The Legal Beat
Posted on Tuesday January 10, 2017
I was sitting there at the American Association of Law Schools Conference (which you’re probably tired of reading posts from me about now) and I wandered into a legal writing panel. It struck me very quickly how conscious and deliberate the professors were speaking of their teaching method. It wasn’t just that they had done it that way, or that they were taught by the same method. Every step they took was thoughtful. They contemplated the effects of their teaching methodologies on their students’ comfort and stress levels, and, most importantly, on effective learning.
I tweeted that it made me think about teaching deliberately.
That prompted a friend of mine to send me a message that, in fact, there was an article titled “Teaching Deliberately,” by Meredith Duncan at the University of Houston Law Center. It turns out that Professor Duncan is one of only 26 professors reviewed in the Harvard University Press book, What the Best Law Teachers Do.
Professor Duncan suggests that being deliberate means to “begin with the end in mind.” In other words, successful teaching means thinking about why we are engaged in a particular exercise. It also means thinking about how students learn. Professor Duncan delights in accessing all the different learning styles of her students, according to her article.
She continues this in the classroom, setting class expectations and assuring professionalism. I suppose my one quibble is about her no-laptop policy, although I can see both sides of that debate, as I’ve written. She also cold-calls on panels of students, never telling them until the beginning of class who is on panel.
Outside of class, her article argues for being conscious about giving students information about how they will be assessed, with sample exams, grading rubrics, and the like. And to finish it all off, recognizing that law practice is fraught with potential for depression and substance abuse, she encourages her students to engage in behaviors that would make Jeena Cho proud. For example, she often requires student to keep journals, recording three good things that happened each day and why they happened. Duncan refers to empirical psychological work that supports the psychological benefits of keeping such a journal.
It’s not that I necessarily agree with all of these practices that makes me write about Duncan’s paper. It’s that she has a very good reason for everything that she does in and out of the classroom, and is quite happy to explain those reasons to students, or anyone else that wishes to know. And, she’s thought about it, more than fleetingly, more than once. This isn’t about coddling students. It is about preparing them and training them for the future.
THIS, fellow law professors, is what is missing from our profession too often. Deliberate thinking. Why do we believe the things that we do? Why is teaching in a particular way useful? Why shouldn’t we focus on avoiding unnecessary pain for those who pay the overhead for the institution? How can we best train our students to be ready for everything law has to throw at them?
I might even go beyond that, arguing that same deliberateness for faculty practices such as hiring and tenure. And of course, AALS is still on my mind, and the thoughts about setting repeated practices in motion.
All that came from a random decision to attend a legal writing panel, from my random choice of tweeting words, and, of course, the excellent article.