Monday, September 19, 2005
A law professor elsewhere writes:
I've read your comments on the Socratic method with interest. I'm using what I guess qualifies as modified Socratic or something, and thought I'd tell you why and see what your thoughts are.
As a foundational matter, I agree that it's an inefficient way of imparting information, and I tell them that up front. I do think it is one good way of getting people to be able to create legal arguments more intuitively than they might be able to otherwise. I'm certain there are other ways -- as you note, lawyers around the world somehow do it without this sort of training -- but the fact that there are other ways doesn't mean it doesn't work, of course.
My school has a serious problem with students not spending appropriate amounts of time and effort preparing. Part of that is, I think, a cultural issue with the law school: much of our faculty is so focused on having the students consider them friendly that there is little downside in being unprepared (except, of course, at exam time). And if a significant proportion of the class isn't preparing well, it's not even that big a hit at exam time, since we have a fairly strict curve.
So I use cold calling and some component of Socratic questioning as an incentive to be prepared. I am told by students that I stay with unprepared students longer than most other people here, though I feel like I'm quite gentle. Very little of the dialogue component is the routine facts/holding/etc., instead focusing more on what you mention as reasonable -- questions in the casebook, other hypotheticals, etc.
But I *do* have them go through the basics as a way to try to be sure they have the basics.
I'm focusing on this approach more this year than last year and I think it's paying dividends. I've consistently had fairly high standards on my expectations and tell people (outside of class) when they haven't met them (and I think it's clear in class as well), and the level of preparation seems to be improving, both compared to earlier in the semester and compared to last year.
Perhaps this is a bigger issue here than places like Texas. But I do think it is, for the students I'm teaching, a useful tool in getting them to prepare when other approaches seem to fail. I of course would rather have an institutional culture that simply expects preparation for its own sake but the combination of the faculty approach and the students we have seems to make that difficult.
I should note that I'm not intending to criticize the students. I'm generally quite impressed by their abilities. I simply think they are largely not coming from undergraduate backgrounds that have had as rigorous expectations as, for example, my classmates at [name of top law school omitted].
They have the ability but don't seem to have the expectation that they need to do the reading carefully and slowly. Perhaps the Socratic method (or some form of it anyway) has a place in changing that expectation.