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

Leading Edge Conference: Facing and Forming Legal Education’s Future with Insights, Data and Inclusive Thinking

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 6th annual Leading Edge Conference hosted by Wolters Kluwer (WK) in Riverwoods, Illinois. It was my first experience with this particular conference. Using an unconference format and with a balance of old-timers and new attendees, WK brought together approximately 30 “thought leaders” for two+ days of intense discussion. Participants included professors and deans from a wide variety of law schools, representatives from law related entities such as LSAC, NITA and IAALS, education or pro-bono related entrepreneurs, and digitalization pioneers.

In addition to the conference, WK hosts the Leading Edge Webinar Series and just announced its 2nd annual Leading Edge prize. Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000) will be awarded to two winning teams “to help implement their visions of improving student outcomes or expanding educational opportunities for law students.” Proposals are due August 15th.

I left the conferences with many “take-aways,” that I am only beginning to fully digest, and with a better sense of the continuing challenges facing legal education and our profession. Bernard A. Burk, Jerome M. Organ and Emma B. Rasiel recently published in the Nevada Law Review “Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study”. Their research examined the response of law schools “to the substantial fall off in both the number and the conventional qualifications of applicants to law school that began after 2010.”

The “Competitive Coping Strategies” research also explains why more law schools have not closed and emphasizes the “widened distance” between current students’ needs and current school resources. The study found that in the face of plunging applications to law school, “Reputationally stronger schools” generally chose to preserve their entering Class Profile. This meant “thousands of viable candidates remained available to other law schools, effectively preventing the closing of as many as twenty Reputationally Weaker schools.”

Second, the study points out the implications of shrinking Class Size and discounting Tuition to preserve entering class profile. “As a practical matter, then, law schools ‘invested’ in Profile rather than in expanding their faculties, facilities or their access to clinical and experiential education. We encourage discussion of the implications of this investment choice.”

Third, the study noted that “some Reputationally Weaker law schools perversely were able to maintain or raise their average Net Tuition” and “the students with the least promising prospects for obtaining or making any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them. These inequalities expanded significantly after 2010.”

Fourth, the study highlights the millions of dollars in forgone Tuition Revenue “unavailable to meet the needs of students who at many law schools are significantly less prepared” than their predecessors and suggests this widening gap underlies the declining Bar Exam pass rate.

We seem to have reached a plateau in declining admissions to law school. But that plateau is not a place for us to settle in and rest. There are too many hard questions about where we are now.

How do we address the inequalities which have expanded since 2010 in law schools? What is the value we provide to those with the “least promising prospects?” Is it immoral that those least likely to make “any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them?” or that they may be undertaking crippling debt to obtain a law degree?

On the other hand, if we narrow the pathway into law schools even further, rejecting any who come to law school less credentialed or less prepared, will we be rejecting the dreams and hopes of those who desire a professional pathway? Will we be rejecting many who will find an economically sustainable and good life for themselves? Will we be playing God with students from less advantaged backgrounds just because we don’t know who will make it and who won’t? Will we be eliminating first generation students in larger numbers? Will we be amplifying the lack of diversity in our profession?

And what about the role of law schools in the community at large at this moment in our nation’s fledgling history? Shouldn’t we continue to exist as community laboratories which encourage civil discussion, uphold the rule of law, critique unjust legal systems and decisions, work to sustain democratic institutions and constitutional checks and balances, and produce new ideas about the role of law and legal systems in society?

Finally, if we espouse the “public good” values of my last two paragraphs as arguments for the continued existence of the legal academy and law schools, then do we prioritize these values in our faculty hiring, our strategic plans, and our prioritization of resources?
So, I leave you as I left the conference, with more questions than answers, but with a firm sense that we must continue to ask these important questions.

(Note: the author had her lodging, food and flights paid. She was not paid to write or post anything about the conference. Besides, she is pretty opinionated and not easily swayed.)

Bylaws and business meetings: a 1L experiential module

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

The first year of law school rightfully has been criticized for overly prioritizing the litigation model and for making it the central focus of our teaching. This emphasis lulls students into believing that the judicial audience is the primary consumer of legal communications. To counteract that skewing, those of us teaching in the 1L curriculum are often exhorted to find ways to discuss transactional forms of legal writing. But, contract-drafting is not easily built into a curriculum already bursting at the seams with the must-have’s that we cram into the lower-credited experiential classes of the 1L year.

Enter the idea of dedicating part of two or three classes to small-organization bylaws and business meetings. The bylaws of a small organization are constitutional, so this type of teaching module fits in nicely with what they are learning in other introductory courses. And while some students may know a little bit about bylaws and business meetings from previous experiences in college, religious groups, or other volunteer activities, most students probably won’t have a great deal of knowledge. Learning about these ideas will appeal to them because of the immediate applicability to the very student-run organizations in which, as rising 2Ls, they are poised to assume leadership positions.

I begin by asking those students with a little bit of knowledge to help me outline, on the board, the setup and order of a business meeting. Typically, at least one or two students in a group of 20 will be able to walk others through it with a little bit of prompting. We talk about why a roll call must happen right after the call to order and opening ceremonies. Ask your own students how many of them know something about quorum—you may be startled to learn how few students do. Teaching them what quorum is and how it relates to business-agenda items engages the students and almost immediately makes them realize just how practical this module is.

Discussions about business meetings naturally leads to a conversation about the rudiments of Robert’s Rules of Order and how voting happens on an agenda item.[1] I have sometimes run a class or two in a business-meeting format, inviting students to make formal motions about some of the softer deadlines in the course. As part of that, students must calculate quorum to hold class at all. I always ask them the lowest number of votes it would take to carry a vote, assuming we had exactly quorum present. Students are awoken to the fact that in a class of 20 students, 6 students might be able to bind the other 14. (That is: quorum for a group of 20 students is 11. And if only 11 are present, a simple majority to carry a vote is 6). “It’s important to show up and have your vote counted,” I have remarked. The message isn’t lost on them.

Students also have the opportunity to step into role for actual representation work. A few years ago, knowing this module, our Women’s Law Caucus president approached me and asked if the 1Ls in my class might provide some advice about issues her executive board had identified in their bylaws. Naturally, I immediately agreed. To prepare students for their client, they first looked at a larger set of bylaws I had worked on for a local high school boosters organization. I changed a few items to take the bylaws out of compliance with the New Jersey statutes governing non-profit organizations (a relatively easy statutory scheme). Fifteen questions later, they knew enough to issue-spot in the much simpler student-organization bylaws. Then, in small groups, they looked at the Women’s Law Caucus bylaws and a week later offered their recommendations to the officers. Who adopted almost all of the advice.

This was such a feel-good moment for all involved that I have made it an annual module. Depending on the year, I have had students conclude with a client letter written by the small groups together, or I have simplified it even further and simply had the 1L students meet with the organization’s officer in class to offer their verbal recommendations (I act as scribe for the  officer in those circumstances). Each year I walk away impressed with the speed of absorption my 1L students have for this material. They take the representation seriously, and I think that they also enjoy it. I am likewise impressed with the 2L and 3L student’ willingness to serve as the client for my 1Ls even though it will net them extra work down the road as they work through the bylaws-amending process. I think they also feel that they learn valuable lessons by being the client. Having just completed this year’s project, I already have received a request from an organization’s new president to have my next year’s 1L students put her organization’s bylaws under their microscope.

This assignment is win-win for all involved. It is low-stakes for the 1L students, but it engages them in professional identity development, statutory analysis, problem-solving, and client-counseling skills. The module provides a pragmatic experience—who among us hasn’t been part of a business meeting or bylaws consultation?—and it offers a different perspective on legal practice. To put it simply: it’s relatively easy, it’s fun, and it’s real-world. I highly recommend it to others.

[1]The essentials of Robert’s Rules can be found online although the 11thedition is still a to-purchase item.

Our Authors and Readers Propelled us Into the Hall of Fame! Thank you! Happy New Year.

Web 100 Hall of Fame badge.

As 2018 draws to a close and the new adventures of 2019 are still resting below the horizon, it seems a fitting moment to acknowledge gratefully all those who contribute to making this blog a useful and informative read.  This year,  our thoughtful and insightful authors – please take a look at their names on our sidebar – together with our loyal and well informed readership has earned us a new honor.  As you may remember, for three straight years, from 2014 to 2016, Best Practices was named one of the ABA Journal‘s top law blogs. This year, Best Practices  has been named to the ABA Journal‘s Blawg 100 Hall of Fame. That’s right, we are Hall of Famers!

The ABA Journal noted

‘”At this blog, law professors discuss what skills and qualities—beyond knowing the law—the future lawyers in their classrooms really need and the nitty-gritty of how to teach them. Recent posts discuss suggestions for bar exam reform, approaches to take with Generation Z law students who were raised on the internet, and what law students remember about professors decades later.”

On reflecting on this honor, please bear with me as I take a trip down memory lane to 2007,  over a  decade ago , when this blog was but a twinkle in the eye of the Clinical Legal Education Association’s then named “Best Practices Implementation Committee” (which exists today as the renamed “Best Practices in Legal Pedagogy Committee.”)

CLEA’s Board had commissioned one Professor Roy Stuckey to lead the charge in editing and publishing the original Best Practices  book to be distributed for free (see right sidebar for a free copy) in timely accordance with the publication of Carnegie’s Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law . Together the two books caused quite the stir in the legal academia and presaged the critiques that would come post-recession about the way law schools had lost their way in serving its students and society.  Roy emphasized,  as did the committee working with him, that Best Practices was meant to be an evolving guideline NOT a textualist nightmare.   University of New Mexico Law Professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez  described  the need for further iterations to flesh out the cultural awareness and competence sections. In response to these and others concerns, Pace Law’s Professor Vanessa Merton suggested the development of a BLOG  as a way to continue the critique and conversation in real time adding acquired knowledge and exploring experiments gone flop!  Albany Law agreed to foot some minor bills and provide some tech support for creating the blog.  I agreed to become editor by figuring  out what a blog actually was!  Hence the Best Practices in Legal Education Blog was born.

The Blog was softly launched in late 2007 with some preliminary posts. The hard public launch was planned to coincide with the January 2008 AALS annual conference in NYC.  New York state law faculty lugged Best Practices books with them to the conference by subway, metro north, Amtrak, cars, buses and feet!  In the main hall of vendors, we signed up folks onto  the blog’s feeburner site (see option on right sidebar!)  and shared a table in the Hall with Equal Justice Works! We also hosted  a birthday celebration for both Roy and Best Practices!  

In 2015,  a second book arrived.  A group of experienced, thoughtful and collaborative women faculty – Professors Deborah Maranville, Lisa Bliss,  Carrie Kass and Professor Sedillo Lopez – engaged in a several year drafting process gathering  newly informed teaching, curricular, extracurricular and assessment insights and innovations. Their book reflected upon and fleshed out original Best Practices principles to guide law schools and legal educators facing new challenges  With the input of hundreds of chapter co-authors, readers and commentators Building on Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in A Changing World published by Lexis-Nexis has become a desktop bible for many of us.  It is also available  for purchase in e-chapters

In the past decade, this modest little blog has hosted so many talented authors, guest contributors, insightful commentators and the most loyal and passionate readership.  We have been ably assisted by devoted and tech savvy student assistants as well as by fellows Justin Myers and Kevin Ramakrishna .   We would be lost in cyberspace without the tech wizardry and grammarian expertise of nina Roepe.

Vintage Christmas Clip Art - Laurel Wreath Frame - The ...

We do not intend to rest on our laurels, however! Issues of law, the Rule of Law, and the role of law in supporting a free and democratic society have become more important than ever.  How we teach and who we teach and who does the teaching are ever more important questions – even more so than a decade ago.  Here, on this blog, without a lot of fanfare, or social media confetti, or hysterical tweeting, we can discuss, explore and examine how to proceed to facilitate learning for the budding lawyers who will lead the way forward.  They are eager and they are our hope.

  • Image result for happy new year 2019 clip art

Experience with Peer Support, Peer Review and Feedback on Teaching?  

We are all familiar with engagement in peer review of scholarship. Law faculty culture prioritizes peer input and review of scholarly ideas and articles. Sending drafts of articles to colleagues for feedback, “workshopping” preliminary ideas, and vetting scholarship is part and parcel of the work we do. We visit other schools, make presentations and attend conferences because we value peer discussion and  input. It is the basis by which we create and communicate knowledge.

I don’t believe, however, we have a similarly pervasive culture for formative peer review when it comes to teaching in law schools, although such culture exists at other higher education institutions. According to The University of Texas Faculty Innovation Center, an academic culture which prioritizes informed peer collaboration, review and input on teaching benefits everyone,

Good teachers continually learn and develop. Peer Review, which combines the examination of course materials with in-class observations and collegial discussion, helps prompt this learning among faculty. Ideally, these interactions and conversations can create opportunities for us as colleagues to reflect on and adapt our teaching practices in order to become better teachers and increase student learning.

Northeastern University Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research recommends a four step process:

  • Initial conversation between the observer and the observed
  • The observation itself as an informal data collection and distillation process
  • Follow-up conversation in which the observer shares the observations and collaborates with the observed teacher in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite.
  • Reflective summary written by the observed instructor, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching includes the goal of “enabling more intentional and mutually supportive communities of scholar teachers.”

It is true that we have made some progress in elevating the role of teaching in law schools in the past decade. Legal Education certainly woke up to the need for a culture change around curriculum and teaching following the publication of Best Practices for Legal Education  and Educating Lawyers.  The economic downturn heavily affected the admission process and the need to focus on student learning. ABA requirements regarding student learning outcomes also redirected attention and resources towards what students actually learn while in law school. Moreover, organized efforts such as the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning  and the AALS Section on Teaching Methods  have converted many to the idea that teaching and learning are matters worthy of scholarship, innovation and peer discussion.  Places like this blog and others support exchange of ideas, methods and innovations.

It is also true that as far back as 2008, pioneering legal scholars Gerry Hess and Sophie Sparrow studied factors which encourage or assist the professional development of law teachers including peer observation. So there are many resources available to improve teaching in law schools. Yet, across the academy, are we truly immersed in a continual process of formative feedback for law teachers? If so, the web shows little evidence of it.

I think some of the culture gap is explained by the fact that historically peer review of teaching only happened during a promotion and tenure process that resulted in an up or out decision by the faculty — hardly a formative approach. A voluntary formative program of peer support and review – not used for personnel decisions – should allay those fears.  Appropriate concerns about interference with academic freedom in the classroom might explain some of the culture gap. Except that, even more concerns about academic freedom arise with respect to peer input into “controversial scholarship,” since draft writings can be more easily captured and reproduced than can observations of a single class session. What I think explains the gap, instead, is that we have not properly trained or equipped law faculty with the tools and methods for conducting and receiving helpful peer observations.

At Albany Law, we have promoted a culture of inquiry around teaching and learning for many years now — colleagues sit in each others classrooms from time to time, our Academic Dean prioritizes teaching support, our Center for Excellence in Law Teaching showcases teaching ideas and invites collegial discussion through teaching workshops, and our Director of Online Learning and Instructional Technology facilitates flipped classrooms and other innovations. What we haven’t done is formalize a voluntary peer support and review program. This year, we are planning to revisit our very loose approach and learn from the ever evolving resources and experimentation of others.

So readers, contributors and chance internet searchers, please post here what if any processes have you implemented to support peer observation of law teaching? Is it a voluntary program as we envision at Albany? How has it worked? Or, if you have an opinion about faculty peer review programs, let us know what you think!

I hope to compile the results and report back later in the year!

P.S. If you are more comfortable with e-mail than a blog comment, feel free to contact me at mlync@albanylaw.edu. 

Blended Learning for Law Schools

I just returned from an inspiring and thought provoking three days at the Wolters Kluwer-sponsored Leading Edge workshop. The gathering of about 35 thought leaders from legal education – a wonderfully diverse group – was structured as an un-conference, so the participants designed the agenda upon our arrival and all the discussions revolved around topics that the invitees chose and facilitated. The topics ranged from assessment to increasing diversity in the academy, to teaching about leadership and cyberlaw, to disruption of law schools (yes, that was the session I lead).

Among the many recurring themes at the conference was online learning, particularly blended or hybrid learning, also referred to as flipping the classroom. Over the last few years, researchers have increasingly confirmed that students learn best in courses that combine online with face-to-face learning. Here, the Mayo Clinic describes the utility of blended learning in the health sciences field. Similarly, the US Department of Education found many benefits of flipping the classroom in its meta-analysis of online learning. These and other studies talk about the many advantages that derive from blending online and in-class instruction.

In the law school context, I made these videos about flipping the law school classroom and blended learning in legal education, in which I talk about how online learning can free up class time for law students to begin to gain exposure to essential lawyering competencies during each course while still covering the doctrinal material that professors hope to assign during a typical semester. Adding blended elements to your courses can be fun and rewarding. Here are some tips for getting started.

Top Five Things to Consider When Flipping a Law School Course

  1. What topics do you want to flip?

Before you begin, identify the topics that you typically cover for which the flipped classroom model would make the most sense in the course.

  1. You don’t have to produce all of the videos.

Don’t be reluctant to assign video content produced by other professors. Like other teaching and scholarly activities, such as writing an effective article, practice guide or even blog post, the production of effective and engaging video content takes time. As a result, I often assign my students to read law review articles and casebooks prepared by other professors. Assigning videos prepared by other professors is analogous. Indeed, by assigning material prepared by others, our time is freed up to spend on more active teaching activities. Visit legaledweb.com for a collection of videos prepared by leading law faculty.

  1. Begin with planning what will be “flipped in” rather than what will be flipped out.

Plan what you want to do with the additional face-to-face time with students that blended learning will afford. This is the point of having a flipped classroom. For example, consider adding new activities into the classroom (such as interviewing, negotiation or drafting exercises) that hone practical lawyering skills and competencies.

  1. Produce chunked, short video content.

Research shows that effective videos do not exceed 5-8 minutes in length, and some are even shorter. Break up a longer subject matter into a few chunked segments, making sure that each video addresses a discreet legal topic. Remember to make the video engaging and to speak clearly and concisely.

  1. Hold the students responsible for watching the videos.

Start each class with an assumption that the students watched the video. That will create an expectation for the group. Start the class by expanding on the videos lessons and assigning activities/discussions that ask students to use the theories learned from the videos actively through role plays, simulations, small group work or Socratic dialogue.

Best of luck innovating legal education. Let us know, in the comment section below, how it goes for you. What works? What could be improved? What insights can you share with the community?

And if you want to learn more about flipping the classroom and other innovations in teaching pedagogy, visit legaledweb.com

 

Is Litigating an Expression of Academic Freedom?

I recommend to you a really thoughtful post on the Academe blog entitled  “Why Litigation is Academic Freedom”  The post addresses the ongoing political attacks on UNC Law School’s Civil Rights Center (Center) and uses an interview with one of our contributing authors, Judith Wegner,  to flesh out the issues.

As Professor Wegner notes,

The Center for Civil Rights (CCR) was founded by distinguished UNC Law alumnus Julius L. Chambers in 2001. Chambers was among the country’s foremost civil rights lawyers, who established a leading integrated law firm, successfully advocated in civil rights cases before the US Supreme Court, served as Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and returned to his home state to lead NC Central University as its chancellor.  He was a brilliant, visionary advocate for justice, and the center is intended to prepare a new generation of lawyers to follow in his footsteps.

The post notes that the Center receives no state funds, but “has received grants from major foundations and partnered with a wide range of organizations.”  Members of the University  Board of Governors make a number of contentions including that “university-associated” centers and/or law clinics should not engage in litigation and that law students associated with public universities should not be engaged in suing state or local governments. Particular members claim that the Center has “a political axe to grind.” 

Wegner deftly explains the importance of Centers, clinics and externships to the education of lawyers and the reason that litigation is exactly what law students should be learning to do!  In addition, she aptly points out that the Board of Governors arguments are

simply another way of claiming that the center should not engage in litigation on behalf of poor and minority clients. These clients are ones who would typically not have alternative options for representation. Limits on the kinds of cases that can be brought by legal aid lawyers, recent cuts in the state budget for legal services for the poor, and threats to funding for the national Legal Services Corporation leave such clients with even fewer options.  

The law school has a diverse range of class offerings that explore all manner of issues from diverse points of view. Indeed, the law school also hosts a Center for Banking and Finance (created at the same time the Center for Civil Rights was created) and a Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics. Neither of these other centers has been attacked or their activities challenged, nor should they.

Finally, the post encourages those who agree that the attack on UNC Centers and Clinics is politically motivated and a violation of academic freedom to take action:

If I tell you that we are in jeopardy of compromising our integrity and commitment to the state and to the search for truth, please believe me.  And please do something about it.  Write Chancellor Folt, President Spellings, and SACSCOC—again, the emails are: chancellor@unc.edu, margaret.spellings@northcarolina.edu, and questions@sacscoc.org.  Do not be complicit. Stand up for truth and for justice!

%d bloggers like this: