Professor Lyrissa Lidsky, Dean of the Missouri School of Law, published on Twitter in early 2019, the “Ten Commandments” for Law professors. On August 20th, Professor Jesús Alfaro wrote in one of his two blogs an entry in which he explains: «as I have found then very interesting, difficult to fulfil and some of them debatable, I reproduce them here in Spanish with some comments». To a large extent, I agree with what Professor Lidsky proposes and what Professor Alfaro says, so I allow myself here to simply write a few annotations to their words.
First.- “It’s not about you. It’s about the students. Don’t try to impress them with how smart you are. Impress them with how smart THEY are”. I would rephrase this first recommendation as follows: do not try to impress students by boasting about everything you know (of about the subject you teach). Impress them by showing them how much they can learn (from that subject). The teaching required by degrees nowadays to the European Higher Education Area, must be different and with a different methodology: the transition from one model to another involves leaving an eminently informative system and following a formative one, orientated to the transmission of intellectual skills. Now, the question is to “teach how to learn”, not just to transmit knowledge. To carry out this task successfully, we must differentiate between everything that professors «know» and are acquiring in their research activity and what should be required for the students to know, not trying to bring the latter closer to the former. At Law School, we are not training researchers but professionals in different fields.
Second.- “Having high expectations for students is a form of respect”. That «today’s» students are not like those in the past –those wonderful years when we were the students– is commonplace in any conversation among professors. However, this should not come as a surprise: neither the society is the same as that of 20 or 30 years ago, nor is the previous education they have received similar to that of the past decades.
From what I appreciate, it is undeniable that, as a rule, they have less general knowledge (of History, Literature, Language…) and they have many more expressive, oral and written shortcomings in Spanish. Besides, they take with less drama academic failure (very high among the freshmen and sophomores).
Nonetheless, their language skills are better and so is their use of the information and communication technologies –something which is not trivial today–. Moreover, they tend to be –compared to myself as a student– much more honest, sometimes showing a gestural frankness even to the point of being impolite: they do not pretend to be excited about the subject and do not hesitate to show the boredom stirred by certain topics or not very didactic explanations. In any case, those are the students we have and who we are obliged to communicate with. In that process, it should be clear that any of them can assimilate the theoretical knowledge and skills of the subject concerned and, also, that if they don’t succeed, they won’t pass the evaluation.
Third.- “Begin as you mean to go on. You can relax later, but you can’t go in the opposite direction”. I agree. In my Department, we have as a rule that in the first week of class, students should decide whether they opt for a continuous evaluation system, which includes assigments to do for the rest of the weeks of the course, or if they prefer to take just the final exam.
In general, a higher preference for the continuous evaluation system corresponds to a greater willingness to learn. However, it is increasingly common for students to make a cost/benefit calculation between the effort required and the grade they are more likely to get. We have excellent students who prefer to give up the «advantages» of the ongoing learning and just take the final exam.
Fourth.- “Respect students’ time. They may encourage you to stray, and an occasional digression is humanising, but you owe it to them to cover the material.” Many first-year the students feel bitterly disappointed when what they find in the class has little to do with what they had imagined and, above all, idealised. This disappointment is due, on the one hand, to the fact that, on the part of the university, we have not informed them clearly enough about the contents and skills in which they will be trained. On the other hand, quite a few students think that Law is “the American Law of TV series», finding our Law surprisingly dull in comparison and quite complex.
Showing them that Spanish (and European) law is not necessarily difficult to understand, that it can be even “enjoyable” and especially, that it plays a crucial role in their daily lives, is an excellent way to draw their attention and interest to the subject. To do so, sometimes it is necessary to talk about what is not scheduled in the syllabus for that class; for example, the Spanish electoral system if there are some elections uncoming. Obviously, these trees should not hide the wood that the particular subject is, nor are they a license to talk about whatever we want and not about what, in theory, we should.
Fifth.- “You teach who you are, whether you mean to or not”. Alfaro identifies this advice with being yourself when you are on the platform. I agree with him. What happens is that, especially when we start teaching, we are unclear about how to behave. This is understandable if we take into account that we have not been taught how to teach. Given the doubts raised, it is not uncommon to try to be the professor we liked the most as students, who tends to be the one we have as the main academic reference point. Quite frequently, we become professors because previously, we were their students.
The key, I think, is to take note of what we liked about their teaching, to avoid everything we did not like –no one is perfect– and, with these and other «prescriptions», to have a personal profile that, in turn, improves over time. I believe that the best class I can teach yet to come and I try not to forget the many bad classes I have taught.
Sixth.- “A raised eyebrow, a slightly too long pause, or humour works better than a rebuke for most classroom management issues. It’s hard to use these when you’re new, though”.
I would connect this advice to the previous one: the management of what happens in the classroom is part of the professor’s learning process and something he continuously updates. A joke that was very successful a few years ago can be an absolute failure today as an ice-breaker if the students ignore the cultural reference in which it is located. It is not that they are stupid or have no sense of humour, it is that you are telling them something that happened before they were even born, so it has lost its appeal, at least for them.
Seventh.- “Students want to know what to expect both in the course as a whole and day-by-day. I don’t always do as well on this front as I want to.” Students want legal certainty and call for a very detailed contract whose compliance will be monitored to the smallest detail. However, that legal certainty is already imposed by the requirements of the academic degrees, which implies high transparency, not inconsiderable bureaucratic work and to think, previously, how we are going to measure the different requirement that will shape the final grade of the students.
Eight.- “If students know you care about them and care whether they learn, they will forgive a multitude of teaching mistakes.” As Alfaro says, «students are benevolent if they believe the professor strives and cares about their learning (do not be guided by surveys, there is always a minority who have incentives to drag the best professor in the world through the mud) so they will forgive mistakes.»
I agree: that benevolence is already noticeable in class. As well as other things, it improves over time or, at least, the course of time mitigates possible, and not necessarily unfair, grudges and bad experiences. That is why we should not be afraid when it comes to innovating or, of course, reluctant if we have to rectify a mistake.
Ninth.- “If you don’t care passionately about what you’re teaching, why should anyone else? Passion is not the same as partisanship, though”.
I endorse what Alfaro says: «The professor should never lose sight of the fact that normally his students are not particularly interested in the subject and he may consider himself lucky if at the end of the semester some students say that the professor has awakened their interest on the subject. Being aware of this lack of interest helps to be a better professor since it forces you to strive to be clear and to formulate ideas attractively.»
I would add two things: we must not confuse our passion for research with what we expect our students to be passionate about (teaching contents). However, transmitting our passion contributes to creating the conditions for experimenting that passion so, if not shared, at least it could be understood.
Tenth.- “Respect and honor different perspectives. The tone you set will dictate whether your students respect and honor different perspectives.” Alfaro is more pragmatic here and concludes: «I prefer that different perspectives from mine are taught and explained by those who defend them. Life is short, and college semesters are only fourteen weeks ones.» I would defend a «third way», which is surely not far from Lidsky and Alfaro’s proposals: we must explain the perspectives that students should know such as the settled or majority case-law on a certain question, although we find it misguided. In Constitutional law, of course, we should expose the freedom that the democratic legislator enjoys, within the constitutional framework, approve different laws that reflect the majoritarian political will of each moment, regardless of whether we consider it crazy, or even disgusting.
Bonus: «Frequent, low stakes assessments enhance learning. Yes, administering them is burdensome.» I think there are many ways to carry out these «tests»: the simplest, by asking them directly -and without any form of evaluation-, about what has been explained. Going back over topics supposedly «assimilated» is also useful. However, the most effective test is to ask ourselves what we have done wrong if they say they have no questions, which usually reflects, not that they have understood everything, but that they have understood almost nothing.
Special thanks to Lirissa Lidsky, Jesús Alfaro and Patricia García Majado.