Teaching During Transition

Presidential sealby Ashley Ahlbrand

With a new administration poised to take the helm this month, we can expect many changes in the federal government in the coming months. This can make teaching legal research, especially any lectures focused on government documents, a challenge; but it is also an opportunity. For this month’s post, I thought I would highlight some of the topics and resources likely to arise during the transition.

Website Transitions – When a new administration takes over, you can typically expect a complete overhaul of WhiteHouse.gov. The resources you are used to accessing, like presidential actions in the Briefing Room, may move or be reorganized. Indeed, the type of content made available by the current administration may change in the next. Emphasizing the importance of knowing what to look for, and not simply becoming complacent about where you have always found it, might be a good skill to focus on this semester – rather like emphasizing platform independence between Lexis and Westlaw.

You might also note the likelihood that the current administration’s White House website will be archived by NARA, which you can demonstrate by showing the websites of former administrations, including Clinton and Bush. On the topic of archived web pages, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is always a good tool for students to learn about – after all, WhiteHouse.gov is not the only website likely to change.

Researching People – With a new administration comes new leadership, including a new Cabinet. As names of potential and likely appointees are floated through the media, teaching students about tools for vetting people can serve as a timely teachable moment. I often teach these tools in the context of preparing for a job interview, but big news events such as this provide another approach to teaching the usefulness of these tools. I emphasize Bloomberg Law’s people search; while the amount of content available varies by individual, the feature I like here is the related news, showing the latest media coverage the individual has received. Public records are another appropriate topic here; you might discuss the information you can find on your Secretary of State’s website or even at local records offices. I discuss the Lexis Public Records tool (with the caveat that the students should only use this tool for educational purposes, not personal). This is also a good topic for discussing the merits and ethical limitations of social media research. Finally, as appointees are brought forward, you can transition into discussing congressional resources and documents related to events such as Senate confirmation hearings.

Monitoring the Regulatory and Legislative Agendas – There has already been much talk about the changes that are likely to occur with our federal laws and regulations with the new administration and the new Congress. There are many legislative and administrative tracking tools that you might bring to your students’ attention. Congress.gov offers several handy features in this area, including links to monitor current legislative activities, to read the latest in the Congressional Register, or to see what bills have been recently introduced or most viewed of late. Regulations.gov and FederalRegister.gov allow to you see the latest regulations from all federal departments and agencies and to participate in the regulatory process by submitting comments on proposed rules. This is also a good time to emphasize the wealth of information available on agency websites, as they are likely to be the first to announce their own changes as the administration turns over.

Vetting Reliable Information – There has been a lot of attention brought to fake news stories lately, which provides a good vehicle for emphasizing the importance of information literacy and the ability to effectively evaluate resources. You might discuss factors such as the authoritativeness of the website or resource’s author, how up to date the content is, and strategies for verifying the veracity of claims made. For tracking fake news, you could introduce your students to Hoaxy, a new tool from researchers at Indiana University designed to help you study the spread of fake news stories.

These are just a few suggested topics, and many more are certain to present themselves as the transition unfolds. I hope you’ll find ways to turn the events of the presidential transition into teachable moments for your students, and I hope you’ll share them with us if you do! Students tend to digest knowledge best when they can relate it to real-world scenarios; thus, capitalizing on these events that the students will be invested in already can be an excellent means to an end.


About ashleyahlbrand

I am the Educational Technology Librarian at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. I am deeply interested in exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education.
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