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

Constructing a Seminar

One definition of “seminar” is: “a group of advanced students studying under a professor with each doing original research and all exchanging results through reports and discussions.” The roots of the word are from the German word of the same spelling, which means: “a group of students working with a professor,” and from the Latin word seminarium: “breeding ground; plant nursery.” To foster healthy growth of the seminar “nursery,” sessions need to be more than a series of teacher-directed discussions. We want the structure and requirements of the course to coax students into assuming more ownership than is typical of a law school classroom. At a very basic level, a question I am thinking about right now boils down to, “How do we best get students to stay current in the reading and pay attention in a seminar class, where there is no final exam?”

A recent New York Times article discusses a study where weekly quizzes were used at the start of each class of a large undergraduate Psychology course, resulting in increased rates of attendance and improved overall grades in the course. Is there a way to import this idea into smaller law school classroom to encourage completion of the reading and regular attendance? The ideas examined in a seminar, based on study and discussion, may not easily lend themselves to multiple-choice quizzes, but perhaps short answer quizzes?

Reading for and attending seminar classes are foundational, but we also need quality class participation from students. One way to ensure students are thoroughly ready to participate is to require students to write and turn in weekly essays reflecting on the reading and briefing any cases they read. But when a seminar course awards only 2 credit hours, students may balk at weekly writing assignments – voting with their feet by dropping the course. In addition, providing feedback on weekly written assignments can be very difficult for a professor to sustain, even in a lower enrollment course like a seminar.

What kinds of course requirements provide a sound framework for a successful seminar course? Which have you tried and discarded?

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