A Year of Reading

By: Jennifer Babcock, Associate Professor of Law, Golden Gate University School of Law

Professor Helen Kang, my colleague and the director of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate Law, frequently tells students that to improve their writing, they need to read more. I’ve heard her say this many times. I believe in this message – it’s a widely supported idea – and I’ve adopted the message, sharing it with my own students regularly.

But did I follow it? Not really. My reading was sporadic and without reflection. My reading habits were more like everyone else’s. According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, the median American reads four books (in whole or in part) per year. Last January, after a dinner with Professor Kang and two other colleagues, in which everyone talked of recent books they’d read, I endeavored to prioritize reading.

I started reading immediately and kept track. I read daily, making use of my long train commute. Having naturally gravitated to non-fiction in the past, I introduced variety by alternating fiction and non-fiction books. I selected books on all manner of personal and professional interests. I worked through my pre-existing book pile at home. If a title was referenced on a professional listserv, I’d find it and read it. If an author discussed her new novel on an evening talk show, I’d purchase it and place in the cue.

By the end of 2018, I had read 65 books. The results of my project were good in every way. A significant outcome was sharing the benefits of reading with my students – whether improved writing or something else like expanded knowledge, increased vocabulary, or reduced stress.

So, what did a year of reading do for me as a teacher? The following are key takeaways and how they impacted my teaching.

I gained credibility in compelling students to read. Winning buy-in from students that reading is important was much easier when I demonstrated that I read a lot myself. By far the best outcome of my increased reading was the credibility gained by being a person who practices what she teaches. Upon telling my incoming first-year students about my reading goal, their curiosity was struck. Throughout the term, they asked: How many titles had I read? What title was my favorite? What did I recommend for their winter break reading? It seemed they were internalizing the merits of reading.

I had extra support for the principles I taught. The writing and research skills I teach in my course are thoroughly covered in textbooks and other course tools. Last year, I also brought my extra reading into the classroom. Anytime my reading overlapped with a subject covered in class, I mentioned it. For example, when students created personalized checklists for their memo assignment, I pointed to the medical field’s use of checklists described by Atul Gawande in Checklist Manifesto. The extra support substantiated skills students were learning and served to cast our course work in additional ways with the effects of making the “why” and the “how” of the course work more meaningful and more reachable.

I acquired an entry point of discussion for tough topics with my students. Law school is a challenging undertaking for anyone. Many of my students are minorities and/or first-generation college graduates. As such, they often grapple with circumstances that are not readily apparent or easy to broach, such as imposter syndrome and feeling like they are not fitting in. I read books about these topics and increased my knowledge and vocabulary about these issues. In individual conversations, I used my new vocabulary to help students identify circumstances that were making law school extra challenging for them. Just having the books around my office supplied an entry point for important conversations.   

I had more things to talk about with more people. Being able to talk about a variety of topics with other people is helpful in almost any profession. This is true for new attorneys, at a minimum, when networking for employment or business development. I shared with students, especially those who self-identify as introverted, that increasing my reading made an enormous contribution to my conversations with others. I had few conversations in which one or more of the books I’d read did not intersect with the discussion or inform my comments. Reading more made all my conversations better.

These takeaways strengthened my teaching and made prioritizing reading worthwhile. Moreover, other outcomes formed benefits students could appreciate. Reading decluttered my brain at the end of a work day. It served as an escape during the noisy, stressful commute period. My reading pace increased. It felt great to donate lots of books to the Little Free Library on my street and share my project with neighbors.

I always knew Professor Kang’s message about reading was good advice for students. Now I’ve observed how her message is also good advice for teachers.

What good books have you read lately, and how do they enrich your teaching? Share your ideas at [email protected]

Share our content!

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!

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!

A Few Thoughts on Providing Written Comments on Student Work

By: Professor Luellen Curry

As a Legal Writing professor, commenting on student papers is one of my primary tasks. It is an essential teaching tool, but not one that always comes easily or naturally. I’ve found over the years that it has been a continual learning experience for me, one that I hope has resulted in improvement over time.

I’d like to share a few insights on commenting. I’ve gleaned many of these from colleagues; others I’ve developed through trial and error. Note that effective commenting can not only take the form of written comments delivered either electronically or on a hard copy, but also live feedback delivered during a student conference. It is even possible now to combine written and verbal feedback, as Professor Abigail Perdue interestingly described in Listen Up: The Advantages of Audio Commenting. My focus in this post is on written comments, but some of the advice translates to live verbal feedback as well. Continue reading “A Few Thoughts on Providing Written Comments on Student Work”

Share our content!

Teaching Technophiles to Collaborate

By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue

Millennials are so named because they were the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. According to a 2010 Pew Center survey, technology use is the number one factor that makes Millennials unique. In Teaching and Reaching Millennials: Fresh Perspectives from an Insider, I explored specific ways to adapt law school pedagogy to the characteristics most commonly attributed to Millennials so as to better prepare these “digital natives” to exceed the expectations of their (mostly) non-Millennial supervisors.[1] Similarly, in Gen Z Goes to Law School: Teaching and Reaching Students in the Post-Millennial Generation, my esteemed colleague, Professor Laura Graham, notes that Gen Zers, who were born between 1995 and 2010, are likewise “saturated with technology.” Yet unlike Millennials, Gen Zers generally dislike collaborative work. This interesting research on generational theory spurred me to develop an exercise that would teach my technophile students how to use technology to meaningfully collaborate. Continue reading “Teaching Technophiles to Collaborate”

Share our content!