Sunday, December 16, 2018

Preparing for Class


I’ve written already about constructing syllabi and choosing readings for my legal history courses; today I’m going to focus on how I prepare for class. (This may all be obvious for many readers, and much of it is not specific to American legal history, but I hope that readers with little or no teaching experience may find it of some interest. I know when I was first prepping my own courses, I was extremely curious about how everyone else did it, and I benefited from many colleagues’ generous advice.) 

Prepping my first classes out of graduate school required a giant shift in perspective. After years of narrowly focusing my attention on the details of American administrative law and politics, I needed to figure out big themes through which to tell the story of American legal history over many centuries. I also needed to figure out how to balance big ideas and granular detail in each day’s class. My dissertation adviser, Bill Novak, had been exactly right when he told me that I should think about my oral exam lists as setting me up to teach classes in that field, and it was a relief to remember that I had taken detailed notes on a wide array of books and articles during my preparation for oral exams years earlier. (I even had outlines—I had adapted my law school outlining technique to help me organize my thoughts for my oral exams.) My notes alone were often insufficient, of course, since they were largely focused on historiographical questions, but even just knowing which books I could go back to was a huge help. 

For a broader perspective, I repeatedly turned to Kermit Hall and Peter Karsten’s The Magic Mirror: Law in American History and Lawrence Friedman’s A History of American Law in order to step back and see what broad themes these scholars had identified in American legal history. While I may quarrel with some aspects of these books, I find their focus on the forest, not just the trees, very useful for thinking about finding entry points into often dense material. 

Also useful for seeing broad themes were notes I’d taken as a law student in Richard Ross’s course on Colonial American Law and notes I’d taken as a TA for courses including Bill Novak’s U.S. Legal History class and Gerald Rosenberg’s Constitutional Law class. I could see in my notes even years later that the most successful lectures were organized around a single big idea, illustrated with concrete examples and then complicated and challenged through counterexamples. (I even still have my handwritten notes for many college history courses, but deciphering my college handwriting was perhaps a bridge too far.) Graduate students reading this—take good (typed!) notes, and save them! You never know what might be helpful in the future. 

Figuring out how to balance the big ideas with the granular details is, of course, always the challenge. Early on, I assigned too much reading, and included too many details in my lectures, largely out of terror that I would run out of things to say. As I became more comfortable teaching, I pulled back some (a lot, actually) to give students more time to engage with the readings and examples I did provide. 

Some other habits I’ve adopted to make class preparation easier (again, these are probably old hat for many of you, but they are things I wish I’d known to do when I started teaching):

I keep fairly extensive lecture notes, organized with bullet points into outlines so I can easily see where I am on the page. I don’t bother with full sentences, but I include the broad point I wanted to make, the examples/details/statistics I’ll need to read off the page, the questions I want to ask students about the readings, and the specific quotes from the reading I want them to discuss. I know that I can get through exactly four and a half pages of my notes (single-spaced, 12 point font) in 80 minutes. (Only recently did I figure out how great it would be to increase the font size before printing.) I also know that from experience I will not be able to get through more no matter how much I want to or how quickly I talk.  This is really helpful to know when I’m writing new lectures. (I’ve also starting using my lecture note format when I give conference papers; it allows me to be somewhat more relaxed in style, while presenting in a format I’m used to doing multiple times a week.) 

As soon as a syllabus is finalized and handed out, I save a copy as “future syllabus 3XX” and add notes to it (moving or removing certain cases that just don’t work with a particular day’s material, noting at the top that I need to spend more time on A, B, or C, etc.) I know I’m not going to remember the details of why something didn’t work a year, or years, later, but it’s easy to go back to my office and simply move an assigned reading from one day to another. It’s also a file where I can paste citations, links, and stray thoughts (like “do a better job explaining negligence” or “read this article before teaching Lochner again”) to deal with later.

Further, when I run across something online that I think might be interesting to use in one of my classes someday (an image, a newspaper article, a Legal History Blog reference to a new book or journal article, a digital history project, someone else’s syllabus or reading list, a tweet with a great piece of teaching advice), I immediately save it with Google Keep (which lives in my browser and requires a single click; Evernote also works for this.) Evernote and Google Keep (and probably a dozen more similar programs) store all kinds of materials and allow you to tag your materials as you like. I’ve created tags for each of the different classes I teach or might teach (as well as ones for various research projects I’m working on, restaurant recommendations, travel ideas, etc.). I’ll tag a link as soon as I save it, with whatever fits (the same article might be of use in Legal History since 1850, Gender and the Law, and Constitutional Law). Some of these classes I might not be teaching again for a few years, but when I’m starting to think about ordering materials and revising the syllabus for that class, I have a giant head start. It’s also a great way to keep track of the teaching tips and interesting assignments people tweet about that can be almost impossible to find weeks or months later.

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