Lunch Bunches, Ten Second Chat, and Color Photo Seating Charts

I have learned over the years from my two kids, both now adults, that many people, including no doubt law students and potential law students, view law professors as a different breed of animal.  I guess in my family we do push the envelope since my wife, Margaret Moses, and I are both law professors. The friends of our kids, and, indeed, my law students, are shocked to discover, for example, that in my youth I worked in the factory at what was then the Allen-Bradley company — on the seventh floor of the building with the largest four-sided clock in the world — and that, even in the summer after my first year in law school, I was a truck driver moving people’s household goods from one end of the country to the other. Somehow law professors, even before they are law professors, live such different, abstracted lives that it is beyond comprehension that one of them drove a truck as a summer job or worked in a factory making electrical resistors, whatever they are.

While my kids no doubt have good reason for thinking that I am weird in various ways, I think of myself as falling within the range of what could be called normal. I want my students to get some chance to agree, or have a closer look to decide that my self-assessment is way off track. So, here are two techniques I use. First, whenever I see a student of mine outside of class, I go out of my way to say hi and to chat: The ten second chat. Students are very aware of us but many are afraid of making the first move when they see us outside of the classroom. Reaching out to them breaks the ice. The downside, of course, is that I get it wrong. Early this semester, I was in the elevator with one of my students, so I started to chat.  Unfortunately, she was a student in a different class than I had assumed, so I am sure that she thought I was even weirder than she might have if I had said nothing at all. But it is a risk worth taking.

Second, I arrange “lunch bunches” with the students in my class.

I put a signup sheet on my office door and let five, or so, students sign up. We typically go to a neighborhood restaurant, each paying our own tab, and have a nice chance to talk about anything anybody wants to discuss. They get to ask me questions about me, law school, the future, etc., and I get to ask them about themselves, their aspirations and other serious topics. I try to sneak in some advice about their studies and their goals for their professional lives, especially they avoid adopting group norms about career goals that they never really had before they started law school. They accept the advice, with a grain of salt, I am sure. But, just as importantly, we chat about things that normal people talk about. For example, the week before Oscar Sunday, it was movies: Slumdog was the consensus for best picture but we had an interesting discussion about whether Heath Ledger would win best supporting actor. All thought he deserved it, but some thought that Oscar voters were so self-centered, they would not vote for someone who had died thereby preventing any reciprocation. 

Students know us before we know them. I try to match their names with their faces in my conscious mind as quickly as I can. This semester, for the first time, I managed to get color photos downloaded from the online student records system and had them pasted onto my seating charts. It really helps, but the effort that it took to do it – one Associate Dean and my faculty assistant working at it for quite a while – makes me wonder what would happen if everyone on the faculty wanted this. From another angle, I am shocked that the student records system is not set up to make this easy to do, so these could be easily available to all of the faculty for all of their classes.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Michael M. O'Hear

    Those are some terrific suggestions, Mike. I have always enjoyed and learned a lot from my conversations with students outside the classroom. And, to think, when I was a law student I could not imagine that I had anything to say that would be of any interest to my professors! I suspect many other law students have the same misperception I had.

  2. Chris King

    During second semester of my 1L year, Professor Kossow invited groups of students from my Property class to join him for dinner and Professor Moss invited groups of students from my Con Law class to join him for lunch. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to talk with a professor in an informal setting. It was especially interesting to hear about both professors’ legal careers and how they ended up at Marquette.

  3. Andrew Golden

    I completely agree with Chris’s sentiments. I’ve always maintained that the most fun I’ve had at MULS is when faculty members acted (to use the terminology in the original post) “normal” around students. If nothing else, fostering a connection with your students makes them want to try harder and focus more in your class; it’s not surprising that the professors whose names regularly show up in the Ghiardi Award nominations all try to connect with students.

  4. Jane Casper

    Our terrific Media & Technology staff at Marquette Law School automatically creates a “photo class list” for each class that a professor teaches in that semester. That photo class list is available to the professor on the first day of classes. A group email is also available so the professor can communicate with his/her students as needed.
    I learned many years ago that greeting students by name from day one and getting to know about their interests outside of the classroom can go a long way to making each feel valued and at ease during this grand adventure we call law school.
    Jane Casper
    Assistant Dean for Students

  5. David Papke

    Mike Zimmer was one of many Milwaukeeans to work at Allen-Bradley. At South Division, where I went to high school, it was common for graduates to head east on Mitchell Street, turn north of 1st Street, and join friends and family members working at the huge plant. I worked at Allen-Bradley for nine months between high and college.

    The experience was a valuable one. On the one hand, I observed the classic phenomenon of alientated industr1al labor. Many of my fellow workers found no meaning in their job and worked primarily for a paycheck. On the other hand, laboring at Allen-Bradley provided structure and responsibility in the workers’ lives. Many were genuinely proud to say they worked at Allen-Bradley and were loyal to the company.

    I contrast all of this with the experience of the underclass in the present. Against the background of deindustrialization, members of the underclass have lost contact with financially and personally rewarding employment. They don’t get paychecks, and ennui and a lack of direction are constant companions when you are staring down the tunnel of what seems an empty life.

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