Sunday, May 04, 2008

My Best Teacher

Professors hear a great deal about good and bad teaching. Virtually every teacher I know has a group of students who think he or she is the greatest and virtually all of them have some students who feel just the opposite. In reality most of us know practically nothing about what goes on in the classrooms of colleagues. Sure, we have sat in on classes for evaluation purposes and we hear what we hear on the grapevine but the visit is a small sample and the grapevine, just beneath the surface, may equate good teaching with being funny, having great war stories, giving good notes, power point, handing out outlines, etc. And, as a recent survey I ran on moneylaw indicates, student evaluations are not verified as being correlated with actual learning. So, we know next to nothing.

To some extent good teachers help students understand difficult concepts. This makes a great deal of sense in math or physics but less sense in law where there are fewer really difficult concepts (putting aside the Erie Doctrine). I do have the feeling that one way to be viewed as a good teacher is to seem to be making a difficulty concept understandable but sometimes that means first convincing the students that it is difficult. The parole evidence rule comes to mind here.

Thinking about the teaching “thing” made me realize two things. First, if I were a student I would want the smartest, best informed, and articulate person possible to be my teacher. If I have the casebook and access to a library, I think I would be able to figure out on my own what most teachers actually "teach" these days. The organization of the course (or outline) is usually the book. The back letter law is there too. I’d like class to start with the understanding that I know the case and I know the black letter rules. Then I’d like to be able to ask the teacher every question that occurs to me. Then I’d like the teacher to ask me the hardest possible questions, if I have not asked them already. Frankly, I’d prefer not to be treated like law school were a form of remedial education.

The second thing that occurred to me is that I am not sure why students do not want that to be what goes on. Why are students so passive? They do not “use” the teacher aggressively as an instrument. Instead, too many sit there and seem to say “tell me what I need to know (and only what I need to know) and make it funny. And for goodness sake, do not challenge me.” The aggressiveness that might be found in bargaining over a new car or seeing a physician about a persistent fever or headache, is just not there. The idea of being an advocate for oneself in the classroom in an effort to get every drop of help the teacher can provide is simple not part of the consciousness. It’s like saying to a doctor approaching with a giant syringe filled with a bubbling green liquid of unknown qualities,“In my arm or in my butt?”

I am just flirting with this idea for now but this passivity makes me wonder if all of the things I associate with half-baked teaching are really ultimately traced to low expectations by students.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’d like class to start with the understanding that I know the case and I know the black letter rules.....The second thing that occurred to me is that I am not sure why students do not want that to be what goes on."

I think the assumption (first sentence) is wrong, leading to the faulty conclusion. Maybe most professors can get the black letter from the book easily but the average student I'm teaching cannot.

My experience is that students want to be challenged and want more than just the black letter, but that they have a very difficult time organizing their thoughts and understanding of different key concepts.

At least that's what my exam grading tells me - I have many exams with a smattering of the black letter rules spread out in a manner that shows a lack of core understanding of what those rules actually mean.

5/05/2008 8:10 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

You are certainly right about what actually happens. I wonder if "cannot" really means "will not" given that they know they will not have to.

I am not sure it has to be that way. In contracts, I could refer students to a number of sources for the black letter rules. In fact there aren't that many.

In antitrust, on the other hand, it would be quite difficult and I agree. So many a better of way of saying who my favorite teacher would be is that he or she would not waste time telling what I can find out on my own. I only need him or her for things I cannot get on my own. My basic point remains that students seem to take a passive role.

5/05/2008 10:22 AM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

My guess is that much of this mutual frustration emerges from the fact that the student who became a professor is unrepresentative of the typical student, for several possible reasons: (1) a tendency to be more intellectually curious and, typically, more capable of comprehending the basics on her own; (2) often attending a more elite school; (3) graduating in a different educational culture and into a different professional market.

The common ground, perhaps, is that both view one objective of the classroom to be training for success. The professor, though, is convinced that this is achieved by imparting thinking skills and more sophisticated expertise. The student, on the other hand, is less able to perceive these benefits (and less inclined to believe in them), and regards success as a painless way of achieving a credential -- which naturally biases one toward something that has the appearance (putting aside grade curves) of combining low work, low anxiety, and high grades.

5/05/2008 11:35 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/05/2008 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I basically agree, Jeff, but I think an instructor can add serious value in an additional way. Not only should the teacher ask hard questions, but she should also show how the parts -- the daily cases and doctrines -- fit together. Synthesis and big-picture making, in other words.

5/06/2008 7:27 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Yes, I think so too. I guess where that would come in would be after the student questions. At that point the professor knows what the student is missing and begins to ask things like how one thing is related to another, etc., hopefully leading to that magic moment of "getting it." I am of course talking about pie in the sky ideas.

5/07/2008 11:45 AM  

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