2nd Time Around: Teaching Legal Research Again

by Paul Gatz

This past week I taught the last class of my Advanced Legal Research course, completing my second time teaching the course, and my mind turned, as it occasionally does, to a set of papers I found in a filing cabinet in my office during my first few weeks in this job. I have tried, in vain, to identify the author of these papers and to discern whether he or she intended to use them for a now-abandoned writing project or left them in the office to serve as instruction and guidance for his or her successor. Regardless, on this particular occasion, a few pages of handwritten text from this collection seemed particular apposite to my own situation. I’ve typed them up and have chosen to post them to this blog, in hopes that others may find them as illuminating as I have and that perhaps the mystery author may come forth to claim them. – PJG

We all know the quip about stepping into the same river twice, and although Heraclitus gave us much richer fodder for thought than just this [1], I found this turn of phrase coming to mind frequently over the course of this past semester. Perhaps similar thoughts have crossed your mind as well, if, like me, you have taught a course once, and then, having taught it a second time, felt an uncanny [2] sense that you are teaching a completely different course than you did the first time.

Of course, in the time since I taught the course the first time, many things have changed. Obviously, I have a completely different set of students, the different personalities, experiences, and knowledge naturally giving rise to a completely different in-class dynamic. This change is especially notable in a class such as legal research, where in-class assignments lead to numerous discussions and opportunities for student participation. But, although different, this semester’s students are just as engaged, discerning, and curious.

20180423_122040.jpg

A red pickup truck.

The content of the course has changed slightly, of course – as wedded as legal research is to technology, how could it not? But those changes are easy enough to incorporate. Rather, it is the older material that I feel like I am having trouble connecting with. I put the course together myself, beginning work on it nearly two years ago. I created slides with detailed notes and assignments and exercises for active learning [3]. Although I have altered these materials in slight ways to account for changes in technology and resources and to improve deficiencies that I noted during my first time teaching, the original materials are now remote. Divorced from the intentions, thought processes, and designs that I possessed when creating them, they are now little more than words and pictures on a page. It is as if they were created by someone else.

For I myself have changed in the intervening year. By refraining from making serious revisions to the previous year’s materials I save time in preparation, but, in the classroom, my voice becomes robotic as I follow a script by rote and, although it may only be in my imagination, I see the attention of my students wander. After a few class meetings like this, I have arrived at a solution. I must re-write my notes. The slides can be reused, as can the assignments, but I now devote more preparation time to re-thinking how I cover the main points, planning out their organization and the metaphors and arguments I use to communicate them. This takes a bit more time, but the material is then fresh in my mind. My voice becomes my own again as the lecture better reflects my current understanding.

Still, I remain not-at-home in the classroom. Something has changed that is not simply due to flat repetition. Age brings experience and knowledge but also distances one from the perspective of those who lack that same experience and knowledge. The obvious danger is that the instructor, in attaining expert-level knowledge, makes unfounded assumptions about what students already know about that field, overlooking the basic principles and frameworks that they need to be able to think critically about more complex topics and apply those principles to real-life situations. But I think the greater, perhaps less obvious, danger of this distance from the students’ experience is an attenuation of empathy for their perspective.

To the extent I have been successful as an instructor, I credit it to drawing upon my own memories of classroom experience as a law student – recreating strategies and approaches that I found helpful and avoiding those that I found counterproductive to my own learning. However, my memories of those times continue to fade, and I fear that I have forgotten how to be a student. Perhaps it is best to let such things fade, to move on and find other wells to draw from to improve my teaching [4].

Or maybe I need to find a way to be a student again. Confront a topic on which I am ignorant. Put myself in a position where I must rely on a teacher to supplement my own learning process. Observe myself and the instructor in the frustration of confusion and the revelation of discovery. Perhaps it is not good to let those experiences fade, perhaps it is best to find ways to remain a student and not let that perspective be lost in that of the teacher…[5]

[1] The author is not wrong. Based on the existing fragments of his work, the sage of Ephesus is surely one of the most changeable and paradoxical of the pre-Socratics.

[2] Based on the rest of the author’s writings, I suspect he or she has chosen this word carefully, although I could not say for sure how precisely we are to take its meaning.

[3] There are a number of activities instructors can use to facilitate active learning in the classroom.

[4] I’ve written about similar feelings in a previous post.

[5] Ellipsis in original.

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About Paul Gatz

Paul Gatz is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
This entry was posted in Humor, Legal Research Instruction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 2nd Time Around: Teaching Legal Research Again

  1. mrlibrarian7 says:

    What is the line: it’s the instructor that learns the most. Knowledge is lost on students. They don’t realize they need it until after they need it and then they scramble. Good luck.

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