The Stop Light of Pedagogy

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?

37 thoughts on “The Stop Light of Pedagogy

  1. REvers

    I had some really good profs in law school. I had some who weren’t…quite…as good as the rest. Some had actually litigated cases. Some had not.

    Want to try to match up which group did what?

    I absolutely loved taking classes from adjuncts, too. I still use things I learned from those guys.

    1. SHG Post author

      My torts prof, Joseph Koffler, was a bastard. We hated him at the time and complained bitterly about his socratic methods. By third year, there wasn’t student in my section who didn’t thank him. Turned out, he wasn’t a bastard at all.

            1. B. McLeod

              Even though he knows the gun is fully loaded, he will not flinch. Bravest dog in the world, ladies and gentlemen.

            2. LY

              I dunno, I bet the dog is smart enough to realize that the way that person is holding the gun he’s not going to be able to shoot straight and will probably miss. Even at that range.

  2. A cranky young guy

    This prawf is a wellspring of fine pedagogical ideas. She had a post a few weeks ago about how she starts her crim pro classes off with a poetry reading each day. I am sure that the students eventual clients will appreciate having such sensitive and soft spoken representation.

    Even a complete weenie tax lawyer like me thinks this stuff is ridiculous and counterproductive. I’ve had plenty of stressful and unpleasant encounters both in law school and in practice and lived. Law school is enough of a bubble anyway, without poetry readings and Mr Rogers style teaching techniques.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a saying, that the reason academic fights are so vicious is because the stakes are so low. Poetry readings might win her a Best Prawf trophy, which can be placed next to the participation trophies. I love poetry. I particularly poems about epic battles.

      1. DaveL

        “Forward, the Light Brigade!”
        Was there a man dismayed?
        The Defendant – who knew that his counsel had blundered.

      2. WFG

        For they swore by the Holy Water,
        They swore by the salt they ate,
        That the soul of Lieutenant Eshmitt Sahib
        Should go to his God in state,
        With fifty file of Burmans
        To open him Heaven’s gate.

      3. Fubar

        Thoughts much too deep for tears subdue the Court.
        When I assumpsit bring, and God-like waive a tort.

        The Circuiteers: An Eclogue, 1839
        — John Leycester Adolphus (1795-1862)

  3. Hunting Guy

    Kinda trite but it seems to fit.

    Harry S. Truman

    “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

  4. PaulaMarie Susi

    It’s intern season here in the EDNY, all those adorable little puppies running after their assigned AUSA to soak up some courtroom knowledge (one hopes). After introductions, I inform the intern that they will be handling the status conf, the judge will be down in 10 minutes (which, srsly, should be enough time to figure out that discovery isn’t complete [fucked if I know why not] and plea negotiations are ongoing. This isn’t rocket science, yet.). Cold call. After they nearly pass out from palpitations, I calmly inform them that if they wish to be an attorney they need to be prepared for anything the moment they step into a courtroom. Builds character, and I sincerely hope a lesson learned.

    1. REvers

      The guy I interned for oh those many years ago did the same kind of thing to me, and for the same reasons. It worked, too. I got really good at thinking on my feet and got to that point really quickly.

      I’m not saying there weren’t a few times I thought I might pee on myself, mind you. But I never did.

      Not much, anyway.

      1. SHG Post author

        …and got to that point really quickly.

        Another critical skill. You get maybe 30 seconds to catch the judge’s attention and make a point. Most prawfs I know can’t manage to say anything in ten twits, no less the one, and only one, they get in the trenches.

    2. SHG Post author

      I’m trying hard to picture the judge’s face if someone responded, “I do not feel like answering your question, your Honor. I trust you will respect my wishes.”

    3. Hunting Guy

      Donald Rumsfeld addressed this issue.

      “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

  5. Skink

    I have a mediation coming up where one of my options is to tell the lawyers that they brought the wrong claims, hired the wrong experts (a cancer case needs an oncologist), failed to sue a reasonably–liable party and generally screwed their client. Will I do it in front of their client? Most times, no, because I don’t gratuitously stick my fingers in eyes. But if it benefits my client, I will do it until someone cries. Maybe longer.

    I wonder where I learned that. There are no color codes in real life. Lawyers don’t get to choose when and how their errors are brought to light. Embarrassment really happens, but the job requires that we continue the fight because the fight is about the client, not us.

    Then again, the weakening of advocacy might be no more than clearing the road toward replacing it with software.

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as I’m certain the lawtrepreneurs who promote AI as the future of law are wrong, AI may prove better than most lawyers. Not because AI is adequate, but because lawyers are so inadequate.

  6. wilbur

    After being at law school a couple of weeks, my mother asked how it was going. I said it’s like preseason football practice – they’re trying to find 1) who can play, and 2) who really wants to play. I’ve heard others describe it as mental boot camp.

    The mindsets of the students (or professors) described in the post are just something that doesn’t compute with me or some others who post here. It’s the new style, I guess.

    1. SHG Post author

      I remember that opening invocation, where we were told to look to our left, look to our right, one of us would not be here next year. Now, they take the money for three years and let the bar exam do the vetting for them, which is cowardly, irresponsible and inadequate.

      1. REvers

        My crim law prof, on the first day, said, “I’ve been asked about the best way to do well in this class. The answer to that is to know everything.”

        He wasn’t kidding. My B was the high grade in the class.

        Good law professors scare the holy shit out of you.

        1. B. McLeod

          Although my brother A. disagrees with me, I have always felt that a “B” should always be the highest grade in every class (our father was a man of letters).

      2. Scott Jacobs

        Especially since it leads to low bar passage rates, which inevitably causes them to dumb down the test.

  7. Steve Brecher

    I’ll be a 2L next month. “(first name or Prof. Smith)” — I’m older than all my professors, butI I still call them all Prof. Smith. Smith is a fairly common name, so I’ve just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

    I’ve taken nine classes so far; they’ve been a mixture of cold-calling, hand-raising, and, in one, pre-assigned oral briefs on the case readings. I’ve embarrassed myself on occasion, not by being unprepared but by being stupid, and that’s a good way to learn.

    1. SHG Post author

      It won’t be the last time you say something stupid, either. The point isn’t to never say anything stupid, but to pick yourself up after doing so and get back in the fight, hopefully wiser the next time. Lawyers get their butts kicked all the time, but we go back the next day and fight as if we’re invincible because we owe our clients nothing less.

  8. Skink

    That could be the plan: make shitty lawyers so AI looks great. Call me cynical, but it’s one of the best traits for a trial lawyer to have.

  9. B. McLeod

    In my school days, some of the professors would allow a student one “pass.” That is, once during the entire course, if a student was unprepared when called upon, he or she could say “pass,” and the question would go to another student. Of course, the point of the system wherein anyone might be called upon is to incentivize preparedness, and students who were even half prepared had to consider whether they might need their “pass” on a more hectic day. The general “traffic light” system removes any incentive for preparedness.

    In addition, remember the “gunners” in your class? These are going to be your green-lighters. Unfortunately, hands always in the air are typically not a sign of having mastered or carefully analyzed the subject matter, and the green signal is likely to prove much the same. Possibly the experience of this, day after day, will eventually serve to convince the other students to stop using their red signals, if only to preserve their sanity. Possibly ( but I am not seeing any real advantages to this system).

    1. SHG Post author

      After a while, the gunners sounded like Charlie Brown’s teachers. Just background noise that didn’t impact our Scrabble game at all.

  10. Charles

    They could save money by snagging some of those red and green colored circles from the nearest Brazilian steakhouse. It’s not like yellow is going to be used, anyway.

  11. Matthew Wideman

    Not law school……say it aint so…. How are lawyers from different venues and jurisdictions going to bond without 1st day of Torts, criminal law, con law horror stories?

    Now conversations are going to go something like this….”Remember when your intersectional justice professor called on your cis gender group to reflect on your groups contribution to injustices?”…..”Yeah…same thing happend at BLANK law school….brother it was brutal…I felt very nervous for the collective consciousness of our group”.

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