What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
Just about anything that’s not indecent! I mean it. If I have to, I’ll sing and dance, and I use self-deprecating humour whenever I can. On a serious note, it’s very important to me to bring the material to life, to make it relevant, topical, interesting. I want students to want to learn the material, not just because it’s intellectually stimulating, which it is, but because there are real situations behind what they’re learning, real reasons it’s in the newspapers or on YouTube. So I bring in newspaper articles, I incorporate court visits, I invite visiting lecturers, such as judges and lawyers in the field. But I also really try to get the students to participate actively in class, which is a challenge in a large enrolment class. So I’ll also use tools like clickers, the TodaysMeet website to enable students to participate by writing questions and comments, and Google Docs for groups to collaborate.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
Because I teach large enrolment classes (~75 students) without TAs, it’s a real challenge to have multiple assessments. My first task is to make the exam as meaningful an evaluation as possible while testing two types of thinking skills, vertical and horizontal. By vertical thinking I mean that set of analytical skills needed to solve complex legal problems. Horizontal thinking is making the connections—with other aspects of the course, with other courses, with what’s going on in the world. But I do try to incorporate other forms of assessment. This year, for example, I developed an assignment where a visit to the court was a mandatory part of the class. In my contracts class, I’ve also tried optional assignments for students who prefer writing essays to exams, as well as group projects and presentations, which worked very well in a class of sixty students. The amount of work that goes into setting up these exercises in large classes precludes using all of them all the time, but alternate forms of assessment are something I would like to improve on.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
My most important goal is to create critical thinkers within the context of becoming ethical jurists. It’s a tall order. But as I tell my students, I can’t be all-encompassing because rules change with jurisdiction and with time. So instead, I want to create in them this ability to think critically, analytically. I want to give my students tools. I don’t want to give them answers.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I don’t use materials that students can just pull off the shelf. Instead, I create my own course packs, which enables me to expose students to what I think is the most important research, scholarship, and other materials available. I also use MyCourses a lot to post electronic versions of new material as it comes in. Controlling the course materials, tailoring them myself, is my best chance of exposing students to what I think are the hottest and most varied materials out there in research and scholarship.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
The most important thing for young faculty is to have confidence and to exude it. It’s like parenting—you really don’t know what you’re doing, but you can’t tell the kid that, right? Any new faculty member is going to be brilliant and clearly able to do the job, but it’s still daunting to teach law students. These are smart, vocal students who have been arguing with their parents since they were ten years old! They will instantly know if you don’t have confidence. And you have to be honest if you don’t know something—admitting it actually augments the trust the students have in you anyway. The last thing I would recommend is for young colleagues to not hesitate to be mentored by other colleagues, to ask more experienced colleagues to share material or evaluation methods.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I’m going to give them the advice I gave my three children: “Work in class! Don’t sit there just aimlessly taking notes, and go in and out of consciousness, do your banking, write some emails…” That means preparing. I’m not naïve, I know that students aren’t able to get through every reading for every class, but at least skim it, know what the names and topics are, and you have a general idea what the prof is talking about. Be an active listener, be an active participant, have your mind fully attuned to making the connections. Preparing also means, and I tell my undergraduate students this all the time, not waiting until a week before the exam to ask, “I never really understood this. Can you explain it to me now?”
Why do you teach?
When I started Law school as a student, I never thought I was going to end up teaching law. But now, looking back, I can’t imagine having done anything else. It just feels so natural. I feel fulfilled and alive in the classroom. It gives me a buzz, it makes me excited. Two hours go by in a second! I like living in the world of ideas, and that’s what a classroom is. I like the exchange, the intellectual challenge, learning from my students. In many ways, teaching is just an offshoot of learning, and I love learning. The final thing that I will say is that, while some people simply have a vocation to teach regardless of the age group, I really like to teach university students. I have always related well to the18-25 year-old demographic. Perhaps that is why I loved being Dean of Students many years ago.
Photo by Owen Egan
I like living in the world of ideas, and that’s what a classroom is.