Teaching Critical Skills in Legal Studies

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Sonya Lebsack, Legal Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007

Legal Studies 179: Comparative Constitutional Law is filled with students who are thinking about attending law school. My students tell me they figure that if they read cases and learn the structure of courts, such information will make them better lawyers if not increase their chance of admission to the law school of their choice. As a graduate of Boalt Hall I can hardly disagree that such preparation is valuable, but one aspect of succeeding in law school — and life — is recognizing an argument, being able to dismantle it, and making an argument in return. In fact, most legal work (and not only in law school) is about just this endeavor. Success ultimately isn’t about knowing what Marbury stands for or the definition of fancy words like stare decisis; it is about being able to critically read, reason, and write.

I have discovered, to my surprise, in the past few years, that most of my students—including those doing otherwise excellent work — struggle to read a chapter or article and state (in a paragraph or in person) what the author’s “project” is and what the stakes of that project are. Yet students who leave college without being able to identify an author’s argument or methodology and write a cogent analysis and response are going to struggle both in law school and in the “real” world. As a result, I focus my efforts on teaching this underserved area of focus.

At the beginning of the semester, I have each student sign up to summarize one of the articles or chapters assigned for the semester. In so doing the student commits to creating a one-page handout for the other students and to presenting the reading briefly during section. For my part I agree to meet with each student individually several days before that section to discuss a “rough draft” of the handout. During that time we talk in detail about the reading, their analysis thereof, and any aspects of their writing that seem appropriate. I give the student a red-lined version of their draft with plenty of substantive comments. Throughout our conversation I offer advice to get them on track, follow up on questions, and offer reassurance about what I see them doing well. By building on each student’s first effort my comments are detailed and relevant: the student has an immediate and concrete opportunity to improve his or her writing and thinking by generating subsequent drafts for my review (typically reviewed by e-mail). In addition, our conversation acts as a launching point for the student’s “presentation” to peers later in the week.

These efforts take considerable time, but I was convinced that my labor was worthwhile when, in my self-designed mid-semester reviews, students stated that these meetings were the highlight of the class and that they appreciated having been asked to reckon independently with a reading’s argument and methodology. Many also reported that they had never had an instructor sit down with them one-on-one to discuss their critical reading and writing skills. Several also remarked that the experience revealed how dependent they were on the summaries and synthesis of their professors and teaching assistants. This recognition was especially gratifying to me because I had specifically designed the exercise so that students would realize how important it was to do their own reading, reasoning, and writing — in short, to engage daily in the best possible preparation for not only a rewarding career but informed citizenship.