Friday, April 18, 2008

A Tale of Two Classes

I am taking two classes from the same professor this semester, who coincidentally also happens to be my advisor. She is quite awesome, both as an advisor and as a professor--knowledgeable, always prepared, solicitous, helpful, understanding--particularly since I seem to be competing for the Worst Grad Student Ever award.

Anyway, Course 1 is a survey seminar in interdisciplinary legal studies. Course 2 is a special topic seminar in empirical perspectives on gender discrimination. Course 1 is required for the Ph.D program here, Course 2 is not. Both courses have a fair amount of reading (indeed, they share a few of the same texts/articles), and both courses have the same formal requirements: attendance, participation, four critiques/semester, a lengthy seminar paper or review essay of publishable quality.

Both classes have basically the same pool of students, most of whom are my colleagues and friends, and I'm an honorary member of their Ph.D program. I like them all, and we all get along for the most part. Both classes have outside-of-law students from other disciplines, who provide interesting perspectives and rich contributions to the discussion.

Course 1 sucks, while Course 2 is possibly one of the best seminar courses I've ever taken. Why?!

This is not an LSAT question. It's a pedagogical one.

In Course 1, discussion is stilted and forced with lulls of silence, even though it's much larger--of, say, 14 people, only 4 participate on a regular basis. Course 2 only has 6 students total, and all participate equally. It's not because the students in Course 1 don't do the reading--they do. Texts are highlighted, we all complain about having read late into the night or on the bus. Discussion questions are circulated the night before, so we are all prepared, and there is structure to the discussion. But almost everyone in Course 1 agrees that it sucks, and that it's not the professor's fault, but rather the product of the (boring) foundational readings and weird classroom dynamic that doesn't seem to exist during the coffee break.

You'd think that with the same instructor, same pedagogical approach and style, the same pool of students, the same classroom space, and the same course requirements would produce the same type of course experience. You would be wrong.

What, then, are the minor, but substantive differences in the two courses? Without criticizing my professor/advisor (which is not my intention), here are a few theories:

Theories of Why Course 1 Sucks and Course 2 Rocks:

  • Course 1 is a survey course. The readings are too broad, and the course, while coherent, is not focused. Course 2 is a special topic course, focusing on only three types of gender discrimination for the purposes of our empirical approach: sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, and institutional discrimination. Thus, while the readings for each course are roughly equal in terms of number of pages/week, the readings for Course 2 are just digested better by the reader and discussed better in class. Focus is good. Topic matter matters. A common complaint is that the reading for Course 1 is simply boring and sometimes awful.
  • Self selection: Course 1 is required, and while we are all interested in interdisciplinary legal studies (most of us are angling for such jobs in the future), no one is actually interested in every bit of reading or every course topic. The very interdisciplinary nature of the course/program cuts against that: the crim people are interested in their thing, as are the econ people, as are the sociology people. We all bring our different perspectives to the table, but on most days, half or more of the class isn't really "into" the topic at hand, which affects their participation (and whether you like it or not, interest correlates to engagement). Course 2 is so specialized that only students who are really, passionately interested in gender discrimination law are taking it. Everyone is eager to participate, even on the day that we discuss gender discrimination in the criminal justice system, about which most of us know nothing.
  • Free Rider Problem: Everyone in Course 1 is friendly, but there are just too many people. This is probably the most specious of reasons for the stilted discussion, because, dude, a seminar is 15 tops, but 15 is supposed to be a reasonable number that may still accommodate varied discussion and participation, especially over the course of three hours. That said, a course of 15 is not a course of 6--the smaller course will be necessarily more intimate and encouraging of participation. There is no "passing the buck" in a seminar of six people. Not that there aren't any painful, deafening silences and lulls in Course 1 anyway--the problem with buck passing is that at some point it becomes a stalemate of who will take one for the team and discuss the Macaulay piece, already. Much less the Ellickson cow piece. Much less Galanter haves-not piece. For like the third time in two years. Damn it, why isn't anyone talking? I am so bored by this article. Etc., etc. Oddly, there are none of these thoughts in the other course, not even when we are talking about something about which I care not a whit, like the sexual harassment laws in France. I mean, then I get to make fun of the French and think about the idea of culture as being located not only in the social structure but also in national values, ponder the social construction of gender and sex, and articulate a more contextual idea of discrimination. That rocks.
  • Purpose: both courses ask us to interrogate the empirical methods, assumptions and theories of the articles in an aggressive, often critical way. It is a kind of grad school sport to knock at false idols of academia, and it's all fun and good, and a good way to learn what not to do. But it's also kind of depressing, as we figure out our own research designs and dissertations, how to do a good study--more than likely, our work will be ripped to shreds much more easily and with greater alacrity than say, Awesome Influential Scholar. Also, there's not much to say after you've said that Article A is flawed because of X, and then someone else says that well Article A is valuable because of Y, and then, you just all nod politely. This doesn't happen in Course 2, mainly because there's so little work done in empirical perspectives on gender discrimination, that we are all pretty grateful to have even a flawed study or incomplete theory, and hey, that means there's more work to be done!
  • The Rogue Commenter: there's always some student that dominates the discussion. Indeed, I'll bet that sometimes it's me, although I make sure to check the room and keep it short. This is particularly a problem in Course 1, where a single student dominating can shut down a much larger classroom. It's not only the professor's role in mediating and managing the classroom discussion, but also the student's, and the class as a whole. This one is tough. One of my classmates posits that a single student is responsible for shutting down classroom discussion most of the time, by vehemently disagreeing with valid methodological critiques from the economists and sociologists by mentioning other texts that no one else has read (not being critical theorists) to support her point about Article A's value w/r/t Y, notwithstanding X failing. It's hard to respond to that. What do you say? For the student's part, she thinks that the professor is insufficiently sympathetic to other disciplines and is too focused on empiricism and sociology. She might be right, but I actually don't think there's anything wrong with that, since this is not a course on critical legal theory or narrative. In any case, I don't know how to resolve this one.

Two courses, two different experiences. It's no one's fault. Sometimes, you just gotta take the good with the bad. It all washes out in the end anyway, and you end up writing pretty similar 30 page papers of (arguably) publishable quality for both.


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