June 10, 2011
Great advice for a rookie
Posted by Gillian Hadfield

I want to endorse Usha's advice to rookie law professors, especially those of us who don't look like Kingsfield.  You must project authority--as Usha's mentor said, very accurately, they want to know that the bus is being driven by someone who knows what he or she is doing up there.  And some of the techniques I use do require you to have the confidence to handle a class even after you've given up significant control--students want you to tell them how to answer problems and resist getting in there and mucking it up.  They will try to make you feel that you are doing a bad job because you don't give them the algorithm for getting the "right" answer.  So teaching like this does require an even greater dose of confidence--and a willingness to take risks.  I have been teaching like this for twenty years; and I know now how to handle the predictable responses.  But I"ve withstood some pretty tough criticism from anxious 1Ls along the way as I've perfected my course design and techniques--worst was as a visitor at a law school where students just could not believe that what I was doing was proper teaching because no other class at the school was taught like this.  (And I failed to teach the mailbox rule--it having fallen to my winnowing blade--who knew law students were sure that if you didn't teach them the mailbox rule you were depriving them of essential knowledge?) But there's no way to develop your skill--in any type of teaching--without getting out there and taking your lumps.  Unfortunately, I think we have law school classes in which law professors exercise huge control over the way discussions proceed precisely because even experienced teachers have come to manage the risks inherent in being in front of 80 smart and anxious students in this way.  It's not bad advice to try out new techniques in small doses at first--in fact, in the very first Contracts class I taught, some 20 years ago, I used teams and problems.  I can't recall now how many or for what share of the grade, but I don't remember a disaster.  At least no more than my fledgling efforts to conduct discussion of Hamer v Sidway.  If I was going to advise one starting change, it would be change the structure of the final exam and give students a problem mid-way through the semester, to work on in teams, that has the same structure.  Post all memos, conduct a class discussion or two to get them talking group to group about their approaches, and do lots of written feedback also posted on each memo.  If you're nervous, don't grade it or grade it but don't count it.  You'll learn a lot about teaching from doing this and they'll be grateful for the sustained attention during the semester to what it is you are planning to evaluate them on in the final.

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