The Epistemology of Law Teaching

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Somehow I missed “Wake Up and Smell the Epistemology,” a thought-provoking article by Tim Clydesdale (Sociology, College of New Jersey) from the January 23, 2009 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (pay site – sorry- day passes available).  Professor Clydesdale argues that we need “a paradigm shift in how we approach our students that parallels the paradigm shift in the broader culture.”  Specifically, he says, college professors should understand that most students don’t arrive on campus with a desire to learn for learning’s sake, and that they are skeptical of the value of a liberal arts education.  The average student is one “who appears polite and dutiful but who cares little about the course work, the larger questions it raises, or the value of living an examined life,”  Professor Clydesdale says.   For that reason, he asks instructors “to see the two questions that the new epistemology emblazons across the front of every classroom  : ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ : and then to adjust their teaching accordingly.”

Professor Clydesdale gives this example:

Take the survey-of-dance course, offered nationwide as a way for students to satisfy fine-arts requirements. Instructors traditionally organize this course the way the discipline is structured, beginning with prehistoric dance, following with the diversity of tribal and folk dances, then moving on to the emergence of dance as high art, and so forth. All of those topics are important, mind you, but I can see students nodding off from here.

By contrast, an instructor who respected students as arbiters of knowledge in their own right might begin with the forms of dance students know or do themselves. Next, the instructor could encourage students to articulate the criteria by which they decide which dancers are better than others, and which dance forms are more appealing. From there, the instructor could demonstrate how the dance forms that students already know have evolved out of prior forms and genres, and have a dancer demonstrate evolving styles within a genre or two. Next, the instructor could take the whole class through a dancer’s workout, lest the students think good dancing requires little effort. From there, the instructor could go in a number of directions, such as introducing students to the art of choreography, showing video clips to demonstrate how different choreographers stage the same piece, and illustrating how some of the most innovative choreography is rooted in deep historical and cultural knowledge of dance.

Personally, I prefer the dentist’s chair to the dance floor, but I would look forward to such a class, and so would most students. More important, students enrolled in such a class would sharpen their analytic skills, gain a wider knowledge of dance, and develop respect for both dance and the study of dance that would stay with them for decades. Some would say this is simply good pedagogy  : I wholeheartedly agree. Good pedagogy is the product of instructors who respect, understand, and creatively engage their students.

What does any of this have to do with teaching law?  I read Professor Clydesdale’s article as an invitation to reflect on how we as law professors can make our teaching relevant to our students and to the the practice of law.  In that simple statement, many will read a political preference for teaching “skills” vs. “doctrine” (a dichotomy I have always rejected as false).  What I  mean, though, is that, as teachers, we need to continually evaluate what we teach our students and why.  For a beginning law teacher, “because it’s in the casebook” or “because my colleague has it on his syllabus” might be sufficient reason to teach particular material.  But for those of us who are a few (or more) years into teaching, those reasons no longer suffice.

We need to be intentional teachers — we need to teach what and how we teach for a reason.  Why do I include this material on my syllabus?  Why do I want the students to know it?  How is this important to their development as critical thinkers?  As lawyers?  As human beings?  Did I communicate my expectations?  Did the students meet them?  How did my teaching help or hinder meeting the expectations?

These are the things that keep me up at night….

-Bridget Crawford

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