by Christina Glon
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2015 Teaching Professor Conference, a national conference specifically designed for college professors that includes Atlanta as a favorite venue. One of the sessions I attended was entitled Setting the Learning Table: First Day of Class Strategies to Stimulate Intellectual Hunger by Dr. Faye Chechowich, Dean of Faculty Development at Taylor University. Dr. Chechowich used the traditional Thanksgiving feast as a metaphor for the “feast of information” we present each semester throughout our courses. Our job as instructors, she offered, is to guide and welcome students to the feast that we have laid out for them, and the first step along that journey is the syllabus. A good syllabus should whet their appetite for the upcoming feast. With the fall semester winding down (and Thanksgiving right around the corner!), it seemed only natural to consider reworking my syllabus for my spring class.
Expanding on the Thanksgiving metaphor, I hope that my syllabus and the first day of my class can equal the anticipation you feel when you first smell the turkey as you walk up to your host’s door, or catch a glimpse of the table as you walk through the house and greet all the friends and family gathered for the feast. Dr. Chechowich offered various examples and icebreaker activities that can help cultivate excitement on the first day of class. In applying her principles to teaching legal research, two things really stood out to me. First, she says, “We cannot feed the students; they must feed themselves. We can only offer-up the feast.” We cannot do the research for the students and/or new associates, but we can set the table with the best sources for legal information and empower them to feed themselves. By actually teasing them with the variety of sources they will use and the skills they will develop over the course of the semester, we have a chance to create some anticipation and interest in the upcoming topics.
Second, Dr. Chechowich explains the benefits of pointing out how your class fits in with the bigger picture of their semester, major, and/or their entire university education. Citing Ken Bain’s 2004 book, What the Best College Teachers Do, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Publishing), Dr. Chechowich explained:
“Extraordinary teachers begin their course by describing to their students the ‘promises or opportunities the course offer[s] and what the students [will] be doing to realize those promises.'”
I think this is an easy concept to incorporate in teaching legal research. After all, we are teaching them the fundamental skills necessary to be a lawyer, right? If you can’t find the law, you can’t very well “practice” the law, can you!? I put this idea in to practice this fall with my Health Law Research class. Health law is an enormous area of law and can involve an intimidating amount of regulatory research. On the first day of class, I told the students we were going to tackle regulatory law (together), and I promised that when we were done, they would be able to research ANY regulatory issues they encountered throughout their career. Because the fundamental research skills they were about to develop over the course of the semester actually work on all types of law and research, not just health law. If they choose to take advantage of the time we spend together, I can equip them for researching almost any topic. Combine that with the doctrinal courses and other practical courses, and suddenly my little health law research class became a vital component of their entire law school curriculum. Bring on the lecture! Let’s master this “research” thing!
As you wind up this semester and prepare for Spring 2016, consider whether your syllabus and/or your first-day-of-class routine could use a little tweaking. Is there something else you could do to whet their appetite for developing more legal research skills? Maybe, just maybe, making your class the most valuable law school class ever? Now, who wants some turkey?!