Teaching What You Don’t Know—Wonderful Book with a NSFW Title

Teaching What You Don’t Know by Dr. Therese Huston is the most helpful teaching book I’ve ever come across.  It combines theory, practical advice, and reassurance in short and helpful chapters.  It has something for everyone who teaches law school at any level.  While the title might be off-putting to those being taught (maybe keep it home), as she explains it, “Teaching what you don’t know is an increasingly common reality for a majority of academics.”  To paraphrase, the only people who don’t teach what they don’t know are adjuncts hired for single classes and very senior research professors who buy out their teaching time.  The rest of us, very much including law professors who she acknowledges throughout, are essentially teaching survey courses in which it would be impossible to claim expertise for every point and chapter.

All that said, this book is truly a life-saver for the times when we truly, really are teaching what we don’t know either because we have taken on someone else’s class in an emergency or more naturally, when starting out when we are asked to teach a class for the first time. “Knowing” an area of law and “knowing how” to teach it are two very different things.  It’s also helpful when you are new at an institution and the students don’t know you.

In a few very short chapters, Dr. Huston provides practical advice for every challenge—very much including how to prepare and how to present yourself and your state of expertise in the class.  The section on “Establishing Credibility” is a must for anyone teaching something or somewhere new.  It can also help navigate the very choppy waters of teaching evaluations—which as we are all now aware reflect first impressions and often dovetail societal biases.

It’s worth some quotes— “Your knowledge of the field may be the primary way that you earn credibility from your colleagues, but you have a different relationship with students and you establish credibility, respect, and trust in different ways.  Research shows that instructors tend to lose credibility with their students when they:

  • “Show up late for class
  • Lack familiarity with the text
  • Cannot explain difficult concepts
  • Rarely ask if students understand their explanations
  • Does not make any attempt to answer students’ questions
  • Fail to follow course policies”

And even more helpful “there are several things you can do to create the kind of credibility that matters to students”

  • Show up on time for class, preferably early, so you have a chance to connect with students and find out if they have any questions
  • Periodically ask students if they understand the material

That first suggestion is gold.  I urge it on everyone.  It can work like magic.  And make your class more welcoming and inclusive. Research suggests that students care that you care—and the simple act of arriving early (even if the classroom isn’t available, you can mingle) allows you to interact informally with students who might never rush the podium after class or certainly not make the pilgrimage to office hours.

It’s also great for those who want to adopt new teaching methods.  There are a lot of teaching books—all with value.  But sometimes reading about 150 techniques for active learning is overwhelming.  Dr. Huston’s advice is highly curated, clearly explained, and very doable. I’ve given this book away several times since discovering it in the education section of a London bookstore and can’t count how many times I’ve read it and recommended it to others.  I don’t know why it isn’t better known.  Despite its title and its value to beginners and those who find themselves teaching something truly new, what the book really provides is sound, research based advice of value to everyone interested in teaching excellence-—even when teaching things you really know quite well. 

Jennifer S. Bard,J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.,Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law

A Few Practical Classroom Resources For The Weeks Ahead: Accessibility, Clarity, And Inclusivity

By this point in August, all faculty, no matter how long you’ve teaching, come to the realization that your class is probably as ready as it is ever going to be.  For those of us particularly interested in teaching law students, it’s also the time to get realistic about the extent to which we can incorporate all the best practices that we know should be in our classes to provide the best possible experiences for our students.  So, what are some practical things you can do right now?  This helpful information from WVU for faculty teaching for the first time can be a helpful checklist.

These are a few high yield resources that I find particularly helpful for turning these intentions into action.

  1. Accessibility

One of the most basic issues we all face is whether the material we provide our students is accessible to them.  Fortunately, there are excellent resources to help use principles of universal design—and not only is it a good idea to follow these principles, it’s actually the law. 

For that reason, it’s likely that your own university already has materials but here are some examples to get you started.  An overview from Cornell,  WVU advice specific to PowerPoints, a comprehensive resource from Colorado and some more pointers about PowerPoint from Blackboard.    Often forgotten is the accessibility of video material—here’s some good advice.

Finally, here is a barebones checklist for documents from the U.S. Govt that could be helpful as a last step before releasing a more substantial document to the class.

  • Clarity of Content

We all want to be clear—and it turns out there are some best practices for doing that.  Here’s one to get started with. (more later)

  • Inclusivity—a few thoughts on names

We all want our classrooms to be a welcoming learning environment for all of our students.  A first step to doing that is just to remember that we all see the world through our own experiences and it’s likely that other people will see it differently.  And luckily there are experts both within the field of legal education, law, and more generally higher education who can help us achieve that goal.   My first advice is to seek out experts starting on your own campus.  Beyond that—are a few resources and a warm invitation to include more in the comments.   

The American Association of Colleges and Universities, a compendium of resources specific to GLBTQ inclusivity, and some information from the ABA

Much is written regarding best practices in calling students by whatever name they choose—and maybe more on how to make that happen later.  

But here’s something less discussed– the names we use for the many hypotheticals we end up writing.   While it seems fun at the beginning to write the “stories” on which subsequent legal analysis is based, it turns out that naming our characters can be something of a minefield.   It’s never a good idea to use the names of the student themselves or people they know—for one thing it can be distracting at best and depending on the hypothetical, perhaps even distressing. 

Beyond that, Names are very powerful, and by choosing to name our plaintiffs, defendants, judges, and witnesses, we are sending messages about how we see the world and our students’ place in it.  At this point, we are all conscious of avoiding offense by not making all the crime and accident victims women and all the judges men, let alone engage in racial, ethnic, sexist, abelist, sanist (please avoid the word “crazy” as hard as that is), homophobic or regional stereotyping [even when it’s in the context of ribbing sports rivals].

But there’s a next step beyond avoiding offense—and that’s truly inviting the larger world into our classroom by drawing names from a variety of cultures and regions.  Where do we find these names?  Baby naming sites! Here are two of my favorites baby name wizard and nameberry.   You probably have your own to add in the comments.

Both of these sites have lists of contemporary popular names in different regions.  At bare minimum, it opens up your fund of knowledge and allows for variety.   But even better, it can help your classroom better reflect the diversity of our country. 

To make it onto a top ten list, these are names that have probably been circulating for a while. Students may well have a cousin or a nephew with one of these names.

 And as a side benefit for pure learning theory, having access to so many names avoid the inherent confusion of a hypo involve Paul, Peter, and Polly.

They can also help you avoid falling into gender traps—here are 150 gender neutral English language names.   Caution.  After doing this, it is essential to proof-read yourself so that you have not fallen into the trap such as making all the defendants Swedish and all the crime victims Norwegian.  Caution 2: If you use these resources enough you may get a lot of diaper ads.

Recap—this post has a deliberately spare list of resources to help make your classroom more accessible and inclusive.

Have a great first week of class–

Jennifer S. Bard, J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law

Call for Talks – Igniting Law Teaching 2015

LAW PROFESSORS: Are you doing innovative things in the classroom? I would love to showcase your ideas at Igniting Law Teaching, a TEDx-styled conference on law school innovations.

The Call for Talks for Igniting Law Teaching 2015 is out, http://legaledweb.com/ilt-2015-call-for-talks. We’ll be reviewing proposals on a rolling basis, until January 15th.

The conference is March 19-20, 2015 (stay tuned for registration information) in Washington DC at American University Washington College of Law.

Last year’s conference brought together more than 40 law school academics in a TEDx-styled conference to share ideas on law school innovations. LegalED’s Teaching Pedagogy video collection includes many of the talks from last year’s conference (others are being produced and will be available soon).

The topics we addressed last year are: Flipping A Law School Course, Using the Classroom for Active Learning, Simulations, Feedback and Assessment, The Craft of Law Teaching, Applying Learning Theory to Legal Education, Beyond Traditional Law Subjects, and Teaching for the 21st Century.

We would love to hear more on these topics and also expand the horizons a bit. We designed the conference to create a forum for professors like you who are experimenting with cutting edge technologies and techniques in law teaching with the goal of spreading your ideas to the broader community. We see the conference as a way to showcase you as a leader in teaching innovation and to inspire innovation by others as well.

The Igniting Law Teaching conference is unlike other gatherings of law professors. Here, talks will be styled as TEDx Talks, with each speaker on stage alone, giving a well scripted and performed talk about an aspect of law school pedagogy. In the end, we will create a collection of short videos on law school-related pedagogy that will inspire innovation and experimentation by law professors around the country, and the world, to bring more active learning and practical skills training into the law school curriculum. The videos will be available for viewing by the larger academic community on LegalED, a website developed by a community of law professors interested in using online technologies to facilitate more active, problem-based learning in the classroom, in addition to more assessment and feedback.

This is a great opportunity to showcase your innovations to the legal academy. Consider joining us for Igniting Law Teaching 2015!

Cross-posted on the LegalTech Blog

The Baby Has Finally Been Birthed!

Comprehensive revisions passed

The ABA House of Delegates passed the comprehensve revisions with “minimal  fuss” according to the ABA Journal linked  above.  One area, however, garnered  significant attention and also resulted in  an odd, though perhaps meaningless ,  procedural move.  The House voted  to send back to the Section on Legal Education for further consideration the comment to standard 305 which prohibits payment to students for credit-based courses.

What does this mean? Law schools which have not already done so must start identifying, articulating publicly and assessing student learning out outcomes, providing every student six  credits of clinic or clinic-like experiential courses and requiring students to take two credit hours worth of professional responsibility coursework.

Well, it’s a start……

TEACHING RESILIENCE AND BEING RESILIENT : Filling Our Tanks This Summer

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of attending the annual AALS clinical conference held  in Chicago.   The conference focused on achieving happiness and resilience at a time of challenge in legal education while exploring methods for becoming “better” clinical teachers.  Clin14BookletWeb

The Keynote opening presentation by Professor Nancy Levit from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law outlined research about happiness,  lawyers and legal careers.   Professor Levit’s  book with Doug Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Their sequel, The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law is now available.  The Levit and Linder research helps answer questions for our students and ourselves about how and why lawyers find a  legal career rewarding.   Much of the research reveals that simple truths about happiness – such as feeling valued or being part of a community – bears repetition.   The presentation was informative and the research can be used in advising our students, supporting our colleagues and caring for ourselves.

After her keynote, panelists Professor Calvin Pang (University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law)  and Professor Joanna Woolman (William Mitchell College of Law) with moderator American University Professor Brenda Smith presented a few clips from a very realistic “role play” focused on a “devastating” day in court and the responses  of a clinical teacher, clinical student, and non-clinical colleague.    (The film will be available after the conference – I believe at the AALS site – for those who want to use it in their home schools.)  In the film, the law student  faces a surprising negative court ruling and then experiences his client yelling at him outside the courtroom.   In conversation with the clinical professor, the student expresses anger with his client and believes he should just “drop” clinic.  The clinical professor listens to the student and also explores other aspects of the student’s current anger and despair including his having received a number of employment rejections during this same time period.

The film was provocative and engendered good discussion about the role of law professors .  Many of us have experienced with our students or in our own professional lives the coinciding emotional burdens of dealing with difficult emotions in client’s cases and receiving negative news on the home or career front.   Managing and coping with all those emotions and burdens is a never-ending part of professional development and law schools can and should play a significant role in preparing students with appropriate skills, appreciation of professional values and coping tools.

In a final exercise, the entire room of about 500+ created word trees on three questions:

1.  What do you do as a teacher to “fill your tank.?”

2. What do you do to encourage your students to adopt habits to make themselves whole?

3. What are the barriers and obstacles to the first two?

In asking myself these questions and watching the hundreds of others eagerly participate, I reflected on the particular importance of the resilience, holistic, and happiness theme at this moment in time.   Students and recent grads need our positive support.  Institutions need our creative, optimistic energy.   But providing that energy and support can be personally tolling.

Student-centered faculty – and in particular clinical faculty with summer burdens or untenured faculty with heavy writing demands – must  carve out some real off time or vacation in order to be effective in the long term.  Their institutions must support their need for renewal.  Filling  our personal “tanks” with sunsets, summer treats (ice cream for me!), some  relaxing days, renewed commitment to exercise or getting outside, and time vacationing with loved ones helps form the foundation for resilience in the academic year.  We need to do this not only to support our own resilience but to equip ourselves with the experience-based wisdom that will be needed in great quantities in the coming semesters.  In order  to assist our students and our institutions at this precarious time for law schools, we need to nurture our whole selves now.

Social Media and Law Schools (an introduction)

Want an introduction to social media?  Earlier this week, my colleague, Andrew Brandt, and I held a faculty workshop for our colleagues at Villanova Law about using social media to build our community and showcase our ideas. Here is a link to the powerpoint we created for the talk (although did not use). http://www.slideshare.net/MichelePistone

Some of our colleagues asked me to follow up on how to use hashtags (#) and handles (@) on Twitter. I found this great one-pager, http://bit.ly/1bsh4oh, on using Twitter that may be of interest to you all.

If you are on Twitter, please share your handles with this community so we can follow you. And if you want to follow me, I am @profpistone.

NYT – The Unseen Costs of Cutting Law School Faculty

Take a look at this NYT’s article by University of San Diego Professor, Vic Fleischer, noting that “The law school at Seton Hall University has put its untenured faculty on legal notice that their contracts may not be renewed for the 2014-15 academic year.”  While disagreeing with the Seton Hall decision, Fleischer offers some suggestions of his own on how law schools could cut costs, “Post-tenure review (by faculty, not administrators) can ensure that faculty members remain productive. Libraries can be moved online. Clinics can be closed, and adjunct faculty can be better utilized to team-teach practical courses alongside research faculty. The size of the administrative staff can be pared down, especially those who manage programs that might be considered luxuries.”  

At a time when law schools are being criticized for paying insufficient attention to training in practical lawyering skills and professional values (not to mention, the advent of scalable online teaching technologies), I do not see how closing clinics is the answer.  I would prefer for the discussion to recognize that if we eliminate clinics altogether, then what remains to be taught in law schools could easily move online.  In an article I will be sending out next week, I go into this in a lot more depth. 

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