Embracing Online Teaching with a Growth Mindset

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. Continue reading “Embracing Online Teaching with a Growth Mindset”

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Hindsight is 20-20: Perspectives on COVID-19 Course Interruption from a Law Professor in China

By: Professor Ray Campbell (Peking University School of Transnational Law) with contributions by Professor Abigail Perdue

My school, the Peking University School of Transnational Law, and the city that hosts us, Shenzhen, China, both like to claim a reputation for innovation. This spring, we’ve been innovating in online education, just a step ahead of the rest of the world, but only because the COVID-19 pandemic hit China hard and early. As many U.S. law schools are only now transitioning to online education, I’ve decided to share the perspective of a law professor who is just a few steps further down the road with regard to COVID-related course interruption.

Just Do It. Before we went online, the folks at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, which has run a pathbreaking online program for a few years under ABA observation, were kind enough to meet with us virtually. They had spent a tremendous amount of time (18 months in fact!) thinking through various ways to make online education just as effective as in person teaching and to do it in an auditable way. During this time, they had slowly and thoughtfully developed comprehensive matrices, learning goals, and more.

Their process was impressive, but my first thought was, “There’s no way can I do this in the time allowed.” After all,  my first class was just a few days away, and I still wasn’t sure how to navigate Zoom competently. I feared being the slightly higher tech version of the professors from my youth who couldn’t figure out how to turn the slide projector on!

That may be where you find yourself now. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can tell you — don’t worry — you and your students will figure it out. No matter how hard I work at being a good teacher, the students substantially learn or don’t learn largely based on their own efforts and engagement. My class performance is just one component in a much bigger educational formula – i.e., reading the text, taking notes, listening, talking with classmates, reviewing hornbooks and supplements, using various self-assessment quizzes, and so on.

So no matter how gifted you are as a teacher, don’t forget that your students must take ownership for their education. They learn on their own as much as we teach them, and marginal deviations in your teaching performance caused by unforeseeable circumstances may not matter all that much in the long run. Clarify what they are expected to learn and don’t obsess over the small glitches, which are inevitable.

Think about Your Objectives. Take this unprecedented teaching moment to recalibrate. Consider what you really want to achieve in the class. If you teach the same class from the same podium year after year, it’s easy to become fixated on the minute details rather than the big picture. Online learning disrupts that script and provides an opportunity for change.  Let go of how you’ve always done things while hanging tight to your core learning objectives.

Embrace the Differences. During this thought-provoking process, you’ll probably realize, just as I did, that much of what you  already do in class can be done just as easily online. For example, if you teach with powerpoint, just use Zoom’s wonderful “share screen” feature to virtually share your slides with the class. You can put students on screen and have them answer in a Socratic fashion if that’s your style. You can even draw on a whiteboard if you have the right kind of touchpad.

However, there are a few things you can do online that you cannot do in class. Take advantage of these unique learning opportunities! For example, the anonymizing feature enables students who might be too shy to raise a hand in class to type an anonymous question and put their question in the Q&A flow while the class proceeds. The microphone I use makes me easier to hear than in a large lecture hall, and Zoom even permits students to download a video of each class with a transcript! Embrace the positive differences that online teaching can offer.

Based on nearly a decade of participating in Law Without Walls online, I have also decided to bring in virtual guest panelists. Different ‘thought leaders’ can  address our class topic from different perspectives. Zoom’s chat feature allows an ongoing commentary on the presentations so students and panelists can interject their own insights, share links to additional resources, and more.

So be creative. Try something new. Experiment with the platform.

Remember the Student’s Situation. This is a life-altering experience for you and your students.  It is hard to overstate how stressful and disruptive it can be. They’ve gone from seeking employment and internships in a booming economy to looking for work in an uncertain world.  For third years, the celebration and closure events that usually come at the end of school probably won’t happen this year, disappointing those who were very much looking forward to enjoying those milestone moments with family and friends.

Then there is the issue of being effectively restricted to a house or apartment, perhaps alone, which has been the situation in China for months now and may be the situation for much of the U.S. quite soon. It can be hugely psychologically disorienting to be sent home from school to live under what amounts to house arrest, sometimes with others are also under immense physical and mental stress. People are under tremendous strain, socially and emotionally.

So what can you do about that? Be accessible, warm, and empathetic. Look for creative ways to create and preserve a sense of community. Take some time to tell them about your life. Let them see your pets or those sharing your space. Invite students to a virtual coffee or non-class-related chat session. This goes a long way to create a tiny sense of community in an increasingly isolated and dispersed world. Simply put, be human.  Don’t succeed at the analytical level and blow it at the human level.

 

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Six Strategies for Successful Online Learning

By: Professor Susan Landrum (NOVA Southeastern University )

Many law schools have made an abrupt shift from face-to-face to online instruction in the past week in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and more will be joining them in the upcoming days. These changes can be stressful for law students, and it is hard to stay focused on your studies in times of uncertainty. Today, I want to focus on six key strategies you can use for successful online learning. Implementing these strategies will help you get the most out of your studies, stay focused and motivated, and make sure that you continue to make progress on your academic and professional goals. And there is an added bonus – taking charge of your academic plan can also help reduce your stress in an uncertain time. Continue reading “Six Strategies for Successful Online Learning”

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Creating a COVID-19 Contingency Plan for Potential Course Interruption

By: Abigail Perdue[1]

As communities across the country brace for the potential impact of COVID-19, law professors must contemplate how to handle COVID-19-related course interruption. This kind of pandemic planning is particularly pressing for professors in small, experiential courses because they are likelier to involve collaborative group work and lengthy one-on-one conferences between professors and students. Given our current understanding of how COVID-19 likely spreads, such activities may pose a greater risk of COVID transmission unless certain precautions are taken.

Although our understanding of COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, the latest information appears to indicate that the virus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes. An infected person’s cough or sneeze expels droplets carrying COVID-19, which may land on another person’s nose or mouth or on a nearby inanimate object like a computer mouse or door handle.[2] Unless and until those objects are properly disinfected, COVID-19 can survive on them for an unknown length of time. And that is exactly how long those objects will be a potential source of contagion unless disinfected. Anyone who touches the object and then touches their nose or face risks becoming infected.

In light of these concerns, law professors may wish to contemplate small measures they can take to keep their law school communities healthy and to limit potential course interruption caused by COVID-19. Below is a non-exhaustive list of ideas: Continue reading “Creating a COVID-19 Contingency Plan for Potential Course Interruption”

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Politics and Prose: How Encouraging Thoughtful Political Discourse May Preempt Political Discrimination

By: Abigail Perdue (Wake Forest School of Law)

The United States has become or (perhaps more cynically) has always been a hotbed of discrimination on the basis of political ideology and affiliation. Increasingly, those discriminatory attitudes permeate every facet of society from romantic relationships to hiring. In recent years, one cannot turn on the television or read the newspaper without being bombarded with politically charged persuasive rhetoric masked as objective news reporting. Yet too rarely do discussions regarding inclusion and diversity address the value of having distinct political perspectives in the classroom.

Nor is it uncommon for online dating profiles to advise Republicans or Democrats to “swipe left,” presumably based on deeply rooted stereotypes regarding the kind of mate a person of that political affiliation will be. And there’s good reason to believe that at least some employers snoop on social media to learn about applicants’ political ideology and activity. It is not hard to imagine a Democrat moving an applicant’s resumé to the bottom of the pile if it lists membership in the Young Republicans or the Federalist Society, or alternatively, a Republican declining to interview an applicant whose public Instagram page showcases the applicant fundraising for a Democratic candidate. As we enter yet another election cycle, which promises to be as contentious as the last, it is important to consider these questions and their implications for our students, both now and in the future.

Indeed, the realities of political discrimination in legal education hit home for me when a student emailed to say that she would be unable to attend our Thursday afternoon class because she was attending a once-in-a-lifetime political event with a close friend who had scored incredibly hard-to-get tickets to attend it. The student was naturally excited, but during the exchange that ensued, it seemed clear that the student would not be sharing the specific reason for her absence with some of her classmates or professors in part because she felt that it would not be well received. Put differently, she feared falling victim to political discrimination.

Not long after, two different students met with me to discuss judicial clerkships. The first expressed sincere concern that anything in her resumé that signaled political ideology, even the topic of her writing sample, might bar her from getting the position. The second flatly stated that he would only apply to Democratic judges who had been appointed by Democratic Presidents.

Whether you characterize these behaviors as thoughtful decisions, benign political preferences, or downright discrimination, they’re concerning for the future of our country (at least to me). After all, if citizens cannot cross the boardroom or Bumble site to meaningfully engage with people whose political ideology is different from their own, then how can we expect that bipartisan, mature, collaborative behavior from the political leaders we elect. And if Americans can’t work together, America will fall apart.

With these troublesome concerns percolating in my mind, I began to consider my role and perhaps, responsibility, as a law professor to help address this pressing issue. I teach effective oral and written communication to diverse audiences. Doesn’t fostering thoughtful exchanges between people with competing ideology fall squarely into that domain? Thus, I (reluctantly) dug into this issue, which is arguably mired in controversy and definitely out of my comfort zone. Drawing on my past experience as an employment litigator, I investigated this curious question more deeply, and what I found might surprise you.

In most states and localities, political discrimination, benign or otherwise, is perfectly legal in the private sector. Indeed, federal anti-discrimination statutes like Title VII, the ADA, and ADEA do not explicitly preserve a person’s right to be free of employment discrimination on the basis of political beliefs, affiliation, or ideology. Yet states and localities may enact anti-discrimination legislation that is more, but not less, protective than their federal counterparts, and New York has done just that.  New York Labor Law 201-d prohibits covered employers from discriminating against covered employees and applicants for: “an individual’s political activities outside of working hours, off of the employer’s premises and without use of the employer’s equipment or other property, if such activities are legal . . .”

With this background in mind, I created an exercise about political discrimination that would simultaneously serve as a vehicle to instill strong research, writing, editing, and analytical skills (among other things). With complete awareness that I was treading in dangerous waters, I aimed to strike a delicate balance. Pointing a finger at one party or another would be polarizing, not unifying.

Accordingly, I set the problem in New York where the owner of the Red Dragon Inn (Daenerys Targaryen), a staunch “Republocrat,” had recently learned that a waitress, Sansa, at the Inn was fundraising for a “Demopublican” candidate in her free time on the weekends. Although Sansa had not previously had any performance issues, Daenerys now felt that Sansa was not a good “fit” for the Inn given her political leanings, which might “put off” the Inn’s “mostly Republocrat” clientele. As a result, Daenerys wanted to terminate Sansa’s employment and replace her with a Republocrat. However, out of an abundance of caution, Daenerys had reached out to our law firm to determine if she could lawfully do so in New York.

Given that this was a first-time pedagogical experiment, I didn’t want my students to be wading through this issue for weeks on end, given that it could be a huge fail. So I limited the issue to a timed exercise on which they would spend a single ninety-minute session. During the next class, we reflected on what they had learned during the exercise, and some shared their thoughts regarding why political discrimination should be permitted or not. Several were surprised that Sansa’s political activity was not already federally protected. It was a productive, fruitful discussion celebrating diverse voices. Although the students had different backgrounds and political affiliations, they seemed unified in the collective sentiment that they should be free to possess and express their beliefs without fear of political discrimination.

Given the success of the exercise, the next year, I expanded the problem into a full-length memo on which we spent several weeks. Again, it fueled rich and illuminating discussions about political discrimination, a topic that many students had not previously considered. This pedagogical experiment was only the first step in my “curiosity voyage”[1] regarding political discrimination, which I will more deeply explore in a forthcoming law review article.

Have you ever tried to address a controversial problem of our time in your classes? How did you handle it? Was your pedagogical experiment worth the risk? Share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just publish them.

 

 

[1] A delicious phrase borrowed from Mr. Clarke on Stranger Things (Netflix).

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