Is Anybody Out There?

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Marquette Law School

clip_image002A large part of my life has been devoted to getting into law school (it was not an easy task for me), and now that I am here I find myself slightly disappointed. It is not that I don’t find law school to be challenging or interesting; it is just that it is not as intellectually stimulating as I had hoped. Maybe my expectations are too high, but is it really too much to ask to have an interesting class discussion?

Before I go any further, I want to make sure that everyone understands that I am not faulting the professors for the lack of class participation. The majority, if not all, of the professors I have had at Marquette have tried to elicit class discussions. Students are just unwilling to say anything. Wait, let me correct that:  most students are unwilling to say anything. There are some students who participate in every class, and, while I appreciate their contributions, no one wants to hear the same person talk all the time. It is about balance, about involving as many perspectives as possible to gain a greater appreciation for the law and the effects it has on individuals.

I think I struggle with the lack of class discussion in law school because my college experience was filled with heated class debates. My college professors not only expected class participation, they demanded it. I remember one class in particular when, after multiple unsuccessful attempts to elicit a discussion, the professor stormed out of the classroom in disgust. She came back into the room after a minute or two later to say something to the effect of, “Everything I was going to lecture on today will be on the final. For those of you who were prepared to discuss the material, thank you. For everyone else, your lack of respect for me and your classmates will not be tolerated. Your actions have ruined it for the rest of the class.” It goes without saying, that that never happened again. Every student thereafter was ready and willing to participate. Do law students need the same kind of wake-up call?

Maybe that is too drastic, and maybe my undergraduate experience was atypical, but I do wholeheartedly believe that I learned more from class discussions than I have ever learned from a series of lectures. I understand that not everyone, including myself, is prepared for every class, but I don’t think that should matter. We are all intelligent people and should have something to offer regardless of whether we completed the assigned materials. And if you are a person who is afraid of being wrong, or of saying something stupid, I say go ahead and say something stupid. I am wrong all of the time, but I don’t usually realize it until someone points it out. Sure, sometimes I am embarrassed, but most of the time I am just happy that I realized I was thinking about it the wrong way before the final exam.

I am as much to blame for the lack of participation as the rest of my classmates, partially because I don’t want to be “that girl” who talks all the time. If everyone spoke up once in a while, we would be able to have rich, interesting class discussions instead of having to settle for lecture after lecture. I know the importance of class participation is nothing new. (For example, Althouse has an interesting blog post entitled Is class participation obligatory for law students?.) However, I wanted everyone to know that it is not only professors who think students need to participate more in class. Some students, like myself, crave a more interactive learning experience.

 

7 thoughts on “Is Anybody Out There?”

  1. I can’t say how typical your undergraduate experience was, but the value of class discussions in law school bear some relationship to the size of the class, I think. In big classes with close to 100 people, discussions can be frustrating if a lot of people want to participate, because the debate spins off in different directions, the professor can’t get to everyone, and it’s hard to get much point/counterpoint conversation where you can refine and defend your argument. Instead, Student X voices an opinion, Students A, B, C, D, and E raise their hands to respond, and by the time E is done talking more people are waiting to respond to A through D. Should X have the chance to respond to A through E? How much does that cheat student G out of a chance to participate? One hundred students in a seventy minute class doesn’t leave much time for any single person.

    In a smaller seminar class, with fifteen or twenty people, it’s a completely different social dynamic. I really enjoy small-group discussions, I just think they’re difficult to pull off well in big groups even when you have a lot of participation.

  2. You know, I used to minimize the whole “I’m scared of saying something stupid/being wrong” argument that some people have used as justification for not talking in class. I believed (and still do, for the most part) that if you have a question, chances are at least one other person has that same one but is also too scared to ask. Most of the professors won’t bite your head off if you ask a question you’re genuinely curious about.

    But then, last semester, I had a class with an adjunct faculty member who changed my perspective on that. Every time I had a question — and I really was struggling with the material — the professor was so condescending and dismissive of it that I felt like I was an idiot. After a month or so of this, I stopped asking questions beyond “Can you repeat that?” or volunteering at all, because who wants to be talked down to and treated like an idiot?

    Don’t get me wrong; I think your post is great, Tiffany, and I can totally sympathize with your frustration. All I’m saying is that while I have known people who don’t talk because they’re unprepared or apathetic, I know many who don’t respond because they don’t want to be made to feel stupid by peers or professors on a subject they don’t really know well. I’m not even sure one could blame the professors (well, except for situations like mine) most of the time, as I’d guess they weren’t even remotely aware of the discomfort to begin with.

  3. During my time at MULS, I always found that classes I took in the evenings had much better class participation than the day classes did. We always attributed that to the fact that the evening classes were usually part-time students who worked during the day, were older, and had experiences outside of school. As a non-traditional student myself (7 years out of college, married, with two small children), I appreciated the discussions and the willingness of the part-time students to speak up. I don’t know if that was because the older students were not self-conscious about talking or because they valued their education more and therefore wanted to get more out of it. I think it makes a HUGE difference in the type of student you are if you take some time off between undergrad and law school (or whatever graduate program you choose to go into) to get some real world experience and perspective.

  4. One reason for the disappointing lack of discussion in law school classes is the pedagogical starting point of most law professors. There are exceptions of course, but the majority of law professors at the four law schools at which I’ve taught come to class as “experts.” Their concomitant goal is the conveying of what they know through lecture or through socratic dialogue. This is different than the goal of leading a voyage of discovery or presenting interesting questions as is often the case in liberal arts classes. Law students quickly appreciate what their professors are doing. They come to accept the unspoken proposition that genuine, open-ended discussion is not expected or particularly valued. Indeed, it is common to ridicule fellow students who continue to speak up and seek discussion in the classroom with their peers and the instructor.

  5. Great post. I’ve taught at both the undergraduate and law school level, and the one common theme for me at least is that producing a good discussion is *really hard.* It’s tricky to find questions that will provoke students to do more than simply react to the question, but to contribute ideas of their own, and maybe (the nirvana of a good discussion) even debate each other, without getting either too abstract or too far off tangent.

    And I’ve found it harder in law school than in history, which might explain why your undergraduate discussions were better. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is, there is more of a practical component to legal education, so part of any discussion must be devoted to divining “the rule” or “the holding” from a case, or the meaning of a particular statute (if you think discussing a case is hard, try discussing a statute!). There’s at least some right and wrong answers there, which limits the amount of free-form discussion you can have. In history, there are facts, but the most interesting aspects of history have to do with the interpretation of the facts, and there’s usually no single correct interpretation. That’s much more conducive to a discussion.

    So obviously one component of a good discussion is having students who are prepared and willing to discuss the readings (I had an experience in grad school that mimics yours from college), but a good discussion depends on a confluence of multiple factors that is difficult to achieve all at once. Those classes where it is achieved consistently are to be savored.

  6. I applaud Tiffany’s sentiments and I concur in the comments of David Papke and Bruce Boyden. I have posted my own views on these issues in a separate posting entitled, “The Problem with Class Discussions.”

  7. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that law school is an odd combination of vocational and, for lack of a better word, academic education. There is, I think, a reason for that. One of the thing that is expected of lawyers is the mastery of a body of knowledge. Clients want answers.

    But, in so much of practice, the answers do not come merely from the application of technical knowledge to a set of facts. Lawyers (and I don’t mean to suggest only lawyers)are required to understand client circumstances and factual situations that are often not easily ascertainable. They must predict human behavior, assess probabilities and balance costs and benefits.

    Apart from the general advantages of active learning, you don’t learn to do these things passively. So often, in practice, the difference between great and pedestrian representation is the willingness to pause over what seems obvious and to seek questions when it is not evident that there are more questions.

    Generating the interaction that facilitates this kind of learning is always a challenge, but it seems to me that it is differs by course. In my own current teaching package, it is easiest in public policy oriented courses (Wisconsin Supreme Court and Law and Theology) where the content is closer to the type of things that people are used to debating, i.e., that are, perhaps, a bit more like Bruce’s history courses. It is a bit harder in Civil Procedure but since that is a building block course, much of it is given over to conveying what I know. Because the students are fairly certain that they don’t know it and aren’t quite sure how they are going to learn it, interaction comes easier. I have found it to be hardest in substantive courses where the policy questions are more specialized.

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