New Year, New Perspectives

By: Professor Drew Simshaw, Visiting Associate Professor of Law, Legal Practice, Georgetown University Law Center

Teach the students, not the course.

As a new legal writing professor, I have sought and received lots of good advice over the last few years.  One piece of advice I received this fall has had a particularly powerful impact on my lesson planning, feedback approach, and teaching philosophy as I begin my second semester teaching legal writing.

The advice was: “Teach the students, not the course.”

For veteran educators, this sentiment might not be new.  After all, its message isn’t profound or complicated.  Essentially, it recognizes that even with the best of intentions, what teachers teach isn’t always what students learn.  As a result, the value of covering every topic on the syllabus has to be put into perspective.

To be sure, it is imperative for law professors to provide students with comprehensive exposure to the breadth of complex legal doctrine and skills they need to become well-rounded attorneys and effective advocates.  But at the completion of a class session, semester, or year, our success as teachers should not be measured by how much of the syllabus or textbook we covered.  Rather, it should be measured by how much our students learned.  Sometimes lessons do not go as planned.  Sometimes the students in a class face different challenges than others.  “Teaching the students, not the course” means sometimes taking a step back before you can take the next step forward and being okay with that.

Of course, succeeding in a more flexible class structure like this means knowing when students don’t understand the material and being able to effectively adapt one’s teaching accordingly.  It also means making tough judgment calls when it comes to prioritizing different parts of a course’s intended coverage. 

“Teaching the students, not the course” is not a one-dimensional pedagogical approach; it requires careful curriculum design, attention to measurable learning outcomes, an appreciation of cultural competency, and resiliency.  But when approached comprehensively, colleagues who teach large first-year classes have shared how this philosophy has also impacted their teaching – and their students’ learning – for the better. For example, some professors have decided not to attach topics on their syllabi to specific days, opting to instead provide a list of readings and topics to be covered at the pace that ends up being most appropriate for the particular set of students in the class.  Others have built “open days” into the class schedule to return to topics that need extra attention or to play “catch up” because some classes did not cover as much course material as had been anticipated.  These professors admit that it is sometimes frustrating or uncomfortable to not cover every topic they had hoped to teach in a session or a course, but at the end of the day, they say that students’ comprehension of the material that was covered makes it worth it.

I’ll admit, I was somewhat skeptical about how this philosophy would translate to a legal writing course.  After all, legal writing professors can’t, for example, just drop oral advocacy from the syllabus because students need more time learning to draft an effective persuasive Statement of Facts.  Moreover, the course’s frequent deadlines limit the amount of calendar shuffling we can reasonably undertake without driving our students and ourselves crazy.  Still, I have found “teach the students, not the course” to be incredibly helpful advice, and I have adopted it as more of a mindset than a strict pedagogical rule.

For example, in the classroom, I have placed greater emphasis on checking in with the students and providing opportunities for questions (including in anonymous form) about any topic we have covered.  This might mean pushing some course material to the next class.  However, that next class often is more effective (and efficient) because students have a better comprehension of the prerequisite material.  On my written and oral feedback on student drafts, I am determined to ensure that my comments acknowledge where students are in their individual progression, not where the rest of the class is or where I want the individual to be.  For instance, if a draft memo is not correctly organized around the elements of the law, it does no good to gear all my comments toward case analogies (even if the rest of the class is focused on case analogies).  Taking a step back from where I am in the syllabus to revisit or reinforce a skill with which a student is struggling is sometimes the only way a student can take a step forward.

Many of these teaching techniques are not new, and are in fact ones that I have used for years in both the clinical and legal writing settings.  Even so, “teach the students, not the course” has proven to be a helpful, all-encompassing mindset that enables me to accomplish many of my classroom goals and also helps me help my students to be the best they can be.  It is the most beneficial advice I have received as a new legal writing professor, and one that I am already passing along to colleagues every chance I get.

What was the most helpful advice you received as a new law professor? Share it at [email protected]

Share our content!

‘Twas the Night Before Finals

By: Abigail Perdue 

Final exams can be daunting for first-year law students. Many of them have never had their grade in a course rest on a single exam or been forced to recall everything they have learned throughout the semester under tight time constraints. Although exam anxiety is natural, it can undermine performance. Thus, to interject some light and levity into the stressful exam period, I send my students the following poetic parody of Clement C. Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas:

Continue reading “‘Twas the Night Before Finals”
Share our content!

Top Tips from Appellate Judges

By Tessa L. Dysart

Originally published in its complete form on the Appellate Advocacy Blog as a reflection on a presentation given at the First Annual Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas.

My presentation was entitled “Top 10 Tips from Appellate Judges.”  As I noted at the start of the presentation, the irony of the topic was not lost on me.  Here I was, a law professor, giving tips from judges to a group of people who had heard from several distinguished appellate judges.  But, as I explained, my tips represented the views of the collective judiciary, culled from my work on the third edition of Winning on Appeal.  For the next several weeks, I am going to share a few of the tips from my presentation.

I started the presentation with the most important, most common, complaint about briefs that we received from judges–that they are just too long.  As one judge put it, “They’re called briefs, not longs.”

Why are overlong briefs so bad?  First, judges have a lot to read. The average federal appellate judge decides about 550 cases a year.  That means reading at least 1000 briefs a year.  If each brief is 50 pages long, that means that judges read at least 50,000 pages of  briefs each year.  Second, long briefs are hard to read in one sitting, which makes it hard for judges to compare arguments between briefs.  Third, judges have finite attention spans.  It is hard to remain excited about reading a long, unfocused brief.

So, how do you cut down your brief?  The judges who responded to our survey for Winning on Appeal had some great tips, two of which I will share here:

  1. “Think first, and edit ruthlessly.”  Think about what you need to prove to win, and orient your entire brief around that point (or points).  What is the “flashpoint of controversy” in the case.  If it is just about applying the law to the facts, don’t spend pages in your brief justifying the legal rule.  Just apply the established rule to your facts.
  2. Avoid needless repetition or extraneous facts.  Again, keep your brief focused on the dispute. Only include materially important facts when describing extraneous cases, and in your statement of facts, don’t go overboard on persuasive and background facts.

Writing a detailed outline before you start typing the argument is one way to keep your argument on track.

This post originally appeared on the Appellate Advocacy Blog, and the author obtained permission to repost it here.

Share our content!

Serving up Seasonal Pedagogy this Thanksgiving

If you are a fan of “seasonal pedagogy” like me, then you’re always looking for creative ways to interject holiday fun into your classroom. This Thanksgiving, “feast” your eyes on the interesting, Thanksgiving-themed cases below:

The Man who Sued Thanksgiving: In Riches v. Thanksgiving, et al., a federal prisoner proceeding pro se brought suit against “Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, Mayflower Movers, Pilgrim Pride, Turkey Hill, Black Friday, Corn on the Cob, [and] the Cleveland Indians” on the ground that Thanksgiving (and apparently, everything even loosely associated with it) “offend[ed] him” and also violated the separation of Church and State. No. C 07-6108, 2007 WL 4591385, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2007). As a result, he sought the trivial sum of $100 million in damages as well as a “restraining order against the celebration of Thanksgiving holidays.” Id. Thankfully (bad pun intended), the court dismissed his claim because the long list of defendants either could not be sued or were private entities not acting under the color of state law. Id. Continue reading “Serving up Seasonal Pedagogy this Thanksgiving”

Share our content!

Honoring our Veterans in the Classroom and Beyond

By: Abigail Perdue

This Veterans Day, Teachlawbetter.com wants to extend a heartfelt thank you to all members of the U.S. military and their families for their outstanding service and tremendous sacrifice. As educators, it is important that we celebrate the courage and dedication of these brave men and women. Here are a few ways that you can use your next class session to honor them:

  1. Have a Moment of Silence: Have a moment of silence at the beginning of your next session in honor of all those who have fallen to secure the freedom that we too often take for granted – the same liberties that we, as attorneys, pledge to respect, preserve, and protect.
  2. Introduce the Veterans Court: If you teach a course on the judiciary, federal courts, etc., use this session to introduce the veterans law system to students, including a discussion of the unique role of the Board of Veterans Appeals (“Board”), U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (“CAVC”), and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The CAVC, which was created in 1988, enjoys exclusive jurisdiction over Board appeals. Although based in Washington, D.C., the CAVC hears cases across the country. It exemplifies the diversity of the judiciary and calls attention to critically important specialty courts about which students may not yet have learned.
  3. Invite a Guest Speaker: Invite a current or former service member, military judge, CAVC judge, JAG attorney, representative from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or a veterans law advocate to speak to your students about the realities of military service, the military justice system, and how they can assist veterans once they enter the practice. Continue reading “Honoring our Veterans in the Classroom and Beyond”
Share our content!