by Beau Steenken
Earlier this week I emerged from the annual occurrence that my wife refers to as “three weeks of hell every winter,” namely grading and student conferencing. I’ve posted before about how grading is not my favorite aspect of my job. It is time-consuming, mental-energy-consuming, and impossible to finish during work hours (leading to a temporary loss of work-life balance and resulting in my wife’s nickname for it). In short, it’s hard to sugar-coat grading as anything other than an awful necessity.
Holding student conferences is similarly time-consuming, mental-energy-consuming (at least for us introverts), and prone to causing work-life imbalance. (Some of my colleagues hold after-hours and/or weekend conferences to fit all their students into a week. I do not, but having student conferences take up significant portions of my work time for two weeks invariably causes me to bring other bits of work home.) And yet, I do not complain about student conferences the way I do about grading. The reason for this discrepancy is, I think, that I see student conferences as containing a great deal of value… value that I have not been able to convince myself is provided by marked up papers.
At the heart of each of the two exercises lie the same goals (assuming that one does not take the cynical view that grades exist to aid firms in making hiring choices): extra instruction beyond the classroom, a diagnostic opportunity to identify flaws in understanding or technique, and–at least in our case as LRW is set up at UK Law–a chance for a not-so-subtle reminder that the student should not be leaving writing an appellate brief to the last minute. However, I firmly believe that each of these goals is much more effectively accomplished via a student conference than via notes written on an assignment (and not just because my handwriting is nigh on illegible).
In terms of extra-classroom instruction, you can’t beat one on one instruction time, even if it is only for 20 to 30 minutes. Over the past six years, I’ve taught 1L Legal Research sections ranging from 13 to 23 students, and I can categorically say the smaller class is a much more conducive vessel for effective research instruction. With the larger classes, I find that the students who really need help still get it, and the students who engage with the material at an advanced level still naturally draw my attention; but it becomes rather difficult to pay attention to everyone in the middle, especially as students in the middle tend to be quiet in class. Requiring everyone to attend a mandatory research conference allows for a partial correction of this phenomenon by mandating at least a modicum of individual instruction for each student. Conversely, while written comments can serve instructive purposes, the students already get extra-classroom written instruction through assigned readings, and it’s difficult to ask follow-up questions of static text.
In terms of diagnostic opportunities to identify flaws, anyone who has ever graded papers can probably attest that flaws become pretty obvious pretty quickly. However, noticing something is wrong in a paper is not the same as understanding why the student has erred. For the second (and much more important) question, the instantaneous feedback loop offered by conferences is much more probative than whatever static words the student chose to commit to paper. For instance, in one of the papers I graded last fall for my students’ smaller memo project, I noticed a particular student did not really understand federalism and parallel court structures. I did not know why or how to correct it, but I was able to identify that a problem existed. Upon conferencing with the student, however, it became clear to me that the student was confused because the student was from Canada. Furthermore, the Canadian version of federalism is different enough, while using similar terminology, to the extent that the student thought she understood what was going on in the U.S. but had subconsciously translated it all to Canadian analogs. I was then able to re-explain the U.S. system by pointing out its differences with the Canadian system (this happened at a follow-up meeting after I did some quick research on Foreign Law Guide’s Canada entry).This semester, the same student turned in one of the best research reports of the class.
Finally, student conferences are much more effective at ensuring students stay on track to complete their writing assignments in a reasonable time-frame than even the most alarmist grading comments on a paper. After all, a paper is easy to stuff in one’s bag or locker with the thought of returning to it later. It’s much more difficult to ignore one’s instructor making eye contact and reminding one that one still has work to do and that the clock is ticking.
For these reasons, I view mandatory student conferences as extremely beneficial to 1L legal research instruction, and I think it is easily worth overcoming feasibility challenges to hold them and to make them required for all students. Now, if only I could find a way to convince myself of the value of graded papers…