Education / Schools, Law Professors, Law School Deans, Law Schools

How We Teach

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He’s currently sharing some of his thoughts about legal education and other topics here on Above the Law.

Whether teaching is an art or a science, it requires much more than knowledge of the substantive subject. An understanding of the material is necessary but not sufficient. Effective teaching also demands that the teacher and the students as a group develop a relationship of mutual respect and trust. The classroom dynamic is paramount.

This semester, I co-taught a class with Professor Roger Park. I mean a single class session, not the whole course.

It was terrific to be back in the classroom. That is the point of the entire enterprise in which we are engaged. A law school exists to train people to become advocates and counselors.

The experience reminded me of the importance of rapport based on the implicit pledge that the teacher is on the same side as the students. I have an opinion about effective pedagogy that may seem radical but is not really upon reflection. My hypothesis is that there is not much correlation between knowledge of a subject and success in communicating it to others…

A stipulation at the outset about what I am not saying. A professor cannot be ignorant of the subject. She has to know it to teach it. A certain minimum competence is needed. I could not possibly teach tax law, for example.

What I am suggesting, however, is that you do not have to know the subject to the utmost. Above the threshold of proficiency, which allows responsible deans to put a professor behind a podium, there isn’t that much to be gained with more mastery — not that much for one’s pupils anyway.

As a faculty member, on a standard one to five Likert scale I have received student evaluations at both ends, good and bad. Some years, I have been the worst instructor. It’s been spelled out for me: My failure has exceeded anything the student has seen, ever, from kindergarten through graduate school. Other years, I have ranked among the best. The most meaningful praise a teacher receives comes from students, not from supervisors or peers.

In looking at the difference, my sense is that over time I have become better versed in the subjects I have professed. I’m not praising myself: anybody not an idiot who was immersed in the texts would be bound to improve.

Yet my increased comprehension made it more difficult for me to see what others had yet to learn. It also rendered me more impatient about my role in helping them do so.

The variable that has mattered the most is the relationship with the students as a group, the classroom interactions that reflect not what I know but what I show. It’s the syllabus, organization, evaluation system, demeanor, expectations, sense of empathy, etc.

The students are looking for, as they should, signs that I am dedicated to their progress. The Socratic method must be for their benefit, not my enjoyment. The authority accorded to a professor also cautions humility.

When the students have shared a positive bond with me, they have been forgiving of what I am aware are clear errors on my part: the occasional misstatement of an obscure rule. But if they have supposed me to be antagonistic, then they reciprocate.

Some of this is image and imagination. Yet the effects are real and to be heeded.

None of this is peculiar to the classroom context. Normal human behavior extends beyond the literal (which is why, incidentally, virtual interactions such as via the medium of email frustrate us so consistently). We always communicate in addition to content, whether we care. Thus teachers should invest as much effort into learning how to teach as we do into learning the subject we are teaching.

In our hour together, Professor Park and I debated the standard for admission of expert testimony. He argued for the standard set forth in the Daubert case, which established the current black-letter doctrine, while I took the position set out in the Frye case, precedent handed down almost a century ago concerning the precursor to a polygraph machine.

I expected to lose. Professor Park is a leading expert in Evidence; I, a journeyman. He belongs to that class of professors to which the rest of us should aspire: His mastery of his field is matched by his enthusiasm for imparting it. His erudition has not turned into pedantry.

Later, he showed me his advice for new professors. His list of tips emphasizes kindness, with the directive not to ever show annoyance in class even if a student seems disrespectful or inattentive.

The instant survey results, through classroom clickers, confirmed that I was thumped. Thanks to my colleague’s prompting, I still received applause. His consideration never fails.

As the students were leaving, one reassured me that the lopsided results reflected who would be grading the final. The gesture indicated that he perceived my interest in his well-being as a student. It constituted reciprocation.

Although I am in the classroom much less than before, all of the above still applies to me as an administrator — perhaps even more so.

Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

(hidden for your protection)

comments sponsored by

Show all comments