The Way We Teach

The law derives much of its power and majesty from its relative inertia. So, too, perhaps, do law teachers; at least this is what we imagine. Our students and so many others know better. So much of what we do relies on little more than folk wisdom, passed down through the decades to such a degree that that the patina of age alone becomes a justification. I learned law this way, as did my father, and so I must teach and my students must learn the same way. When we pause to blog, the dialogue is illuminating. Consider posts and comment threads like this one (David Post, from Temple, considering teaching from full texts of copyright cases) and this one (Steve Vladeck, from Miami, considering how to deal with students who deliver exams with more than the specified number of words). I don’t rely on full text in doctrinal courses, but I do assign full-length law review articles in my seminar — usually, just one per week, and with no other reading. And I abandoned word counts for exams precisely because I didn’t want to deal with the issue that Steve wrestles with. I use page and format and font specifications, and those work well. More after the jump.

My most interesting reads of the day, however, were two emails on IT and law school. One came from Aspen, which is rolling out a software service called StudyDesk that enables law students to combine notes, outlines, and dumps from both primary and secondary sources in a single, customized package. It’s course management software designed from the user side, rather than from the teacher side. Very slick. Does it talk to TWEN? In IT as in teaching, teachers and students are often talking past each other.
That brings me to an email from John Mayer at CALI (the Center for Computer Aided Legal Instruction), announcing a call for speakers for next summer’s 2007 Conference for Law School Computing. The theme for the 2007 Conference is “IT and Legal Education: Mirage or Oasis?,” but as John is careful not to say, some of the rejected [update: and non-serious] themes share a familiar ring: “What Happens in IT, Stays in IT”; “CALI Conference:CSI – Is Your Law School IT a Crime Scene?”; “Gambling on Technology – It’s all a Big Crapshoot.”

These — identifying effective teaching methods, evaluation methods, and technology methods — aren’t insoluble problems, but they require a lot of patience and time and (I’m sure that David Post, as an anthropologist, would appreciate this) listening to and considering what goes on when students and teachers aren’t in the classroom. A few years ago, I realized that one of the most important things I do as a teacher is suggest what students do and think about, and how they do that, when I’m not around. I am happiest as a teacher when I overhear my students getting pumped up about complex copyright problems on their own.  I can put my suggestions out there as indirectly or as directly as I prefer.  War stories and pop culture references are the beginning; designing assignments and exams that the students actually want to spend more time on is difficult.  I can discern how successful I am by listening to what students say and do in the classroom and in papers and on exams, and I adjust accordingly.  In other words, some of our most important teacher/student communication, I suspect, goes on when we’re not talking to each other.

2 thoughts on “The Way We Teach

  1. At times, I assign the full text of a case. In fact, I often assign the full set of opinions from the Intel v. Hamidi and eBay v. Bidder’s Edge in my first year torts class. We discuss the cases for about two hours and focus on many of the issues that David raised in his post. I cannot imagine doing that all semester long, but it is useful, fun, and eye-opening to do once in a while. Maybe I will do that in the IP survey course as well …

  2. I do hope you realize that my “rejected” themes for the 2007 CALI Conference were meant in jest.

    “What happens in IT, Stays in IT” is a riff on “What happens in Vegas…”

    The CSI theme riffs on … uh … CSI (the first one which takes place in Vegas), and,

    The crapshoot joke … well, do I have to explain it?

    Seriously, however, The Mirage/Oasis theme is both a dig at IT’s visibility in legal education and at how all IT is kind of disappearing into the woodwork. It can be interpreted either way – its ambiguous – which makes it a great conference theme and allows for endless word games and brainstorming for the speakers.

    Hope you can make it!

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