Friday, December 21, 2018

Classroom Discussions

I last wrote about writing lectures and preparing for class; today I’m going to focus on how I spend my time in the classroom.

As my earlier posts suggest, I use primary sources in the classroom as much as possible. I learned to teach this way in graduate school at the University of Chicago, where I was a teaching assistant, and then an instructor, in (what was then) the America in Western Civilization sequence. I really enjoyed leading small seminars in which students discussed primary sources, and when I began teaching larger courses, I tried to use this approach as much as possible. Now I teach most of my classes through a mix of lecture and discussion—I lecture for a bit, then stop and ask students to reflect on one of the assigned sources, then lecture, then discuss another source, etc. The balance between lecture and discussion shifts a little every day, depending on how many sources I’ve assigned, and how rich those sources are. Obviously this takes experimentation, and early on I assigned way too many sources so that I wouldn’t run out of things to discuss. As I had a better sense of how much students have to say (and how much they want to say) about different sources, I scaled back the assigned materials accordingly. I find that (most, or at least enough) students will do the reading if they know they are accountable for it, so I do want to leave enough time to cover each source I assigned. 

On the first day of class I model what I want discussion to look like going forward. I pass out a copy of a primary source, ask the students to take a few minutes to read it, and then we work through it as a class. In the first half of the survey, I hand out a selection of provisions from the Lawes Devine, Morall, and Martiall (Va. 1611) and ask students what they can figure out from the text. (I often call for volunteers to read various sections aloud—it means less of me talking, and allows students to participate in a different way.) Provisions prescribing whipping or (mostly) death for a range of crimes, many focused on threats to the food and water supply, are short and straightforward to read. Asking students to discuss what the source does and does not tell us, and what it suggests about conditions in early Virginia, works well to get students engaged with source analysis and sets them up to do this on their own at home. In the second half of the survey, I’ve sometimes started the course by asking the class to engage in a very close reading of the Fourteenth Amendment—a very different source, but one we’ll come back to again and again in that class.

A tangent: I really like using colonial American legal materials in class, not least because they’re generally so short and incomplete. They’re also usually free of formal legal jargon that can confuse undergraduates. Cases about drunkenness and fornication that are only a few sentences long are easy to read, but require students to use what they’ve learned in class as they puzzle over possible reasons why X received a lighter sentence than Y. They also require students to acknowledge that there’s a huge amount of information that they just don’t have. This serves them well as the sources get longer and more complex in later weeks. 

I require students to bring the assigned primary sources (on paper or electronically) to each class so that we all have the text in front of us during discussion. I also try to make it very clear to students how to read these sources. I have written up guides for reading primary sources and secondary sources (which I post in our course management system); I also assign Orin Kerr’s article “How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students,” Green Bag 11 (Autumn 2007), which does a good job walking students through some of the technicalities. I use Powerpoint sparingly, for lecture outlines and for images, but I do often include the questions I plan to ask about a particular document on a slide, to give students a minute or so to think through some answer. 

A practical note: I have used this approach successfully in classes as large as about 80. Even at that size, there’s enough time for a significant percentage of the students to speak every day, and everyone can participate pretty frequently. (I incentivize this, of course, by awarding points for class participation and by rather theatrically jotting down each student’s name in my notes as they talk.) As I have learned the hard way, of course, classroom design plays a crucial role here. Some classrooms on my campus are arranged so that students can all see and hear one another; in others, the acoustics are such that I end up having to repeat all student comments to the group. 

I’ll also take the opportunity to share one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for teaching small seminars: start each class by going around the room and asking each student to say what they want to talk about that day. (Some people do this by passing around a stopwatch and letting each student speak for no more than one minute; I do not time them, but I have found that undergraduates tend not to go on at great length. One might find a timer helpful, however, in a law school or graduate school seminar.) Students know they have to come to class each day prepared with something to talk about, and it’s fascinating to see at the beginning of class what they’ve drawn from the readings. It also means that fifteen minutes into class, each student has already participated. Students are generally going to mention topics or issues you had already planned to talk about, but it is easy to give students credit for their ideas (and bring quieter students back into discussion) by saying things like “as Rex said” or “let’s move to the question Roscoe raised.” 

In my next post, I'll discuss the assignments I use in my legal history courses.