Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

While drafting a "statement of teaching philosophy" is a standard process for job applicants in colleges of arts and sciences in the United States, it is somewhat more rare for a law school to ask for one. Fortunately, more law schools are requiring them of their entry-level job applicants, forcing prospective law professors to think about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they propose to go about the teaching. Perhaps a statement of teaching philosophy is more important for law professors than for professors in other fields because there is nothing in law school or in practice that prepares you to become a law professor.

This is a subject on which I've been ruminating for over 25 years. From the time I first read Duncan Kennedy's "Little Red Book" before attending law school, to my receipt of my most recent student evaluations, I have been asking myself whether legal education is helping students develop the skills, habits and ways of thinking about the world that will transform them into competent lawyers, honorable and engaged citizens and effective leaders. In Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, Kennedy argues that the lecture format, the use of the Socratic method, the examination process, and the way law school students are socialized undermine initiative, independent thinking, agency, and assertiveness and slot them in specific trajectories that have no purpose other than replicating the existing economic and social hierarchies. Having spent the last 30 years working in one capacity or another in the legal world, I have to conclude that he is correct in many respects.

Fortunately, the upheavals of the last 20 years in the legal profession and of the last five years in legal education have prompted a broader discourse about the goals and functions of legal education. This inquiry is bearing fruit in a variety of ways, but I think one of the more positive developments is the move to incorporate science-based research on learning, emotional and intellectual blocks to learning and effective and innovative teaching technologies. I have incorporated these developments into my own Statement of Teaching Philosophy:
Neuroscience research has transformed our understanding of teaching, learning, and intellectual development over the past 20 years. The central message from this research is straightforward: "The one who does the work does the learning."[1] Drawing from this body of nationally recognized scholarship in education,[2] I have created courses that engage students as partners in the educational enterprise. I structure the readings and assignments to build student confidence, expand their capacity to manage uncertainty, promote persistence, and reward effort and independent thought. I also try to make the courses fun; when students enjoy class, they work harder and perform at a higher level.

For doctrinal courses, including Income Tax, Partnership and Corporate Tax, Environmental Law and Property, I divide the material into weekly modules to help students manage their workload and expectations. First, after a short introduction to the material, I introduce students to close reading and interpretation of the cases, statutes and the regulations. I have developed statutory worksheets help students to focus their attention, extract the main legal concepts, understand the architecture of the law, and develop an outline of authorities. The worksheets also facilitate group discussion about the incentive structures and policies undergirding the law. Second, I require students to turn in weekly problem sets. The problems give the students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in a fact-rich, client-based context. Third, I test basic comprehension with multiple-choice quizzes using TurningPoint or i-Clicker student response systems or the TWEN Instapoll function. The software aggregates students’ responses in bar graph format so that they can tell whether their answers are in alignment with those of their peers. They provide an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning and allow me to address any broader confusion. Fourth, I often give mid-semester examinations so that the students gain important feedback about their performance. I have sometimes provided skeleton outlines of the material to help students see the broader picture; the outlines tend to even the playing field and reduce the advantages associated with course notes that are transferred selectively through social networks.

For Tax Policy, Climate Change and the Law, and other seminar courses, my teaching has been strongly influenced by my own coursework. Michael Sandel’s lectures on distributive justice at Harvard initially inspired me to pursue a career in the law, to dedicate myself to pro bono and nonprofit work, and to combine my experience in private practice with my interests in social and environmental policy. During my LL.M. work at New York University, Daniel Shaviro’s and Alan Auerbach’s Tax Policy Colloquium and Lily Batchelder’s Tax and Social Policy course introduced me to economic analysis. In my own courses, we examine incentives, public policy goals, and legal and economic structures designed to alter those incentives or overcome transaction costs to facilitate trade of entitlements. We discuss whether the law is effective, whether policy-makers’ goals have been met, whether there are significant spillover effects, and how legal structures might be modified to better achieve those goals with lower social or budgetary costs. I also employ some of the teaching methodologies I learned at Harvard and NYU, including requiring students to lead class discussions individually and as a part of a group effort, critique the assigned readings, and develop a research and writing plan. I have also asked students to provide constructive feedback for their peers’ drafts; students learn to improve their own work by critiquing the work of others.

For skills-based courses, such as real estate transactions, I would accompany the readings with a simulated transaction in which the students draft, review and edit client engagement letters, consider conflicts of interests, perform due diligence investigations, draft, negotiate and edit real estate documents, and close the transaction. For some courses, we may also discuss alternative deal structures, and identify the benefits, costs and risks associated with each option. My goal is to familiarize the students with the transactional process, grant the students a solid foundational knowledge of the documents and the economic and legal issues that may arise, and develop their skills to negotiate and resolve those issues to their clients’ advantage.

Over the past two years I have also been working closely with Professor Laurie Zimet’s AcademicSupport Program to improve student performance in first year classes and prepare them for the bar examination. Following an in-depth training with Professor Zimet, I have supported students in skill-building workshops and one-on-one meetings focused on helping students identify their academic strengths and weaknesses, build their skills and confidence, and explore their other concerns that may have been interfering with learning.

Finally, I know from both my in-class experiences, and from my work with pro bono attorneys and pro se clients to expand access to justice in Georgia, that technology is a powerful tool for engaging and empowering students. I have employed Blackboard, TWEN, Canvas, audio, video, and student response systems to engage students and to accelerate the learning process. Once my course responsibilities stabilize and I can obtain access to user-friendly videotaping and editing software, I plan to use the “flipped” classroom methodology developed at West Point. In flipped classrooms, the students watch the introductory lecture prior to class, complete and online quiz and then use classroom time for problem solving, skills development work, and policy discussion.

[1] Terry Doyle, Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment 63 (2008).
[2] I have read and incorporated best practices from a number of books and articles about how students learn and what constitutes good teaching. My growing bibliography is HERE. I have attended a number of conferences and workshops on learner-centered teaching and incorporated their suggested practices into my curriculum: Southeastern Association of Law Schools Annual Conference, New Law Teachers' Workshop (Aug. 6 - 7, 2013); University of Louisville Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning Events: "Becoming a Learner-Centered Teacher" (Feb. 7, 2013); “What Makes a College Teacher ‘Great’? Learning to Make the Most of Your Teaching Activities” (Sept. 29, 2011); “Small Steps are Best: Incorporating Critical Thinking & Assessment into Courses One Step at a Time” (Apr. 11, 2011). I have also observed the classes of Tony Arnold, Tom Blackburn, John Crawford, Bill Dodge, Susan Kuo, Jack Miller, Roger Park, Radhika Rao, Joel Samuels, Reuel Schiller and Laurie Zimet. Finally, I've taken an improvisational theater course to improve my extemporaneous speaking and classroom performance.

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