Procol Harum recorded.  The story on those mysterious lyrics is here.  Goes to show what I know.  Incorporate by reference the Yale Law Journal advice given above, here.)

And sometimes federal circuit judges refer to "Whiter Shade of Pale," too.  There's a lot to be said about Judge Janice Rogers Brown's speech "Whiter Shade of Pale Jurisprudence," which she gave to the University of Chicago Federalist Society in April 2000.  But that's not a subject for propertyprof.

You might also try some lines of "White Rabbit" from Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane when you read a particularly incoherent opinion:

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the doormouse said:
"Feed your Head
Feed your Head!"

Careful on this one, though; it's easy to overdue it.  And then your students will think you're some antique from the 1950s.

I've found that my students are often too deferential to what judges say.  If it's in a judicial opinion, then they they take it as the word of God.  And one of the things we can do is to teach them to question precedent.  A healthy respect for the limits of what they can do for clients is important (that's part of what we call good judgment).  But so is a sense of what precedent is subject to reasonable criticism and, therefore, vulnerable to modification.  So I try to pick casebooks that have a mix of well-reasoned cases and poorly reasoned ones, too.  When you cover some of the poorly reasoned ones, you might want to use some poetry, like William Prosser's The Common Law of Texas:

They buy their burbon by the case and never shun the cup
And when they ride around in Cadillacs, they smash each other up
But when they litigate a case, it's the darndest ever seen,
Because the poor benighted courts try to follow Leon Green
They enter into arguments, and then they have a fight,
They call each other dirty names, and brood on it all night,
They lie in wait for sixteen hours behind an old rail fence,
And shoot the fellow in the back, but it's all in self-defense.
They raise an oil well derrick in the city hall front yard,
And when the damn thing blows to hell they take it mighty hard.
Petroleum and rocks and mud are strewn all o'er the sod.
It makes a most unsightly mess, but it's just an act of God.

Pull out a few lines of that one when you read a messed-up common law case (perhaps even the Texas case of Othen v. Rozier). That's what my torts professor, Willis L.M. Reese, did with us.  And when I heard Craig Joyce and Bob Cottrol perform it some years later at the American Society for Legal History, I realized that I'd want to use it in my classes, too.

If all else fails, you can always do the Dead Poet Society imitation (jump on the desk or chair and change the students' perspective of what happens in class).  Or maybe just walk up and down the rows.  Though I got the inspiration for that not from DPS but from the introductory scene of Fat Man and Little Boy.  The movie was less than great, but there's a terrific scene in the beginning that has some inspirational teaching.

Alfred L. Brophy
Comments are held for approval, so they will not appear immediately.

Teaching | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Teaching Tips: Of Songs and Poems:

» Hippie Jurisprudence: The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary Issue from PropertyProf Blog
Just on the heels of my post on lyrics you might use in class (mostly from the 1960s), comes the most recent issue of Rolling Stone into my mailbox. Very close readers of the legal blogosphere may recall that I [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 16, 2007 7:46:51 PM


Post a comment