Random thoughts inspired by having to find a syllabus for a past student*

I get asked sometimes, by people who know I used to be a prof, if I ever think about going back to teaching after I'm done with law school. (As an aside, this comes up sometimes in conversation with fellow law students who think that they themselves might like to be law profs. I hate to discourage anyone – and really, what do I know? people do all kinds of amazing things – but I feel like these people usually don't know much about what they're trying to get into. It's not so much that I think these people are at all incapable – they're really great, smart people, I'm sure they could write good stuff and be decent teachers. It's more that some of them – admittedly, not all, but some – seem to see legal academia as a viable alternative to the standard legal market, whereas I want to point out that it's even harder to get a decent academic job than a decent law job. Don't go thinking you'll get a law teaching job because it's hard to get a law job, is all I'm saying. Unless you've got a couple of really awesome law review articles placed in great journals, in which case, go for it. But I digress.)

So, people ask if I'd want to teach. (I should say that this is all EXTREMELY hypothetical. First, I would have to get those awesome law review articles published, which… yeah. Haven't done that. Second, I would want to practice for at least a few years, or I'd feel like an absolute fraud standing in front of professional students.) And really? I don't know, but I think not.

For one thing, I have definitely had moments of watching my law profs standing at the front of the room, trying to drag my classmates and me through some complicated concept on a day when no one wants to be there, and I've thought, "WOW, I'm glad I'm not still teaching."

For another thing, have you ever met law students? We're not a very laid-back group. We're pretty tightly wound, obsessed with grades, and panicked about failure. It seems the potential for grappling with significant student resentment and/or despair would be even higher in any law school than in your average undergraduate institution. Sure, you're more likely to have a relatively heterogeneous ability level in your class, which makes pitching your teaching easier than dealing with a wild variety of abilities, and in most law schools, you're going to have a lot of students who did pretty decently in undergrad. But still, we've got to be a pretty tough (annoying?) crowd.

Moreover, professional schools are weird in that in the main, unlike in Ph.D. programs, profs are not teaching students to follow in their footsteps. (Except maybe if you teach at Yale.) Most profs don't spend a lot of time in practice, which is where most students will spend most of their careers. So that's a weird kind of dynamic. (This is leaving aside the issue of what a Ph.D. program should prepare its students for – I'm not necessarily saying that Ph.D. programs should be preparing students to be only professors, I'm just saying that in the humanities and social sciences, that's what most programs do. Can't comment on the sciences.)

Then we have the issue that I don't really agree with the pedagogical model that dominates in law schools. I don't actually have a problem with the Socratic method, given that these days that doesn't usually entail the kind of sadistic grilling that's been traditional in the past; I actually think cold-calling is a pretty good method of ensuring preparation (even though I didn't cold-call when I taught in the past). I recognize that for some people being called on is agony, but I think most people get over that after a few law school classes.

No, what I disagree with, from a pedagogical perspective, is evaluating someone's understanding of course material based on one three-hour exam at the end of the semester, graded on a curve. It's a great way to create a ranking of students, but I don't think it has a hell of a lot to do with learning. I'm a big fan of smaller, developmental assignments throughout a semester, to check how well students are learning the material and be able to address problems while there's still time. (I also happen to think this more accurately represents how people are evaluated in their jobs – it's not like you could not show up to your job for 14 weeks as long as you produced a brilliant brief or motion or whatever at the end of that time. Whereas for a lot of profs, you can do whatever you like for 14 weeks and still get an A if you write a great exam.) I also don't believe that every group of students falls naturally into a bell-curve-shaped grade distribution. (Admittedly, that's because I usually taught groups of 20-30, whereas law classes are much larger. Which I'm also not a huge fan of.) However, I doubt that I'd be in a position single-handedly to change any of these things, which have become such a part of the culture of legal education that I don't even know where you'd start to change them.

But I find that at least right now, these are not really the reasons why I wouldn't want to teach. Rather, coming back to school has made me frustrated with the whole power dynamic inherent to education. I dislike the way that my desire for good grades colors the whole learning experience. I dislike the inescapability of the power differential between student and professor. The professor has the power to of evaluation, and there's no way to get around that. Sure, there are good reasons why the professor is the professor and I'm the student; the professor knows more, and (generally) is in a better position than I am to determine what I need to do to learn. But undergoing that evaluation puts me in a subordinate position, and there is something about being the subordinate that creates the student mindset about which professors frequently complain. 

I mean, I can get behind the argument that a generation of helicopter parents has newly created precious, precious gumdrop unicorn snowflakes, and the corporatization of higher education has turned students into consumers, and all the various other ills that plague the modern university. But I also think that there is something about being a student, being subject to your professors, that encourages students, even the best ones, to resist and rebel, at least the tiniest bit. I know that I find myself looking for ways to resist. That probably doesn't come across to my professors, because I also know plenty about what students need to do to succeed, and I'm genuinely interested in learning, and in the subject I'm studying, and I see the value in playing the game. But if I didn't have all those things going on? I could very easily be one of the students professors complain about, who are trying, in essence, to get something for nothing. I no longer think, as I think I did when I was teaching, that resistance to what professors want is some kind of moral flaw. I think it's a structural effect of being a student. 

Of course, work ethic, focus, interest, and basic ability will make a big difference between the way different students deal with that structural effect, with being subordinate, but I think it's there for all students. And hierarchy isn't always bad; I didn't have any problem with being a student in my past lives; I can't decide whether that's because I couldn't see the subordination, having always been subordinate to, well, all grown-ups, or because the subordination wasn't actually there, in the way it is now, going back to school at my, let's say, advanced age. 

Anyway. Whether or not any of this makes any sense, or has any basis in reality, it's kind of soured me on the educational endeavor. I don't know if I want too much to do with it, once I finish this round. 

(Which, you know, is just as well, since as I mentioned, getting a law teaching job is still harder than getting a regular legal job.)

*A student from my last year of teaching needed a syllabus from my class for transfer purposes. I had to rummage a bit to find the disc onto which I burned all my teaching stuff, before purging it from the laptop forever. Once I found it, it was way more organized than I remembered! AND it was very very odd looking at syllabi I'd written – which I hadn't done since a month or so before starting law school. It looks like I taught a cool class! But wow, after law school, my syllabi look SUPER complicated. Because, of course, when the class is evaluated entirely on students' performance on one exam, you don't have to say very much on the syllabus!

Wish me luck, people

Because I have to argue two motions in the next two days. One's tomorrow, and I got lucky enough to be assigned to argue the opposite side from what we were assigned to argue when we wrote the motion (because the other side was the argument our prof really wants us to be able to make, but if you're going to argue a motion, you really need to have both sides). It's probably just as well, though, because I wrote the motion in the aftermath of the Brief That Ate My Life (like, it was due the day after I filed the brief), so my motion is, quite literally, terrible. I spent about four hours throwing what words I could find onto the page, and turned it in without reading it over again. It is, honestly and seriously, crap. So, really, arguing against it is probably a good thing.

And then I have another motion to argue on Tuesday afternoon. That one requires examining witnesses. No idea yet what I'll ask them, really. 

The thing that's sad is that I'd really much rather work on (and argue) these motions than sit through the classes I have tomorrow. My clinic and practice class seem much more important, not to mention relevant, than the classes where I sit and listen to the professor talk to us. Don't get me wrong – I actually like my other classes, and reading, let alone sitting and listening, is so much EASIER than coming up with my own stuff. But when it's a choice between being prepared to maybe be called on (except probably not, because I only have one prof who cold calls this semester, and even he doesn't do it very often), and being prepared to get up and say something, getting up and saying something wins every time. (Kind of like the way teaching prep always trumped research prep, unless of course it was two days before a conference, when that kind of getting up and saying something usually trumped the teaching kind.)

I taught long enough that while I still had to prep, in most cases I really could waltz into the classroom and wing it if need be (the exception being if I was teaching something entirely new. Which didn't happen very much by the time I stopped teaching). Law school is reminding me of the joy of the steep learning curve, when you're doing everything for the first time. I'd forgotten, for instance, that at one point in my life I had no idea how long teaching a certain amount of material would take, because by the time I left academia, I had a sixth sense that allowed me never to run out of time, and never to run out of material. But a motion? I have NO idea how much material I need, or how long it's going to take me to argue it. (Sure, sure, it depends on what the judge asks – but teaching depended on what students said, too.) Putting students in small groups? At one point, I had no idea how to do that effectively, and watched helplessly as they talked about the previous night's football game. By the time I left, I had efficient use of small groups down. But direct examination? I'm still working on that one…

Quick addendum to last post

I was thinking a little more today about my discomfort talking with profs, and I realized that the profs I've felt most
comfortable with are those who've asked, of their own accord, about my
life. The prof I RAed for asked me what my story was when I was in her
office one time, what had I done before coming to law school. And a couple of weeks ago, I met a prof about my
casenote, and he was superhelpful, and then toward the end of the
meeting we were just talking about the workload in law school more
generally, and he asked, did I have little ones at home? Which really
struck me at the time, because I think it is the FIRST time anyone has
EVER asked me that.

I suppose it could be seen as an intrusive
question, and possibly a sexist one if he wouldn't ask male students
the same thing (though I actually think he would). But I actually
found it really, really nice (even not having kids)–it just seemed
such a welcome recognition that law school isn't the only thing I do
(even though it is), that I was a person with an actual life, not just
a proto-lawyer-in-training.

Honestly, it made me think about my
own persona as a prof, and as an advisor to undergrads, and realize how
much I probably failed at reaching out to them in even the little ways
that can make such a difference. There is a disadvantage to being all
business, all the time.

NaBloPoMo #5: Hunting the belated snark

I'm behind the times, but for the record (because I know you all cared), I really disagree with this piece from Inside Higher Ed. My snarky summary: "John Smith," tenured prof, rants and raves about how students are lazy slackers, administrators pander to their every whim, and no one appreciates his efforts.


I'd have more sympathy if he didn't target teaching outside on sunny days, using videos, sitting in circles, and assigning group projects as signs of the pedagogical apocalypse. Yeah, there are a lot of problems in higher education. The use of new teaching methods is not one of them. I mean, he complains that those who teach outside don't "car[e] if there is no blackboard." What??!? No blackboard????? The. Horror.

I'm not knocking traditional lecturing. It works well for certain things, and I'd rather see someone do the traditional lecture really well, than adopt active learning strategies really badly. But that said, the methods he picks on do NOT require his colleagues to "abandon classroom rigor," as he suggests. So when he identifies these practices as leading to his decision to leave academia? Well, you go, dude.

Now, I'm not saying he has no legitimate grievances. The school at which Smith teaches may indeed be a hotbed of precious snowflakes. It may indeed be a miserable place to teach.

But. One school does not a trend make.

And even if his experience is utterly representative of all of higher ed (despite not being representative of my experience), I just want to say: people, GET OVER IT.

I guess it's just that I get so tired of all the variants on "kids these days!!!!" People, it is inherent to the profession that college professors are of different generations than their students. And generations CHANGE. I did not learn in the same way as my professors; they did not learn in the same way as theirs. And students today are different again. Students today live in an entirely different informational world than even I inhabited (okay, I should probably strike the "even," since I am old enough to be traditional college students' mother, in a perfectly respectable way). I mean, no one had e-mail when I went to school. The web was just something you cleaned out of the corners. Access to information was on a completely different scale.

And yes, I realize that it is the recreation of older generations to deplore the younger ones. But honestly, people: today's students are DIFFERENT. Not better, not worse – just DIFFERENT. 

That doesn't mean you have to enjoy teaching them, and if you don't, then finding a new career is a good idea. But people, stop putting so much energy into bemoaning the inevitable, and figure out how to work with reality instead.

So that’s that. Wow.

A little over a year ago, I wrote this slightly melodramatic post about the end of an era: my time as a college teacher. Of course, I spoke too soon, because I then got hired for my current gig and taught for another year. But I think it's pretty safe this time round to say that today I taught my last class – if not forever, at least for quite a while.

Thankfully, my afternoon group were as good-natured and engaged as they've been throughout the term, so my teaching career ended, if not with a bang, at least in a pleasant fashion (especially nice because before my earlier class I had to have a raging fight with a student about hir grade. No, I cannot overlook the fact that you did not take 40% of the quizzes and did not attend 30% of the classes just because you're confident that you met the goals of the course as stated in the syllabus).  Well, I shouldn't say my teaching career has ended, because I have to grade a bunch of papers, write an exam, and then grade the exams, but the next time I attend class, it will be as a student.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this.

I have a lovely former colleague who has expressed regret that I'm going to law school, because she thinks it's a waste of a great teacher. It's terribly sweet of her to say so (and she has actually seen me teach quite a bit, so at least can claim to have evidence of my greatness, although I still think she's just being nice), but I don't really agree; my opinion of my teaching has declined quite a bit in the last four years. When I worked at Rural Utopia I thought I was a pretty decent teacher (though I have never thought that I didn't have plenty to learn or plenty of room for improvement), perhaps because my teaching worked well there. Former College shook my confidence in my teaching ability, because according to any number of people, my teaching didn't work well there, and though I think I tried to improve and adjust – and might have done so successfully, given a bit more time – I didn't figure it out in time (though honestly? I'm not sure I'd have have felt truly comfortable teaching there). I think my current gig has split the difference; I've done fine here – not brilliantly, but fine.

On the one hand, being a good teacher used to be a significant part of my identity, and it feels a little sad to let that go, for good. On the other hand, something useful I've learned from all this is (as corny as it sounds) that I can't rely on external approval for my sense of self-worth. People (faculty and students) at Rural Utopia thought I was a spiffy teacher. People at Former College did not. But I didn't change; I didn't decide to transform myself on landing in Former College City; I was still me, and still the same teacher. Sure, a better teacher than I would have adjusted better to Former College than I did, but it's a little bit like responding to reader's reviews: some readers love an essay and some readers hate it, and you can't control their reactions. You can always revise and improve an essay – and sometimes the friendly readers don't push you hard enough to improve it – but there are some readers you're never going to satisfy, and at the end of the day, you have to do with the essay what you feel is right. You have to decide what you think works and what doesn't, and think about why you've done what you've done, and ultimately the only one you need to satisfy is you. Teaching is the same. Which is not to say that I don't still crave praise – I do – or that this means you don't have to pay attention to what others say – you do. But if you judge yourself by what others think of you, you're building your house on sand. (Okay, can I add any MORE cliches to this paragraph??) (And can I ask you remind me of this brilliant conclusion when I get my first semester grades next year?)

Anyway, endings, even happy ones, are always at least a little bit sad, so I'm sad to face this particular one. But I'm also glad to stop teaching. Despite all my fine words above, I'm really tired of trying to gauge the effectiveness of my courses in the reactions of nineteen-year-olds who know nothing about my subject and are only taking my class to fulfill a requirement. Once that frustration outweighs the enthusiasm for the moments when students really do learn, it's time to stop.

(When I started this post I thought I'd talk a little about how I found the differences between being a tenure-track person and being a lecturer to play out in my teaching, but this is long enough for one day – I'll come back to the contingent faculty thing at some future date. And if I say as much here, I might even remember to do so.)

Yet more evidence that my students think differently than I do

Before I start, let me note that I do NOT mean to poke fun of my students in my comments below. My students are the products of their educational backgrounds combined with their individual personalities; pointing to any weaknesses in their work is not meant to suggest that they’re stupid, lazy, or bad people.

That said, there are a few things in their papers that I find fascinating.

  • A fascination with viability and credibility. An author’s argument is viable or it is not. It’s the medico-scientific metaphor here that’s so interesting to me. The argument, it will grow! and live! …or maybe not. They’re also obsessed with authors’ credibility. This makes sense – but it’s funny to me how small differences in language really signal big differences in meaning to me, the specialist. I talk a lot about "reliability" in class, but not about "credibility." I don’t know, perhaps it’s because "credibility" seems to me something associated a priori with a person or thing, like hir/its reputation? It’s sort of like saying that The New York Times is a credible news source, whereas Weekly World News is not (unless perhaps you’re interested in alien abductions). You know that without reading anything published in either one. Whereas for me, "reliability" is a function of the specific – is this author reliable about this topic in this source? To me, there’s a difference, though I can understand how to my students (who in this class are I think universally non-history majors), there isn’t. I don’t consider this a problem in the way that I consider the use of "bias" a problem – but each time I read students talking about a text’s "credibility" it jars on me, slightly.
  • The respect for authority. I have had any number of students tell me that because an article is published in a national scholarly journal, that lends credibility to the argument. And I mean, yeah, I understand that perspective, and the point of peer review is to ensure that stuff published in journals is credible. But while being published in a national journal does suggest that your ideas are more "credible" than if you print them in crayon on construction paper and staple them to a telephone pole, what’s interesting to me is that by making such a statement, students are implicitly comparing the journal article to all other kinds of discourse out there. Whereas I don’t want to know that the article is credible compared to the rest of the written universe – I want to know if it’s credible as a published, scholarly work. Since all published scholarly works are, well, published and scholarly, pointing out that it’s published in a journal seems a little redundant. It’s like if you were reviewing a Formula One racing car, and pointed out that it’s faster than a Volkswagen Bus. Well, yes – but wouldn’t you kind of hope that would go without saying? If you’re reading reviews of Formula One racing cars, don’t you really want to know whether one F1 car goes faster than another F1 car? Again, this isn’t something I ding students on (not in this first-year gen ed course, certainly); it’s just an interesting difference between learning how to write in a particular academic discourse and discipline from a position decidedly outside that discourse/discipline, and not knowing how to write in any other way.

For some reason, this quarter I find myself especially struck by these small differences in word choice and the larger understandings (or misunderstanding) that they reveal of history as an academic discipline. They’re the kind of thing that help me think about how best to get across to my students the purpose of the writing assignments I give them, especially now that my understanding of writing is so very different from theirs.

I think this is a sign I’ve made the right decision

I just got back from (what was really a quite lovely) class, to find an e-mail reminding me that book orders for fall were due [at some upcoming date].

And I was filled with glee at the thought that IT DIDN’T APPLY TO ME.

(Technical note: while stuck in the Detroit airport, I futzed with my blogroll, trying to clear it out/update it a little. If you think you should be there and you’re not, feel free to drop me a line. Also, tell me what you think about the new template!)

(ETA: I should note that I do still like the original header picture,
VERY much, which a very
kind blogger
made for me – but I was just
feeling like a change. Maybe I’ll go back to the other one when I’m a
Real Lawyer with Real Leather Books [which are all entitled LAW…].)

<a href ="http://answers.polldaddy.com/poll/606210/" >New template – yea or nay? </a>  <br/> <span style="font-size:9px;"> (<a href ="http://www.polldaddy.com">  surveys</a>)</span><br /><br />

Oh, and another thing

All you people who are finishing semesters, grading exams and papers, attending commencements, and whatnot?

My last day of class is May 28. Exams end June 5.

So, till then I will be reading your posts about imminent summer with whatever is the reading equivalent of my hands over my ears, saying LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.

Just so you know.

An open letter to my students

Dear students,

In this, my last term of teaching, I’ve decided that it’s time to comment on one of your favorite words, a word for which I don’t really share your enthusiasm.

That word is "biased."

First (for reference’s sake), "bias" is a noun and "biased" is an adjective. A historical author or source might be biased, but cannot be bias. Just so you know.

Second, do you know where the term "bias" really comes from?


Every piece of cloth has a direction in which it likes to move. If you pull cloth in the direction of its bias, it stretches nicely. If you pull it against the bias, it resists. It wants to go in one direction and not to go in another. (It’s kind of like the grain in wood – cutting with the grain is easier than cutting against the grain. Meat has a grain, too, and if you cut against the grain, you get short pieces that melt nicely in your mouth; if you cut with the grain, you get longer, rubberier pieces.)

When you say that a historical author has a "bias," you’re saying they incline a certain way. They lean in a certain direction. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

The thing is, you inevitably declare that the author is "biased" as if this is all you have to say on the subject – as if discovering "bias" is some form of analysis.

I hate to tell you this, but it’s really not. Because if we go back to our cloth analogy: can cloth not have a bias? Not really. The characteristic of inclining in a particular direction is just something that’s built into fabric.

It’s the same with people. ALL authors are biased in some way. To declare a historical author "biased" is like declaring that a writer uses words. It’s kind of a DUH! statement.

Instead, what you need to do is tell me HOW the author EXPRESSES that bias – and specifically, in detail. I don’t want you just to tell me that an author is biased in favor of (Christians, the king, their children, Republicans, who/whatever); I want to hear how the author shows that favoritism. What does that actually mean, to be "biased," say, in favor of Christianity? Does that mean the author is willing to lie about/omit matters that make Christianity look bad? Or does it mean the author exaggerates matters that make Christianity look good? Show me what’s going on in the text. Something more that just "making Christians look good"; there are LOTS of different ways to make something look good. How does this specific author in this specific text do it?  "Good" is an awfully big category – portraying someone as a "good Christian" because they take up arms to defend the weak and helpless, say, is different from portraying someone as a "good Christian" because they pray, fast, and embrace pacifism. Authors make choices about how to portray their subjects (I think Flavia would agree), and if they portray their subject as a veritable Terminator of Christianity, they do so on purpose. That tells us something important about what "Christianity" meant to this society. Which may not be – in fact, probably isn’t – the same thing it means to us. Which is the whole point of studying history in the first place.

Finally, because every author is "biased" – because "bias" is inherent to the human condition – being "biased" doesn’t mean the same thing as "unreliable" or "inaccurate." In the same way that declaring an author biased is not analysis, dismissing the author as unreliable doesn’t work, either. If bias = unreliability, there is no possibility of a reliable author. Of course, if you define "reliable" as "mirror image of the truth," wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, then no, there probably is no possibility of a reliable author. But since then historians would have to sit around twiddling their thumbs lamenting the impossibility of knowing anything, I have to reject that approach. There are some incredibly unreliable authors, from whom we can nonetheless learn a lot. And there some authors who are incredibly reliable. Again, you have to explain how this author is "biased," and demonstrate how that specific expression of bias gets in the way of a reliable account of whatever it is you’re reading about. A person who’s convinced that they’ve been abducted by aliens may not be the most reliable commentator on astral phenomenon, but they may be lucidly crystal-clear about the best way to cook beef stroganoff.

So please, my lovely industrious scholars, please stop telling me that a source is "biased." (Although that’s preferable to being told that a source is "bias.") Tell me something I don’t know already.

Affection and analysis*,
your instructor

*apologies to profgrrrrl

Shopping season

It’s registration time at my current institution, or as it might better be called from the student e-mails I’m receiving, "shopping season." I’ve been getting e-mails from students telling me that they’re interested in maybe taking my course X, and could I send them a syllabus? Or tell them about the topics we’ll be covering? Oh, and can I tell them about the grading?

I’d applaud these students’ initiative, except that the ones I’ve heard from have mentioned specific things about themselves (majors, recreational activities) that can only lead me to think that they’re not interested in finding out if my course will meet their particular intellectual interests – they’re shopping around to find a course with the minimum requirements.

Now, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for students to assess their time/interest levels and try to figure out what courses will best fit their needs in a given term. Yes, if you’re in a spring sport and you know you’re going to have to miss a bunch of classes, taking a lab science that term probably isn’t the best idea. Or if you’re taking organic chemistry, or writing your senior thesis, and want to balance those out with less demanding courses – sure, I understand that. But for some reason – maybe just because I’m an evil old woman – I’m a little irked by students contacting me to find out how much work my course entails. Maybe it’s because of the unhelpful way they ask about such things? One asks me to tell hir about my "grading system" – well, you know, it looks kind of like it does in the rest of the university, A through F – pretty standard, really. Another wants to know, "how are the exams?" (NLLDH suggested I answer "long and torturous," which is awfully tempting.)

Again, I realize this isn’t fair, because the average undergrad, especially if they’re not majoring in your department, doesn’t always have the  vocabulary for talking about such things in the way that professors do. Still, it is awfully difficult to know how to answer the question, "How are your exams?" If you ask me how many there are, what format they are, cumulative or not, whatever – that’s cool. But how are they? They’re doing nicely, thank you, how are you?