The Second Draft - Volume 34, No. 1
Can I Teach You in a Hall? Can I Teach You on a Call? Can I Teach You from My Room? Can I Teach You on a Zoom? DOWNLOAD PDFApril 22, 2021
Professors—and perhaps law professors more than most—can usually rely on the architecture of the place, the costuming of the participants, and even the nature of our audience for at least some of our success in the classroom. In a normal year, I know I benefit from the kind of people in the room: a captive audience who have been rewarded for sitting quietly and attentively for sixteen years. I benefit from the students’ relationships with one another: they enliven and enrich the class discussion and the classwork. I benefit from the very architecture: the class sits at desks oriented toward me, the professor, and we are in a building specially designated as Law School.
This year, I don’t have those advantages.
Without the trappings of a normal semester, the pandemic has
Good teaching (like good lawyering) is relational.
During the pandemic, I have had the chance to watch the Today Show. If I’m being honest, like, every day. Sometime between March 23 and March 142 of last year, Hoda Kotb shared some advice about babies that is equally applicable to first-year law students, and probably loads of other kinds of people as well: they need to be talked to, and looked at, and listened to. That’s pretty true of everyone, all the time, except maybe parents of young children during the pandemic who just want to be left alone. For five. Minutes.
I had to know who my students were sooner and better than I usually do. There’s no easier way to destroy a student’s confidence or interest than revealing that they don’t matter enough for me to know who they are. This is especially true in a semester when so many felt unmoored, overwhelmed, and often isolated in unique circumstances. This semester, I had both the crutch of named Zoom boxes and the curse of masked in-person classes. We were in a hybrid format with alternating week cohorts, which meant that one week,
First, I always ask students to fill out a short introduction for me at the beginning of the semester, but this year, I also had them create entries in a sort of “firm directory” for each other. In addition to the utility of mandatory introduction and contact information sharing, this allowed me to see both the way they presented themselves to me and the way they presented themselves to the class—it was not always the same. The difference added a layer of knowledge for me going into the semester and served as a jumping off point for discussions about professional conduct with diverse audiences.
Second, I spent even more time in office hours. At the beginning of the semester, I required every student to visit office hours for fifteen minutes. And then I regularly advertised office-hours visits both for curricular questions and as an opportunity to talk with someone outside their houses. Without a commute or having to pick up the kids (because they were home with me), I could extend office hours and get through everyone who wanted a visit any given day. I love in-person office hours, but I learned to enjoy online office hours. Not only did I get the opportunity to check in with students—who were often more candid from the comfort of their homes—but the ability to screenshare made reviewing student work much easier than my typical in-person experience of handing the laptop back and forth. The practice was so pleasant that even when things go back to normal, I will offer online office hours in addition to in-person ones.
Third, I organized socials, Zoom game happy hours, and socially distanced, very small-group outdoor picnics. I do not normally act as a cruise director, but I did not want to give up the energy, support, and risk-taking in the classroom that comes only when students are comfortable with each other and with me. I normally benefit from the relationships they build in the interstitial spaces of the law school that didn’t exist this year. They can’t drop by my office. They can’t hang out with each other in the café downstairs. No one runs into anyone else in the hallway. Especially during our remote weeks, students appreciated the opportunities to talk to one another, instead of logging on only to listen.
Good teaching (like good lawyering) is transparently structured.
While I built the relationships necessary for a successful class, I also tried to be transparent about the structure of the class. Students, like clients, benefit from understanding the process at the outset. Here’s what to expect as the class (or case) progresses. I guide them through the process—what to expect and why, what parts are hard and what I need from them, what to expect from other parties or players, and how other audiences might view their concerns. For students, some of that happens naturally, or at least gets reinforced naturally, during a regular semester in which we (and they) bump into each other and talk about how things are going. Not so this year.
Structure and familiar expectations are life-preservers in a semester like Fall 2020. When everything is different and everything is tentative, being predictable is powerful. Students know what we’re going to cover on a given day;
Being remote, or masked, has made me realize how much of my teaching is just making faces and moving around. Motion is my way of checking in, offering feedback, and engaging the class’s attention. I can sympathize, joke, silence, or support with a look. I can wander, deliberately listening in on every group while they work through a problem. But stripped of my superpowers by pandemic restrictions, all the implicit work of faces (when masked) and movement (when boxed in by Zoom) had to be made explicit. I had to build scaffolding in advance that replaced the support work that unrestricted physical presence used to do. I always use activities, but with non-verbal communication, I probably relax into a longer lecture than strictly necessary and looser group-work protocol than ideal. I float around the room, eavesdropping on all their discussions. I pop students in and out of groups and give whole-group clarifications on the fly.
To make group work successful,
While the docs helped me monitor their substantive progress, I was still short on monitoring their professional conduct within the group–were there loafers? Jerks? Talented peer tutors to be commended and deployed strategically when possible? I couldn’t tell, alone in the main Zoom room, or even from the front of the cavernous lecture hall. So, I also asked them to complete a group review (via Google Forms) at the end of class. They entered their names and the names of students they worked with. They rated their groupmates on a 1-to-3 scale. I explained that I expected everyone to get a 2. A 2 means, “good groupmate, would work with again.” No comment necessary. They could rate a groupmate a 1 (poor) or a 3 (really great), but they needed to leave comments supporting those ratings. Students appreciated that very brief accountability measure. It gave them a(nother) reason to be engaged with the group work, and it gave everyone an ordinary reporting mechanism for
I want this pandemic to end for so many reasons, not least among them that I am desperate for regular in-person classes. Because the shift out of the ordinary classroom space stripped away all the comforts of my usual practice, it compelled me to examine the way that I teach. It helped me reinforce the foundation upon which everything else is built. I’m not saying it was a good trade, but this horror-show of a year has made me a better teacher.