Reflections on Legal Teaching and the Academy

Photo of David DriesenAs a professor, I’m involved in daily reflection aimed at helping my students learn and at developing ideas about how to better shape the law. I used to spend all summer and a couple of days a week during the academic year writing, a few hours a week in committee meetings (mostly discussing possible change in policies and curriculum), and several hours a week preparing for each class (after having spent much time choosing a book, collecting materials, and developing a syllabus). Before each class I read what I assigned my students and some additional materials as well (e.g., a law review article or a new case). I then spent hours thinking about which questions to ask my students and how to handle various possible answers (and non-answers). My promotion to University Professor, however, has allowed me to shift most of my emphasis from teaching to research, and I participate in campus wide strategic planning and write amicus briefs from time to time (mostly for Supreme Court cases).

The process of thinking an idea through gives me great satisfaction, so I like writing and preparing for class. Research sometimes feels like a thrilling treasure hunt, but the process of satisfying demands for endless footnotes documenting what I already know sometimes bores me. The joy in teaching comes when a student asks a good question, tells you that something you said helped in some way, or answers a question in a way that indicates that you’ve made a difference.

The wide range of student abilities here poses a challenge for teaching. I tried to craft questions that will help students who aren’t thinking through legal problems to do so without embarrassing them, while also trying to lead the class to understand some of the deeper issues below the surface of the reading. My work generally seeks to reshape law and economics and reflects on issues in constitutional law that capture my attention. But the election of Donald Trump inspired me to write a book drawing lessons for US presidential power jurisprudence from loss of democracy abroad. It also caused me to devote more time to blogging, letters to the editor, and op-eds. I’m fortunate to have the freedom to work on what I find most important.

Law schools are coming under pressures that may make them more bureaucratic and less of a haven for creativity than they have been in the past. The Bar Association and many accrediting bodies have demanded that law schools define their learning objectives and assessment methods. I’m concerned that these seemingly innocuous demands over time will become a catalyst for greater oversight of teaching and put pressure on professors to short change objectives that don’t lend themselves to measurement, as happened in the public schools when assessment took off. They also require law schools to offer mandatory skills training. The challenge will be to make strategic choices about which of the many potential skills that one might need to emphasize, without shortchanging learning to think like a lawyer and seriously considering issues of justice that constitute the most important challenge our profession faces. I’m also concerned that tenure track hiring seems to be falling out of fashion, precisely at the time when tenure has become more important than it has been in years, because of threats to academic freedom from governments. At the moment, it remains a fantastic opportunity, but the academy faces unprecedented challenges.

Updated September 2021