Don’t Leave Students Questioning How and Why We Use the Socratic Method

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Professor Jamie Abrams

As our Feminist Law Prof community finalizes syllabi for 2022 in a rapidly-changing COVID-19 teaching environment, it is time again to reflect on the robust literature critiquing the Socratic method. We can all continue to modernize this technique to better meet the needs of all students. Certain performances of the Socratic method, which I call “problematic performances” in a recent law review article about inclusive Socratic teaching, are marginalizing and harmful for students when deployed in ways that are professor-centered, power-centered, fear-inducing, and abstractly framed around the “norm of perspectivelessness.” Literature revealing the gendered and racialized harms of the Socratic method is well-documented, sustained, and notably pioneered by the influential work of Professor Lani Guinier. The Socratic method can – indeed, must – be performed inclusively. It can be styled around techniques that are student-centered, skills-centered, client-centered, and community-centered, as I argue in a forthcoming book project with the University of California Press on the imperatives of inclusive Socratic teaching.

One simple and straightforward way to perform the Socratic method inclusively is to bring clarity and transparency to how this technique aligns with our course learning and outcomes and how students should engage with it effectively. What do we want our students to be able to do at the end of our class? How does the Socratic method help students achieve these goals? Faculty, for example, might deploy the Socratic method to build analytic reasoning skills, apply legal doctrine to diverse client representations, critique the strengths and weaknesses of legal rules, and so much more. Both faculty and students alike will benefit from transparency in articulating why we use the Socratic method in our classrooms and how students can perform with it. Here is some simple proposed language to stimulate your thinking:

I will use the Socratic method as a tool for class participation. The Socratic method positions students as active class contributors engaging, analyzing, and thoughtfully evaluating the material and how it affects our communities and lives. It also can contribute to your professional development as you work on legal reasoning, public speaking, and rule-based application skills. We will all approach the Socratic method transparently and collaboratively. All students will be on call. When on call, relax as best as you can, and remember that this is a conversation and a dialogue roleplaying the practice of law in our communities on behalf of clients. The key to Socratic participation when not on call is to recognize that your classmates will be presenting key concepts and rules, not your professor. Listen carefully and take notes while your classmates participate. We are all committed to the same goals – learning the legal rules, testing their boundaries, and bridging these rules into practice readiness. 

For further reading on these topics, consider reading my prior writings on Reframing the Socratic Method and Legal Education’s Curricular Tipping Point Toward Inclusive Socratic Teaching

 —Jamie R. Abrams, University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law





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