Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Student Happiness

In her column in this morning's New York Times, Ann Althouse criticizes John Jay Osborn Jr.'s call to law professors to stop "making our students so unhappy; stop calling on them; listen only to volunteers; don't dictate how they should think; let them tell their own stories." (Althouse and Osborn are both law professors. Osborn is also the author of the Paper Chase.) Althouse thinks that the best way to respect students' "individual autonomy" is not to try to make them happy but to "teach them what they came to learn: how to think like lawyers." She believes that's best done by teaching from cases rather than devoting class time "to the personal expression of law students."

I'm doubtful of the conventional wisdom that law school is mostly about "learning to think like a lawyer." Certainly there are ways of thinking that are especially important to lawyers. A reasonably well educated young adult has already had plenty of experience with them all, though, with or without law school. To the extent that law school is about a "way of thinking," it's mostly about learning to rely on certain ways of thinking consistently in the appropriate situations.

I think Althouse has it right on the personal expression issue, though--although only on Osbornian pro-happiness grounds. A law school class is usually a lot of fun when a talented instructor in good form guides the discussion in interesting directions. Especially in big classes, long expressions of personal views by students--who are usually new to the issues--are often excruciating.

9 comments:

Tam said...

I just want to add the following, by way of support. In the context of Althouse's article, "thinking like a lawyer" could mean thinking under (1) time constraints; (2) in front of a lot of people; (3) having to apply conflicting rules to facts that fit somewhere in between; (4) while potentially being brow beat by an authority figure, and so on. In this narrow way, "thinking like a lawyer" is meaningfully distinguished from simply thinking, but mostly because of the external conditions under which the thinking is done, not so much with the thinking process itself.

But as you point out, people often use "thinking like a lawyer" in a broader sense that, really, just means "thinking." Anecdotally, since I started law school, I've often been accused of "thinking like a lawyer" when making arguments, when, really, I am just engaging what I have always done - reasoned discourse. People assume and accept that nonlawyers - even college graduates - can't/shouldn't use reason and logic.

Sadly, to a large extent, it seems true that most college graduates lack the ability to think critically and to communicate cogently. I would submit that these are the students who experience the greatest problems with the Socratic method, and who are unhappy with law school. I was recently talking to a US Attorney who works in Newark, and who graduated from NYU law. Curiously, when I asked how she liked NYU law, her first response was that she liked the fact that her classmates "actually liked law school." She had worked in Newark for a while, and we were at an event in Newark with exclusively RU-N and Seton Hall students, so I can only guess that she was implicitly contrasting that with students' attitudes from those schools. (Full disclosure: I am an RU-N law grad.)

So if it turns out that the inability to engage in high-level critical thinking is the main reason behind law students' unhappiness, then the proper call would be for reform in university education, rather than for law schools to stop using the Socratic method.

Cristie Ford said...

While seeking comments only from volunteers seems like a kinder and gentler way to manage class discussion, it has its own deleterious effects - particularly in terms of gender balance in the classroom. My experience has been that volunteers come overwhelmingly from the ranks of male students. It may be that the classes I teach are historically thought to be "male" subjects, or it may be simple coincidence - i.e., the students with a little extra background knowledge of the subject matter just happen to be male this term. Because their backround knowledge gives them the confidence to speak up more and earlier, this creates an atmosphere in which others are unwilling to ask different, and sometimes more basic, questions.

Either way, as a professor I do my best to address issues of gender imbalance in participation in the classroom, and I feel as though I've tried as many techniques as I can think of. Allowing students to participate via our courseweb "blog" seems to work, as does groupwork and advance warning of the days on which a student will be "on call." However, my experience has been that the volunteer-only approach clearly doesn't work in terms of the very important matter of giving women (in particular) the space to express themselves in class.

Adam S. said...

Echoing David's post, I think a well-prepared socratic experience (I use this word intentionally)can add immense value to the pedagogy at law schools. At least as troubling as the commonly-invoked specter of the "Kingsfield" questioner is the ill-prepared professor that adds no value and thinks that the Socratic Method simply means abrupt cold calls. Thinking of the term's origins, one notes that the method, and the elenchus which is at its heart, is currently a lost art. But where the professor can map, in advance, the questions, and can systematically employ unvolunteered student participation, it can really add quality to student comments and can democratize the playing field; many a blowhard gunner can be tamed and many a shy introvert can shine when called upon unexpetedly with gentle and focused queries (coming from a formerly overloud law student).

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