Prof to Student and Back
Steve Cohen, a long-time adjunct, finds himself enrolled in law school -- and thinking about some common teaching questions and strategies
I just finished my last final exam. But for the first time in 25 years I wasn’t grading those papers; I was writing them. At age 58 I just completed my first semester at New York Law School. And while I may not be the oldest One-L in America, I’m certainly one of the very few to take on the challenge after two-plus decades as an adjunct professor of marketing and management at several graduate programs.
Law school was an accident. While I had considered it some 35 years ago when graduating college, it was my recent jury duty service -- on a major trial – that triggered my renewed interest. Soon after the verdict, I was at a dinner party and told another guest about an article I had just written about the trial. She was intrigued, and asked me whether I was a lawyer. No, I admitted, but I then speculated aloud about the upcoming terror of becoming an empty-nester as my younger son was about to go off to college. Before my second glass of wine, I had a tentative admission; unbeknownst to me, the woman I had been talking to turned out to be a dean at the law school.
My new perspective from the other side of the lectern is also colored by now having two sons in college. To say that education is wasted on the young – apologies to George Bernard Shaw – is a temptation. But I’ll hold back with that broad brush, and instead proclaim that as a result of going back to school, my own teaching will change pretty radically in the future.
First, an admission: I’m working harder in law school than I ever worked as an undergraduate or graduate student. Moreover, the workload is heavier, and the expectations tougher, than at any of the programs I taught in. As a night student, I go to class four evenings a week – two classes each night, totaling three hours. In addition to an hour of review before each class, my preparation on weekends is never less than 12 hours, and often more.
Interestingly, this time commitment is somewhat less than that of most of my colleagues. (Perhaps the one advantage of age is that I suspect I work more efficiently than most young people do. Unfortunately, it is often offset by middle-age memory loss.) Which leads me to my first observation: I have a new respect for night students.
Evening Students -- Many of my classmates are incredibly hard-working, mature, and dedicated. This shouldn’t surprise me – all of my graduate students as an adjunct at New York University and Fordham University were night students – but it does. As a teacher, I saw my students one night a week for a total of just under three hours. What I never really appreciated was the bigger picture of their commitment. Now I recognize that I never had a sense of how much time and effort their overall program was demanding. When I grumbled about their lack of preparation, I really had no sense of competing demands.
The Bigger Picture -- As an adjunct, I don’t think I was ever invited to a department-wide or program-wide meeting. I met with my dean to review – cursorily – my syllabus, and I knew what students were required to take in order to get a degree. I didn’t know – and really didn’t care -- if another professor had assigned a paper or a group project. I was in my own little world. When I teach again, it will be with the proviso that my dean better integrate the adjuncts into the overall program.
Mature But Still Clueless – Before contracts class one night, I was talking with a classmate, who, based on her class participation, I knew to be pretty sharp. And her chit-chat was no less articulate. So, relevant to our conversation, I thought she would find an anecdote about Theodore H. White interesting. (I had met White years ago.) I tell the story, and get a blank stare in response. I ask her if she knew who Teddy White was; or if she had ever heard of The Making of the President books. No clue. And she was not alone in what I had assumed was basic “popular cultural literacy.” I got similar blank looks from more than a few classmates when I referred to North by Northwest, Paul Newman’s favorite role in The Verdict, Dr. Kildare, or our former-haberdasher president. In the future, I’ll take more care in making cultural references.
Stress – From the very first week of law school, assorted deans stressed that our job prospects upon graduation would be directly related to our first-year grades. This is particularly salient inasmuch as we attend a “second tier” law school. Our grades are almost entirely dependent on the four-hour, closed-book final exam. (A tiny number of classes include a midterm exam that counts for about 25 percent of one’s grade.) And class participation can affect a student’s grade only marginally.
So, coupled to a seriously demanding workload, a largely new “language,” and the need to learn how to “think like a lawyer,” is the regular reminder that grades really count. Not surprisingly, the stress level among first-year law students is scarily high.
The Curve – Last year our law school changed its grading curve. Where the previous curve allocated only 6 percent of grades be an A or A+, this year there is an 8 percent target -- with a 12 percent maximum. (I told some classmates the old joke about the two law students confronted by an angry bear. “We’re not fast enough to outrun a bear,” said one. “You’re right,” said the other. “But I can outrun you.” Very few found it funny.) I like the curve. As an adjunct, I was under pressure – from both students and my program director – to inflate grades. When I next teach, I’ll push for a published curve.
Competition vs. Cooperation -- Among night students, there is healthy amount of cooperation and very little (outward) competition. We study together, respond to midnight e-mails about complicated cases, and are generally quite supportive. That does not seem to be the case among the (younger) day students. Many of us have heard stories of day students hiding research materials from their classmates. Whether apocryphal or not, it reinforces our desire to see our fellow night students do well. As a teacher, I’ve often assigned group projects. I’ll continue to do so in the future, but with more sensitivity toward scheduling problems.
Kill Computers in the Classroom – I am utterly shocked by the number of students who spend the entire class on their Blackberry or Facebook account. I find it both stupid and rude. Some surfers actually have the chutzpah to say to the professor they need their computers during class because their handwriting/note-taking is so poor. The professors aren’t oblivious, but only once did a prof tell a student to put away her Blackberry. I wanted to climb over the desk and dope-slap my classmate.
A young friend of mine -- a very smart, thoughtful, respectful Stanford Law School grad – argued that before computers, students would do crossword puzzles in class. And, he argued, it is up to the professor to keep people engaged. I agree: it is my job to make class time interesting and productive. But part of my job is to elicit the observations and ideas of students; to help them learn from each other. But if they are not listening, they cannot contribute, and that is a detriment to all.
My niece, a graduate student at a top program, admitted she surfs the Web during her classes. Seeing I was appalled, she tried to argue that it is valuable to have instant access to “factual” information (i.e. Wikipedia) in order to challenge her professors’ assertions. I concede that point – in the abstract. So in the future, I’ll institute a compromise: I will keep one computer available in the classroom for students to access -- after they’ve raised an objection. But otherwise I plan to ban all electronic devices from class.
Don’t Teach to the Stragglers – I had only one “unsuccessful” course this semester. It was a large lecture with weekly written homework assignments. The classes were largely a waste of time; a not-very-good review of material we read in the text. And the homework assignments were checked off for submission but never graded. The professor was a very knowledgeable guy, but seemed to be going through the motions during class. Twice during the semester I approached him and made suggestions – first, to post the answers to the homework questions online – and then perhaps to assign more challenging research problems in class which we would solve and discuss. His answer surprised me. He couldn’t do either because he felt he had to teach to those in the bottom 20 percent of the class who were struggling with the basic material. I was shocked: the 80 percent of us who understood the material were being penalized by the few who did not. Perhaps I’m too Darwinian, but in my classes it is going to be sink or swim. I’m available -- as are TAs -- for extra help. But the pace is not going to be dictated by the stragglers.
TAs Can’t Grade – In an unusual practice for law school, one of our professors gave us weekly writing assignments. They were graded by teaching assistants, but the grades didn’t count. Midway through the semester, concerned that I was getting pretty mediocre grades – but pretty sure that I was understanding the material – I talked with the professor. He suggested I send him a copy of the next paper. I did, and sent a copy to the TA as well. Not surprisingly, I received my usual C from the TA; an A from the professor. The writing exercises were enormously useful. But if I use TAs in the future, the real challenge will be to establish clear rubrics for grading and ensure that I closely monitor the TA’s actual critiques as well as the grading.
On-Call vs. Called-On – Most of my professors have referenced The Paper Chase, the 1973 movie about Harvard Law School where John Houseman won a best supporting actor Oscar as the terrifying Professor Kingsfield. (Almost none of my classmates had ever heard of the film, though several have now watched it.) Very few law professors terrorize students as the fictional Kingfield did. Most now go around the room calling on students in order, and if a student is unprepared he says, “Pass.” One very good professor gives five students two days' notice that they will be “on call” for an entire class, and drills them (fairly gently) on their assigned cases.
Both approaches work reasonably well. But I did have one mini-course where the old-fashioned Kingsfield approach was used. I never worked harder preparing for that class, and my learning curve soared. As one tenured colleague reminded me, there is no need to embarrass students by not letting them off the hook when they choose to pass. (Though he notes in his grade book who is not prepared.) But the fear of embarrassing oneself by not being prepared for every case really did motivate me to work harder. As a teacher, I’m inclined to find my inner Kingsfield.
Drinking – I am not a teetotaler. But I am amazed by how much people in their 20s drink. And how often they drink to excess. Getting sick from alcohol is neither a badge of honor – as it is among underage drinkers – or a stigma. But for me it is disturbing. I just don’t get it. It is one area of my law school experience where I can’t find common ground with my classmates. Maybe I’ll just have to reinstitute sherry hour as a means to encourage moderation.
As I finish writing this piece, it is now just after Christmas break, and we start classes again next week. Along with my classmates, I’ve spent much of the past two weeks checking the law school Web site every few hours to see if final grades have been posted. We are not quite obsessive about it; wait, I take that back, yes we are. Finally, grades are in, and I’ve done really well. Except in legal writing. Despite having written six books – including three best-sellers – and numerous award-winning articles, I just can’t get the hang of the repetitive, structured format required by the class. My professor tells me not to worry -- too much. Now I have to brag to my kids that the old man has standing to nag them on to better grades.
Steve Cohen is a founding director of iCollegeBound.org and is ambassador-at-large for IndividualU.
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