There are some recurring debates within the legal academy, what to call your professors (first name or Prof. Smith) and whether to allow students to type out notes on their laptop or hand write them. But this post at PrawfBlawg by Hadar Aviram caught me by surprise.
I run my class on an all-volunteer basis because I was raised in a system that did not have cold-calling and I dislike it. But this nifty idea from Nathan Robinson, which he claims he learned from James Forman, holds some promise. He hands each of his students a card with three colored stripes and instructs them to write their name on all three stripes, and then to fold the card so that only one color is showing at the time.
There is a view within the Academy that cold-calling can be humiliating when a student isn’t prepared, if a student can’t handle the pressure of speaking before her class, or if a student utters something inane and the class laughs at their dumb classmate.
The thought is that this undermines their confidence and makes them feel uncomfortable, unsafe, in their learning environment. They should feel safe and supported, the belief goes. Students are entitled to feel respected. Even the ones incapable of modestly intelligent thought, apparently, as long as the tuition bills get paid.
Many a prawf has “explained” to me that the experience of being revealed as unprepared or intellectually unsuited to practice law is wrong. There’s no reason to humiliate students in class, I’m told. Humiliation is not a valid pedagogical methodology. And the only reason old lawyers support this failed approach is that they went through this nightmare rite of passage, and they want new lawyers to suffer like they did.
They believe this rationalization, their strawman, despite actual reasons having been explained. At least Aviram is honest about her approach. She disliked it. Not exactly a sound basis for pedagogy, but far more honest than wrapping up nonsense in the pretty pink ribbon of building the self-esteem of students who would do better if they were handed a dime.
But simply making the duties of law students voluntary seems to be too complicated, too problematic, for some. So, much as computers went from DOS to Windows, so the effort of having to learn commands was reduced to pointing and clicking on a picture would open the internet to everyone, no matter how challenged they were, a new mechanism is proffered.
Each student places their name card in front of them, and positions it so that one side faces the discussion leader. They are told that they should rotate the card so that the color the discussion leader sees is either red, green, or yellow. The meanings of the colors are:
RED – I do not wish to be called on.
YELLOW – I do not mind being called on.
GREEN – I would like to be called on.
Green is therefore the equivalent of raising your hand. Yellow is the equivalent of being open to cold-calling. And red means opting out of cold-calling. The students are asked to default to yellow, but are told that they should not hesitate to go red if they do not wish to speak. (The discussion-leader should have their own namecard, and should turn it to red and keep it there for a while so that students know this is acceptable.) At the end of each session, the instructor collects the cards in a box and hands them out at the end of the next class.
Red, yellow, green. How adorable that academics have adopted the colors of the stop light for their classrooms. So a student need only flash a red light if he doesn’t “wish” to speak? What day, or week, or semester, of law school can a student do without? It’s unexplained why the instructor would collect the cards “in a box” (not an accordion file, not a bag, but a box) at the end of class, but my speculation is that they should do so as the students can’t be trusted not to lose their stop lights, or forget to bring them to the next class. After all, this is law school, and expectations of responsibility shouldn’t overwhelm them.
In a comment to the post, Larry Rosenthal, a crim law prawf at Chapman, offers his variation.
I too have abandoned cold calling because of the stress that it causes students. At the same time, I think it critical that students learn to prepare for class in order to develop the problem-solving and advocacy skills that are so important in the practice of law. If students do not have a meaningful incentive to prepare for and participate in class, however, we should not be surprised when many instead disengage. Accordingly, in my classes (even large ones), I teach with the problem method; all students are assigned clients in each problem; and after class I assess the participation of all students and notify each when they have earned points. In this fashion, students receive prompt and meaningful feedback. The point system strikes many students as subjective, but I warn them that they should expect that same type of subjective evaluation when they enter practice. This seems to satisfy most.
Is this a viable compromise, that students are required to participate (and thus can’t avoid the reading or hide behind a red light) and the prawf can provide feedback to their handling of problem solving and advocacy?
Learning the law, or more precisely, how to “think like a lawyer,” as disfavored as that phrase has become in academia, is one aspect of what students are expect to do in law school. And it is, indeed, a critical lesson. But what about handling stress? What about handling failure? What about handling challenges, even ridicule and disrespect, as prosecutors may occasionally characterize the defense’s argument as “frivolous”?
Most importantly, what of the lesson being taught in law school that the law is about how the young lawyer feels, rather than the young lawyer’s client?
Toughen up, teacup. No matter how brilliant you think you (and your argument) may be, the day will come when you will be told in no uncertain terms that you are laughably wrong. Will you cry? Will you run out of the courtroom ashamed? Will you write a bad review of the judge? Will your mass of hurt feelings do anything to help your client?
It’s understandable that law profs seek to find the most effective method of communicating their lessons to their students, and that they truly believe that things like “stress” impair their ability to teach. But is that really what law school is about?
A tougher lawprof might produce a tougher lawyer.
There are no stop lights in the well, and that client standing next to you really doesn’t care how you feel about it. Do your students care about their client? Are your students tough enough to defend them? Does the legal academy give this any thought when coming up with cool colored signs?