By: Professor Heidi Brown (Brooklyn Law School)
I have a confession: I am incredibly technologically challenged. My Apple TV no longer turns on unless I yank the little black box thingy out of the wall and plug it back in. My Bissell vacuum cleaner won’t stay charged. Every clock in my Brooklyn apartment shows a different time of day. My watch battery is dead. I still have a landline. I would rather converse on my landline than my cell phone . . . that is, if I speak on any phone at all (#introvertproblems). All signs would point to me being the least likely law professor in the universe to be enthusiastic about shifting to online teaching. Yet somehow, I am excited to take on this challenge. I’m eager to figure out a way to help our students navigate these uncertain times in their 1L year, which is already a stressful life experience.
As humans, our souls are affected by the troubling news about the impact of the coronavirus in China, Italy, numerous other countries, and now various parts of the United States, including New York where I teach. While we are grateful for our health and safety, we also naturally might be disappointed about canceled travel plans. (I just nixed my spring break/tenure celebration/pre-50th birthday trip to Rome . . . and I still unexpectedly burst into tears listening to Italian newscasters on my Italian cable station).
As teachers though, this is a pivotal moment for us to model a growth mindset. Do I know how to use Zoom effectively yet? Um, that’s a hard no. Do I usually resist Skype (or any sort of video) calls whenever I can? Um, a resounding yes. But right now, our students need us to step up and provide some level of continuity to their curriculum. So let’s buckle up and do this together.
Many professors already have posted helpful tutorials on listservs and blogs about how to use Zoom effectively. Rather than pretending I have the slightest clue about that technical arena (I don’t, but I will!), I’ll make a few pedagogical suggestions about how we can help our students over the next weeks and possibly months.
- Let’s Model a Growth Mindset: It’s okay for us to admit, as educators, that this is new to us as well and that we are going to do the best job we can at adjusting to a new mode of communication and teaching/learning. We can say out loud to our students, “This is new, and together we are going to be open-minded, take risks, make mistakes, and improve as we go along. We are going to be creative, flexible, and empathetic to one another as we practice novel ways of communicating. And perhaps we can set an example for how future generations of law students, professors, and lawyers can keep momentum going in similar difficult circumstances.”
- Let’s Take Risks as Teachers: Let’s give ourselves permission to not be perfect at this transition. In fact, let’s try multiple vehicles for exchanging information with our students. While an audio-recorded or video-recorded (“asynchronous”) lecture which we subsequently post for our students to watch or listen to might seem like the easiest path, let’s also experiment with live “synchronous” classes. Let’s familiarize ourselves with the features of Zoom, such as screen sharing (which enables us to share a PowerPoint while we speak), polling, Q&A, virtual hand raising (allowing us to call on students to speak), and the ability to annotate a virtual whiteboard.
- Let’s Make Space for New Voices: My passion lies in helping our introverted, shy, and socially anxious students amplify their voices authentically. I am not a big fan of the slogan “fake it till you make it.” I view our shift to online teaching as a tremendous opportunity for us to provide new opportunities for naturally quiet, anxious, or fearful students to shine. Let’s provide at least one online mechanism—Zoom Q&As, chats, forums, virtual hand-raising—to empower students who might otherwise hesitate to speak in a brick-and-mortar classroom to take whatever time they need to articulate their thoughts, ideas, and solutions to problems and then share them (in writing or aloud) with the class. We can decide whether to keep online questions and comments anonymous, but this might be the perfect opportunity to intentionally spotlight the voices of quiet students who might normally get overlooked in an in-person setting but feel empowered to speak up in an online setting. I predict your quiet students will surprise you—in this new arena—with the depth of their thinking.
- Let’s Ask Our Students for Advice: I’ve been grappling with how to re-create lawyering simulations like oral arguments in an online environment. After all, how can we reproduce the dynamic of judges interrupting advocates with questions, and everyone making eye contact and reading body language, when perhaps none of the participants will be sitting in the same room? Here are two ideas.
- First, what if we innovated new oral argument protocols? The United States Supreme Court already adopted a new approach to afford advocates two full minutes to introduce their arguments before judges interrupt with questions. What if we also established a protocol in which judges in online video conferences raise a color-coded card to indicate they have a question? The advocate will see the card, stop, and answer the question. If more than one judge raises the card at the same time, we could have a protocol of the order in which the advocate takes the questions: left-to-right on the screen, right-to-left, etc.
- Second, what if we ask our students for ideas about how to conduct virtual oral arguments? Last month, I attended an inspiring conference at Penn Law in which the organizers invited teams of students to participate in a “hack-a-thon” to brainstorm solutions to the well-being crisis in the legal profession. The results were remarkable. Over the next month, what if we engage law students to participate in a hack-a-thon to construct creative online mechanisms for conducting oral arguments in a way that is most conducive to (1) advocates being heard, (2) judges being able to ask questions but in a way that allows advocates to address one question at a time, (3) timekeepers or the online platform giving visual signals to the advocates as time limits wind down, and (3) two advocates, three judges, and possibly a timekeeper participating from different geographical locations? What if—through this experiment—our students devise a solution for real oral arguments that could then be used as a model for courtrooms nationwide?
- Let’s Be Mindful of Students’ Limited Resources: Given some of our students’ financial stressors and/or family pressures to go home while our nation sorts through this health crisis, not every student will have access to reliable WiFi. Let’s be sure to communicate that (1) we understand this reality and (2) we will make class content and ourselves available through alternate means.
- Let’s Update Our Curriculum to Teach Online Communication Skills: How many of us have participated in frustrating conference calls or online meetings in which the following sequence occurs:
- the dial-in number doesn’t work
- people join late or forget to join
- no one knows where to look into the camera
- participants don’t mute their phones
- there is no agenda
- callers eat, drink, or type near their phones
- multiple competing voices talk over one another
- we hear pets, sirens, GPS instructions, wind, construction noise, or cars honking in the background
- the call exceeds the scheduled time period?
Aggravation central! This is a prime opportunity to teach our students how to be respectful online communicators. In fact, let’s empower our students to lead these types of interpersonal interactions. Let’s teach our students how to prepare substantively, technically, mentally, and physically for online communications. This includes job interviews. Our students might be nervous about job interviews being canceled altogether or conducted online in the face of the coronavirus. We can prepare our students to handle these scenarios with grace and fortitude by teaching them how to (1) suggest online interviews if the law office leans toward canceling, (2) craft and possibly circulate a list of questions in advance, (3) propose a lawyering task they could perform rather than rely solely on a traditional interview Q&A, (4) head off any potential technological glitches, and (5) work the “virtual” room through eye contact and virtual engagement skills.
Overall, the coronavirus—while certainly tragic on a global level—presents an incredible teaching moment. Let’s carry each other. Let’s share ideas. Let’s model empathy. Let’s cultivate a learning environment in which we (and students) can make mistakes, adjust, and improve. Eighteen-and-a-half years ago, when 9/11 happened, law professors and students had to adjust in the throes of grief and fear. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, some fall classes were canceled and again we needed to adapt. Many other life events have affected legal education. We can help our students get through this as well.
I am so grateful to be part of this creative, innovative, and compassionate educational community. My favorite band, U2, offers a great lyric for this moment: “Oh you’ve seen enough to know it’s children who teach.” Our law students are, of course, not children but they are going to teach us through this transition. Let’s meet them where they are and change the world.
Professor Heidi K. Brown is an Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Legal Writing Program at Brooklyn Law School. She is the author of two law student well-being books: The Introverted Lawyer and Untangling Fear in Lawyering. She can be reached at [email protected] and at www.theintrovertedlawyer.com.