Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Solum on Teaching and Scholarship

Larry Solum has chimed in with typically thoughtful and incisive comments on my post below. In light of his post, I'm going to clarify1 or expand on a few things.

First, I said, "It's not enough to know this stuff 'on paper' -- you have to know it stone cold, so that you can answer practically any question that students might throw your way."

Solum objects: "Hardly anyone knows their subject 'stone cold,' especially these days when very few law professors are treatise writers. Buck's view is wildly romantic."

My response: Fair point. What I should have said is not that a lecturer needs to know the entire subject stone cold at every given point, but that he or she should be intimately familiar with the cases and commentary that are the subject of each particular class session. Much more on this below.

Second, I said, "you have to know the subject well enough to explain it to beginners. I think that this requires more in-depth knowledge than merely being able to converse with other 'experts.'"

Solum responds:
This is simply false. It is at least as accurate to say that in-depth knowledge hurts teaching by introducing more complexity than students can handle. And talking with an expert requires way, way, way more in depth knowledge than teaching. There are many teachers who do a fantastic job in what for them is a tertiary field. They know their way around their casebook and the core concepts of the subject, but would never try to engage an expert in an in-depth discussion of the concepts or rules that lie outside the teaching core.
All of this is true. "In-depth" wasn't the right word there.

Still, I think there was a glimmering of an accurate point in there, trying to get out. A few points that explain what I was trying to say:

1. I've come across this sentiment so often that it seems like a cliche: "You don't really understand a subject unless you can explain it to someone else." I suspect that there's some truth to it. Let's say that I write an article on how recent research shows that the endowment effect may be an experimental artifact, and the implications of this finding for criticisms of the Coase theorem as it applies to contracting situations. This is hardly superstring theory. I ought to be able to explain my thesis in simple terms such that a non-economist and non-lawyer can understand it. If I have trouble doing so, then perhaps I need to have another think. (Note: This idea may not apply as much to law professors, who often have to include elementary background sections in their articles so that law review editors will have some clue as to what the article is about.)

2. Why would explaining something to novices (or simply to anyone not familiar with your particular area of expertise) potentially require a different kind of knowledge than talking to other experts? Personal example: I have written two law review articles that deal with facial and as-applied challenges. If another scholar wants to talk about that particular issue, I could hold my own in an abstract, theoretical debate. But even though I'm very familiar with the high-level concepts that scholars such as Richard Fallon, Marc Isserles, Michael Dorf, and Matthew Adler discuss, if I were teaching a class on Federal Courts, I'd still have to go back and review some of the important cases to remind myself of the facts, the voting patterns, etc. (not to mention other Fed. Courts topics, such as the Eleventh Amendment or various abstention doctrines).

Now I admittedly haven't taught a law school class. But I can't help thinking that it must be somewhat similar to the experience of arguing a case in front of a court. You can spend many, many hours researching, writing, and thinking about a brief. When you're done, it may reflect much deep thought and study -- as much as some law review articles (I'm not going to name names here).

Even so, no matter how much time you spend on the brief, you're still going to have to spend more time preparing for the oral argument. It just flat-out takes more work and study to get everything at the tip of your tongue than it does merely to write about a subject. When you're writing, you have the luxury of time. When you're speaking extemporaneously -- whether in front of a court, or in a classroom, or in a lecture hall -- you have to be fluid.

I'm not sure why that same principle doesn't apply to law teaching as well.
In either situation, it may not be enough to know that a particular case generally stands for a certain holding. Nor can you take several minutes to refresh your memory as to what the case says (as you might when writing a brief or an article). Instead, you have to have either extensive notes or a good memory that would allow you to say, "Flip over to page 15 of the Acme case, which is where the court says X."

That's what leads to the overall point here: If I do go back and review particular cases in close detail, I might see something that didn't occur to me before. I might realize that there is a conceptual connection between a particular case and something else I've recently read. And so forth. The process of preparing for a class could therefore contribute to my ability to produce more scholarship on that subject. (Maybe it won't, of course; maybe that subject is all played out. I'm just saying that on average, teaching might contribute to scholarship at least a little bit more than scholarship contributes to teaching.)

1I.e., back off from.

UPDATE: I agree with Rob Vischer here:
Producing a high-quality article on causation requirements in mass toxic exposure cases will tend to enhance noticeably only my teaching of that particular topic in the Torts course, but teaching the entire Torts course will give me the necessary background to understand mass toxic exposure cases in light of the function and purposes of Tort law in general.

SECOND UPDATE: A commenter reminds me of this great Richard Feynman story:
Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he told the faculty member, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it."

Feynman, like most professors, knew that the best way to demonstrate that you understand something is to try and teach it to someone else, particularly someone not in your specialty area.



Blogger Filch said...

I would say that being able to converse with other experts, and explain a subject to beginners, tends to indicate a higher level of understanding than just being able to converse with other experts. Richard Feynman famously remarked, about his attempt to come up with an introductory-level lecture on a topic in physics: "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."

In my experience there is rarely a shortage of experts on trees; what is rare is an expert who understands forests as well.

6:27 PM  

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