Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Class Discussion

Much is made of class discussion in law school. Professors are evaluated on their propensity to incite and allow class discussion. I have no idea what the attraction is. Class discussion is crap. It differs from lecturing in that it allows students to contribute, which equates to less talking being done by the person in the room who actually knows the subject (and is getting paid to teach it) and more talking by people who know nothing of it.

Students say stupid things in class. I know--I've spoken in class before. Not once have I made a worthwhile point. I can barely sound intelligent when I have time to think about my answers, let alone off the cuff. At most, I've broadcasted a personal moral or political belief and done so without justification or persuasiveness. The occasional intelligent remark by a student is so rare that it makes no sense to sift through the silt for it. The only person who could pull that off was David, and he went incommunicado months ago.

Professors like class discussion because it means they don't have to lecture. They get to substitute in easy conversation about a topic they enjoy. Students like it because a. students think they're much smarter than they actually are and some love to hear themselves speak; b. participation points; and c. they hyperbolically discount the benefit of a full legal education so that they irrationally prefer the present pleasure of being able to stop taking notes and learning, which is what class discussions allow for.

If it's argument skills we're trying to develop, then this is an inefficiently indirect means of teaching them. Besides, verbal sparring is only going to be an important trait for a very small percentage of lawyers.

This is something quite different from the Socratic method, as we use the term in law school. I dig the Socratic method; I don't understand how anyone can't. Students stay engaged, and not with floating questions, but with the actual material. And some class discussions do resemble it, when a talented professor is able to firmly lead the discussion places he wants it go, so he can stage effective tutorials. This is the wonderful exception to the rule. Most class discussions, on the other hand, result in useless utterances of personal convictions which--valid as they are--do not make a legal education and are seldom interesting, outright error that too many professors are unwilling to identify as wrong, or, quite commonly, wind-sprints to realms off topic.

I took a high-level tax seminar with Professor Yale. It was a fantastic class, but he was always glum that more people didn't speak up. I thought that was one of the seminar's endearing traits. The only people who spoke were those who actually understood the subject (I myself did not) and the rest of us were too terrified to embarrass ourselves. So we didn't waste the class's time.

More people should be so courteous.

Also, an amazing blind kid.

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