On Zeigler: How He Teaches

Posted on Categories Legal Education

Thirty years of law teaching entitles an individual to pause, reflect, and pass along some insights about the craft.  Or so it seems to me.  Professor Donald Zeigler of New York Law School has availed himself of the opportunity by giving American legal education a slim yet rich volume with the three-word title How I Teach (Tribeca Square Press 2008). 

In much smaller print on this paperback’s cover appear the words “Successful techniques for the law school classroom.”  These seven additional words, coupled with the big three, pose something of a paradox.  Together they can be construed to suggest that all or virtually all of law teaching (or perhaps all or virtually all of what Professor Zeigler considers his law teaching) unfolds within the walls of the law school classroom.  In Professor Zeigler’s defense, the seven words do lend themselves to an alternative construction, a construction that conveys the limits and boundaries of his scholarly project.  Quite simply, Zeigler is eager to share with professional colleagues lessons that, presumably, have enabled him to develop into an effective classroom instructor and, also presumably, have enabled his students to extract considerable value from his classroom teaching.  And share he does.  It thus seems fair to cut Zeigler some slack in connection with the ten words he has selected to characterize his project.  Enough said about the volume’s cover, title, and subtitle.

Zeigler tells us early on that his teaching package consists of Civil Procedure, Evidence, and Fed Courts.  (Some of you may stop reading this post on account of the fact passed along in the previous sentence.  Doing so would be unfair–to Zeigler, to me, and, yes, even to you.  Accordingly, kindly resist the temptation, however strong.)  He tells us as well that he typically delivers two of the courses to classes in excess of 100 students.  And he slips into the volume early on that he employs what he refers to as “the traditional case method” or the “so-called Socratic dialogue.”  More later on this last matter.

The three principal sections of the volume find Professor Zeigler sharing insights devoted to (a) the first class session, (b) his preparation for class, and (c) conducting class.  In each section Zeigler provides his peers meaningful nuggets of professional wisdom.  In each section as well Professor Zeigler prompts us to engage in some head scratching and, more implicitly than explicitly, reminds us that choices aplenty exist for the self-reflective instructor.

The volume’s pages devoted to a course’s first session prove comparatively unsurprising.  Zeigler reveals that he begins the opening session by doing what many law teachers do sometime during that session:  work through a range of housekeeping matters (e.g., materials, syllabus, office hours, e-mail address).  But then, we learn, Zeigler does something intriguing.  He spends the remainder of the initial session probing brief hypothetical problems (not cases) that, he maintains, implicate the central themes of the course.  Sounds like a cool strategy for framing the class, mapping the semester, and engaging student interest.  So cool, in fact, that a bit more detail on these hypotheticals could have proven useful.  Left unstated, for instance, is whether students have seen these first-session hypotheticals prior to the session itself.  My reading of this section of the book leads me to conclude not. 

One pair of related items struck me as conspicuously missing from Zeigler’s description of his delivery of the initial class session.  At no point does he confide in readers–or, apparently, in his students–precisely what he expects students to be able to do at the conclusion of the semester that they could not do at the beginning of the semester.  Put differently, and in the jargon of contemporary learning experts, Zeigler appears to refrain from formulating course objectives that range beyond the mastery of doctrine.  Nor, it appears, does Zeigler share with students at the opening session how a particular course he delivers seeks to advance broader institutional objectives, objectives that link Zeigler’s efforts with those of his faculty colleagues.  These omissions likely stem from the fact that Zeigler works at a stand-alone law school and thus has managed to steer clear of the Assessment movement sweeping American higher education these days.  No hint here that any university administrator or law school associate dean has threatened Zeigler with thumbscrews or the rack for failing to craft course objectives that connect to his law school’s learning outcomes.  Lucky him. 

The section entitled “Preparing for Class” reveals Professor Zeigler to be an admirably conscientious instructor.  He tells us that, in preparing for a session, he writes down not merely every question that he plans to pose but every answer he hopes to elicit for each of the questions.  Such an approach, he advises, reaps many benefits:  compelling him to decide how he wishes to organize the discussion of a case; requiring himself to examine a case with special care; and enabling him to discern in a case matters he might not have discerned (e.g., “flaws in logic,” “gaps in reasoning,” and “a court distorting precedent or making a major doctrinal change seem like a small step”) had he not reduced to writing the precise order in which he sought to have information emerge.  To his credit, Zeigler candidly owns up to the fact that he writes out the potential student answers as well “so I won’t have to puzzle over the answer the next year if I forget the answer in the interim.”  Extra credit to Zeigler for his candor, his tip of the hat toward principles of professional efficiency.  Or is this merely a blatant appeal to the Law & Econ crowd?

His pre-class preparation, Professor Zeigler assures us, redounds to the benefit of students during the course of class.  The volume’s Appendix includes an example of one of Zeigler’s Civil Procedure scripts, a script whose principal pedagogic objective is to have students learn a range of lessons from a 1961 Illinois case that implicates the evolution of long-arm jurisdiction in the post-International Shoe world.  (Collectively let us recall our time as 1Ls and say:  Ah, memories . . . .)  The script and Zeigler’s discussion of it easily carry the burden of persuasion on the matter of students benefitting from Zeigler’s preparation.  The discussion of class preparation, moreover, allows Zeigler to pass along almost as asides some important insights about students.  My favorite set happens to be the following.  “Students don’t like ambiguity,” Zeigler notes; “[m]ost believe they came to law school to learn black-letter law.”  Concluding the thought, Zeigler reminds that “[c]onvincing them to embrace uncertainty is not easy.”  Especially insofar as the last of these insights is concerned, as my mom was wont to say, truer words were never spoke.

“Conducting the Class” represents the central section of Zeigler’s project.  The section is suffused with the wisdom that three decades of experience can–but, alas, does not always–bring to a law teacher.

Zeigler begins by telling us that he practices “my own version” of the Socratic method.  The essential elements of that version, the reader pieces together, include (1) calling on students (many, not few, in the course of a single session) with the use of a seating chart for “relatively easy, straightforward questions”; (2) using the more challenging questions to create a sort of group-effort response, taking volunteers for such questions; (3) self-consciously moving at a “brisk” pace, to maximize the prospect that energy and student engagement remain at a high level; (4) moving quickly past the “unprepared” student but retuning to such student at the next class session; (5) informing the student who provides an erroneous answer that, indeed, s/he has done so; (6) recognizing the student who is eager to volunteer but invariably provides off-target replies for questions whose answers are more difficult to get wrong; and (7) pausing to synthesize and restate periodically throughout the session.     

Throughout the section Zeigler demonstrates his gifts as a teacher and humor as a writer.    

When pressed by students for answers he doesn’t have, Zeigler tells us that he is unconcerned about replying with a variation of the “I don’t know” opening, made famous by Bobby Fischer.  To readers, he adds parenthetically that “I know a lot about a few things, a little bit about a few more things, and absolutely nothing about everything else.”  Refreshing honesty or false modesty?  Inquiring minds want to know.

In discussing how he self-consciously seeks to set the tone for class, Zeigler makes clear that he aims for a classroom characterized as business-like, professional, polite, pleasant, and friendly.  He (much as a well-respected colleague of mine has asserted for decades) tells us that he does not wish to be misapprehended by students as a friend.  He continues to refer to students by their last names at a time when many have come to view the practice as a bit, say, dated.  Interestingly, he tells us that he waits a few weeks before inserting much humor into the class but after that point “tr[ies] to say something funny or silly” every ten or fifteen minutes.  He adds perceptively that humor is especially important in evening classes, with so many students having worked all day running on little more than fumes.  Zeigler also appears to have learned from experience both that some efforts at humor acquire an enhanced level of inappropriateness over time and that students born in, say, 1985 are unlikely to burst into laughter at a reference to a Saturday Night Live character whose heyday happened to occur when the students were still having their diapers changed.

Some fleeting comments on three final topics Zeigler addresses concerning the classroom:  disruptive students, instructor politics, and (drum roll please) faculty attire.

Like so many of us, Zeigler confesses that he unfortunately has experienced the phenomenon of the group-in-the-back-row who jeopardize the atmosphere of the classroom by talking to each other “a little too often and little too loudly.”  (Zeigler maintains that the “culprits are almost always a group of young men.”  True?  A hypothesis worth testing?  He also intuits that female law professors encounter the problem more often than do male law professors.)  Zeigler’s response to the disruptive-group-of-students problem is a bit of a paradox.  His advice to us is to call the students aside early in the semester, confront the issue, and move on.  But he confesses that he has refrained from following his own advice when the matter has arisen, opting instead to avoid the confrontation.  For those of us who serve as parents, this “do as I say, not as I do” solution produces a bit of a smile.     

Perhaps the most stunning revelation in the entire volume is Zeigler’s confession that “my politics are definitely left of center.”  A law professor with left of center politics?  Truly?  He proceeds to explain his location on the political spectrum by gratuitously adding the explanation “particularly since the center has moved so far to the right.”  How ought an instructor deal with her or his own politics in the classroom?  Zeigler tells us that he lays his on the table, that he “doesn’t feel the need to be personally neutral.”  With apologies to Herbert Wechsler, Cass Sunstein, and even Woody Allen (the last of whom, writing about epistemology, penned the immortal remark “Is knowledge knowable?  If not, how do we know this?”), this isn’t the time or place to get ourselves immersed deeply into issues of neutrality.  Suffice it to say that Zeigler elaborates upon his personal approach to politics in the classroom by issuing a lengthy and scathing indictment of the majority opinion in a Fed Courts case, Boyle v. United Technologies, in which five justices breach federalism and separation of powers principles Zeigler tells us they have long held dear in an effort to deprive the family of a dead marine pilot of a tort remedy.

Zeigler tells us that he respects students.  And that students tell him every semester that they feel respected by him.  Neither of these representations strikes me as difficult to believe.  After enumerating a range of ways in which he manifests that respect–the careful preparation, being polite, listening when students speak, making eye contact, refraining from making fun of wrong or strange answers–Zeigler pauses to note that “I always dress up for class.  I always wear a coat and tie.”  He continues to don the costume, Zeigler observes, “to signal that the class is important.” 

It would not surprise me if these remarks about his personal attire, coming very late in the volume, engender some snickers among professional peers.  They shouldn’t.  For the remarks are offered in the same thoughtful, graceful manner in which the entire volume is wrapped.  Throughout How I Teach Professor Donald Zeigler shares with us what has come to work for him as a law teacher.  In so doing he challenges each of us to care enough to reflect upon what has come to work, or not work, for us.

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