By: Professor Abigail Perdue (Wake Forest)
It’s that season again – that crazy-making time of year when Legal Writing professors across the country gear up to survive a marathon of student conferences. This year, I’ll be enduring a whirlwind tour of 22 forty-minute conferences in five days (in other words, a whopping 880 minutes of contact hours) all while providing feedback on over 374 pages of student work product! (And that’s just for my 2Ls . . .) Here are a few tips to make conferences run more smoothly at any time of year:
- Pace yourself: Caffeination will only get you so far. It’s important to spread out your conferences through the conference period so that each student gets meaningful feedback. While you might be tempted to power through twelve conferences on a Friday because that is the one day you don’t teach class and will give students more time to work on their drafts, it is unlikely that you will have the same energy and enthusiasm in conference twelve as you possessed during your first, fresh-eyed conference of the day. In addition, if you provide advance feedback, you will have to read all twelve memos or briefs in the same period, seriously limiting the amount of time you can devote to each one. This strategy probably isn’t the best for you or your students, so know your limits and pace yourself. If you plan to provide advance feedback, then require students to submit their work to you in a reasonable period of time, such as 48 hours before the conference. This will vary depending on the length and complexity of the exercise and the number of conferences you will have each day.
- Respect students’ time: Forty minutes or even an hour passes in a flash, but out of fairness to other students and respect for their time, it’s important to stay on track. To avoid appearing distracted by glancing at the clock during a conference, I set my phone to Do Not Disturb and then set a timer when the conference begins. I let students know what I’m doing and why. Silence your phone. Put away your laptop. Be mindful, present, and engaged. The timer will tell you and your student when time is up.
- Plan ahead: Aim to provide students with your conference dates and times at least two weeks before any draft will be due so that they can plan their drafting schedules accordingly. Give them a reasonable period of time by which to sign up for a conference and a clear cut-off date so that you can finalize your conference schedule reasonably in advance. This will ensure better quality drafts and avoid eleventh hour requests for conference scheduling changes.
- Set clear expectations: State your conferencing policies clearly in your Syllabus and email them out as a reminder to students a few days before each conference week. For example, my Syllabus indicates where conferences will occur and how students should ideally prepare for a productive conference. Specifically, I encourage them to review any written feedback in advance of our meeting and list their questions from most to least important. The Policy also advises students to bring two hard copies of the draft to our meeting as well as any other materials the student would like to review, such as cases, the Record, etc. The Syllabus should also explain under what circumstances you will reschedule conferences, when drafts are due if advance feedback is requested, penalties for missing a draft submission deadline, etc. Transparency, clarity, and notice are critical.
- Explain the why: Take the time to explain the reasoning behind your conferencing policy. For example, I explain to students that I require them to bring everything they wish to discuss to the conference so that we need not waste time locating and printing materials to which we must necessarily refer. In turn, this enables us to devote 100% of our time together to answering their questions and discussing my feedback. In other words, their preparedness promotes our productivity, which ultimately benefits them. It also cultivates good habits that their future supervisors and clients will likely expect and appreciate.
- Provide incentives: Unfortunately, humans often need tangible incentives to promote best practices. So a few years ago, I added an APP grade to my writing courses to reward attendance, participation, and professionalism. One of the things that the professionalism grade takes into account is conference conduct. Not only is the APP grade explained in the Syllabus, but I also discuss it in class before the first set of conferences. I emphasize that unprofessional conference conduct, such as arriving late, being unprepared, or being disrespectful, will adversely impact the professionalism grade. I further advise students that they are expected to behave just as professionally with their TAs as with me and that their TAs will email me professionalism notes after each set of student conferences to report any egregiously unprofessional behavior that could warrant an APP ding.
- Be intentional: Determine your pedagogical goals at the outset of an exercise and provide a conferencing experience that will best satisfy those goals. Perhaps a goal of your first conference is to build relationships, so you may allot more time for small talk at the beginning or end. Perhaps you want students to understand what your comments mean, so you might provide live feedback that will enable you to explain the basis for the comment with the student in person. Later in the semester, you may wish to foster more independence and less oversight in drafting, so you may wish to provide a shorter conference time or fewer comments. In short, be intentional. Not all exercises aim to achieve the same pedagogical goals. Nor do all conferences.
- Offer, don’t impose: My first student conference is mandatory because it’s my chance to get to know students better outside the classroom and to explain the basis for my commenting style. Thereafter, conferencing with me is optional. This is a dramatic change from my first few years of teaching when I firmly believed that conferencing was the most important part of teaching whether students realized that or not. As a result, I made every conference for every exercise mandatory. What were the end results of this arguably draconian measure? Unprepared students. Incomplete drafts. Heightened resistance to feedback. Embittered feelings of disempowerment. Wasted time and energy. Mental and physical exhaustion on my part and theirs. Over time, I realized that law students need and appreciate choice. Now I require one conference both to satisfy departmental policy and to hopefully demonstrate the tremendous benefits of conferencing. After that, it’s up to the students to avail themselves of these opportunities or not. What result? Stronger relationships. More preparedness. Happier students. More productive conferences. Less resistance to feedback. Better outcomes. Time well spent.
How do you promote productive conferences? Share your good ideas at [email protected], and we might just post them.