Thirty-One Themes of Thought

“Thirty-One Themes of Thought” is the title I gave my fifth grade class poetry compilation.  What could this possibly have to do with best practices for law professors?

This post, my first for this blog I have long admired, I conceived as a commentary on what I call my “thematic” approach to law teaching.  In my doctrinal Family Law course as well as in my Family Law Clinic I stress recurring themes: the intense public-private tension inherent to Family Law; social change as catalyst for legal developments; storytelling as advocacy; client-centeredness; and holistic lawyering.

As I pondered this concept of “thematic teaching” my mind wandered repeatedly to that alliterative “Title” my 10-year-old brain fashioned . . . 35 years ago.  My use of the word “theme” was likely less about dedication to big-picture thinking than it was about grappling for a word other than “poem” to make my little manila-folder-booklet different from the rest in some small way.  Yet upon further reflection I find a resonance in that word choice with my current work and my teaching style.  Calling my booklet “Themes of Thought,” I believe demonstrated a constant yearning for connectivity (hence the alliteration) and a broad view (referencing the “thought” our class put into each poem)  that is part of my identity.

Taking a thematic approach to law teaching is not something I was taught–it is something that I developed organically as I grew the past 12 years as an educator.  And although I have been aware of it as my approach for years, I just a few months ago began to name it and reflect on it.  Reflection, I firmly believe, is a fundamental aspect of my professional growth as a professor and a lawyer, but also of my students’ growth.  Reflection as a tool in clinical law teaching is nothing new.  I first experienced it as a law student invited/required to submit journals routinely during my clinical year.  Borrowing that tool from my mentors was arguably the single best decision I made as a new clinical professor four years ago.  Reflection fosters self-awareness, which fosters a maximization of strengths.  Lawyers work hard, think critically and often receive little praise from clients and judges alike–not to mention opposing counsel.  Reflecting on one’s accomplishments and professional development, in addition to client interactions, shows budding lawyer (our students) that they can do this work and in fact are doing it well on many fronts.  By the same token, the opporutnity for feedback from their professor or other clinical supervisor through submission of journals is a safe and controlled space to reflect on mistakes and engage in contemplation about how to improve skills while a mentor helps them process those often uncomfortable realities.

This methodology of reflection and self-awareness is different in the traditional law school classroom setting than clinics, but it can be done.  Several colleagues have written and presented at conferences on using written reflections and other tools in non-clinical classrooms.  In my thematic teaching paradigm, I use several approaches in my Family Law lecture course, which often holds enrollment of over 50 students:

1. On Day One of class I explain the main theme of the course, which is the public-private tension mentioned above.

2. My “big picture” approach is evident from both my remarks that day in class; my syllabus which describes each class period’s theme; and the casebook, which opens with commentary on that very same public-private tension unique to Family Law.

3. I assign casebook material for Day One, comprised of several United States Supreme Court cases interpreting Due Process liberty interests.  During class I ask students to ponder why a course on Family Law suddenly looks so much like a Constitutional Law course.  Drawing their attention back to the public-private tension theme, I remind the students that Due Process liberty inquiries center around that same public-private tension.

4.  One Day One I dispense the material via lecture and PowerPoint, but clarify that I use the Socratic method from Day Two forward and call on students at random.  The Socratic method promotes self-awareness and reflection in a way no other methodology can offer, when managed successfully.  Each teacher must define success for themselves, but for me it means engaging the student about why they responded as they did, regardless of the accuracy of that response.  Even if the response is flawed in some way, I invite them to thoroughly vet it.  Then I clarify any flaws–with compassion and professional respect.

5. Volunteered answers, and questions, are welcomed in my classroom.  The questions are particularly useful for promoting reflection as well as larger themes, as they often stem from common public misconceptions about Family Law ripe for discussion.

6. Returning back to Day One for a moment, I ask the students something critcal after my introduction of the course themes and my teaching style, but before my lecture on the assigned material.  I invite them to mindfully reflect on whether this course will serve their needs as a learner.  Immediately, they as listeners are cued to reflect what they do need as learners of the law.  With what I hope is humility, I remind them that my brilliant colleague Dara Purvis also teaches Family Law and they can take the course with either prof. Students dropping my course after hearing that speech does not offend or scare me, and I stress that.  Occasionally a student walks out at that point, never to return.  That is utterly fine.

7. Finally, the final exam.  After a semester of thematic teaching and, one can assume at least a sliver of reflective learning, the students are asked at least one question on my exam about the public policy aspect of Family Law. The question is not a fact pattern.  Other parts of my exam utilize those.  But the policy question asks them to consider (and sometimes describe) an area of Family Law and what they learned about it, and opine on the efficacy of that legal framework or approach.  I like to end the semester the way we began, with reflection on the big picture, with consideration of our legal system as social underpinning.  How does the law reflect our values and social norms? Who gets to define those norms?  How much government regulation of private decision-making on personal matters is too much?

What is your signature teaching approach?  I ask my clinic students to reflect on what is their unique style of lawyering.  As their teachers I believe we are well served by reflecting on what is our unique style of teaching. The growth among our academy and our students is symbiotic.  Let us embrace that.

3 Responses

  1. I agree that the use of themes is a good way to help students learn family law. Certainly, the tension between public and private interests is important to emphasize. I also found it useful to encourage discussion about the many instances where the Bible was the source of family law rules.

    This is especially common when there is no obvious public purpose served by the rule, for example, prohibitions against same sex marriages and polygamy. Many of my students were amazed to learn than polygamy has been allowed for thousands of years in some societies without causing apparent damage to those societies. I am not personally in favor of polygamy, but my students found it difficult to articulate public purposes that are served by prohibiting it, rather than regulating it. After all, there is nothing to prohibit consenting adults from living with and having children with as many partners as they wish, as long as they don’t get married.

    In South Carolina and many other states, the prohibitions against marriage because of incest were taken directly from the Bible, yet many of the prohibitions, especially those involving relationships resulting from affinity, serve no public purpose in modern society. You would be allowed to marry your first cousin, but apparently not a step sibling who acquired that status during adulthood when your parents married for the second time.

    My point is that some family law rules exist because of the religious beliefs of lawmakers, not because of any deliberation of public vs. private interests, and that this is a useful theme to pursue in a family law class.

    Roy Stuckey

  2. Another way to use reflection as a teaching tool is to require students to submit short essays reflecting on the reading assignment prior to each class. I taught Housing Discrimination as a seminar course for the first time last semester, building off of materials that Prof. Roisman at Indiana was kind enough to share with me. These reflection papers were among the ideas I tried.

    I found these essays to be enormously helpful in getting students to engage with the material, to prepare thoroughly for each class, and to have thought through their reactions to the assigned reading. I believe classroom discussions improved as a result, with most students participating and demonstrating their understanding of the materials.

    The reflection papers also alerted me to what students were misunderstanding about the reading, allowing me to target mistakes in analysis at the start of the next class. I have since learned that some of my friends who teach undergraduates (political science, philosophy, English) require similar written submissions prior to class – as a way to get students to read for class, if nothing else.

    The problem: students tend to want to avoid weekly assignments. I had a number of drops once I had posted my syllabus and course requirements, before classes had even started.

    Another issue is how to assess the reflection papers from a large class, but this can be handled (without reading all of them each week) by randomly selecting and grading papers and/or with the use of teaching assistants.

    Margaret Moore Jackson

  3. Hi Margaret- I like your reflection papers, and I do something similar, but shorter in my first year and advanced legal writing courses. I often use what I call “one minute papers” at the end of class. I direct the students to tell me something specific– what most confused/excited/interested them, what lingering questions did they have, what would they want me to cover first in the next class, etc. These don’t require much of my time in assessment, but allow me to assess where my students are, how successful I have or haven’t been in teaching a concept, or pick up on common challenges students are having, thereby allowing me to prepare better for upcoming classes!

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