Lecturing Law Professors

Disdain of the traditional Socratic method is unfortunately trending among law professors. Even capable professors like Professor Bainbridge of UCLA now frequently dedicate substantially all of their classroom hours to monologues interrupted by little or no questioning of or discussion with students.

Probably the most common reason given in support of this shift is the alleged negative effect the Socratic method has on student confidence. Feminist and critical professors elaborate thereon in predictable ways, none of which ought to be taken seriously.

A more credible (but in my view still unsatisfactory) argument in favor of lecturing is advanced by Professor Bainbridge in response to a student’s critique of the method:

After 20-odd years of watching law teachers in action, however, I have come to believe that the vast majority of what passes for Socratic-style teaching is really what I call soft Socratic, which is basically just glorified opinion discourse.

By “opinion discourse,” he means questions in the nature of opinions about the law rather than requiring the application of substantive law to facts. He concludes:

Personally, I think students get more value out of a well-crafted lecture that takes them beyond the reading than soft Socratic questioning.

Professor Bainbridge is quite right that most professors continuing to practice the Socratic method really are using a soft form of it, but I seriously doubt the validity of his conclusion because of its reliance on the notion that a lecture, however “well-crafted” can take students “beyond the reading.”

Something which is “well-crafted,” I think, is the sort of thing which is highly prepared or constructed with great attention to detail. A well-crafted lecture then, especially in contradistinction to the more free-form Socratic method, would seem to be one which is prepared with a specificity approaching the nature of a text, which is to say reading.

It’s unclear how one gets beyond the reading by delivering material in a format that closely approximates reading except for the spoken rather than written medium. Unless this is the advantage sought, why not just get beyond the reading with additional reading?

The lecture’s advantages over even the soft Socratic method are not apparent to me either readily or on inspection, and my own experience with lecturing professors supports this conclusion. These classes are invariably boring to the extreme, being as they are just oral versions of material that substantially all students will have access to in the form of outlines acquired from students of the class in previous years. Indeed, professors often track these outlines word-for-word.

If this is effective, then why not distribute a written version of the lecture to students, take questions via email, and distribute responses to the entire class? It might be argued that some people learn more effectively by listening than reading, but the opposite is true of others and there’s no obvious reason that the former group should be protected at the expense of the latter.

Moreover, there are clear benefits to the use of even a soft Socratic method. Class periods are more interesting because more dynamic and not predictable by all reasonably competent students. And even half-hearted questioning of a student is likely to raise issues other students had not considered. This seems to me far more likely than a lecture to provoke the sort of critical thought that really takes students “beyond the reading.”

As an aside, knowing that one might be called upon encourages student preparedness and effectively punishes the opposite by embarrassment (I think that any modification of student grades based on attendance or class performance is wholly inappropriate, but that’s beyond the scope of this post).

The student, Christopher Judge, whose post Professor Bainbridge responds to, makes a series of complaints I tend to associate with capable students whose lack of engagement and failure to take responsibility for their own legal educations (exemplified by Judge’s complaint that gunners are ruining for other students, probably none of whom would pay attention in any event) often limits their comprehension of the “bigger picture,” as such.

I might be inclined to address Judge’s post at a later date, but at the moment only note its location on The Faculty Lounge, a blog maintained mostly by students of the above type who lately became law professors.

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