View from the Classroom: Tough love or kid gloves?

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

We all remember our own Professor Charles Kingsfield from law school.  He or she was that stanchly Socratic professor who called us out, one by one, for rigorous, aggressive questioning, often served with some humiliation and embarrassment, in front of as many as 100 of our closest colleagues and friends.

Our own Professor Kingsfield had no tolerance for lack of preparation; he or she might even have not-so-gently invited us to leave class if we weren’t ready to be “on.”  And he or she had little time or patience for student questions, except for those that were well informed—those questions that raised novel issues or that extrapolated from class, and not those that that merely rehashed material already covered.

Our own Professor Kingsfield thrived in this environment of fear and intimidation—not because he or she was sadistic, but because he or she genuinely wanted us to learn.  And our own Professor Kingsfield judged this to be the best way to achieve that end.

Others took a different view.  We may remember them, too — our anti-Kingsfield.  Our anti-Kingsfield worked to create a more comfortable classroom environment — one that was conducive to a free exchange of ideas, to open questions, and to equality between professor and students inside the classroom and out.  Our anti-Kingsfield judged this the best way to promote student learning.

One approach or the other worked for a good number of us.  For many, our Professor Kingsfield forced us to prepare carefully, to confront any fears of public speaking, and to learn to think on our feet.  For many, our anti-Kingsfield gave us the support and comfort to think for ourselves and to openly question authority, doctrine, and practice.

But one or the other also failed for a good number of us.  The adversative method alienated and repelled, causing some first to fear, then resent, their Professor Kingsfield, and to disengage from their study of the law. But the open, inclusive approach was too open and too inclusive, leading some to see the law, and even their anti-Kingsfield, as relativistic, or even nihilistic.

There is a middle way that many of us in legal education aspire to.  This middle way seeks to take the best of both approaches and thus to reach the most number of students.  From our Professor Kingsfield, we try to take the demand for careful preparation and the rigorous, exacting study of law.  From our anti-Kingsfield, we try to take the supportive classroom that encourages free and critical thinking and open discussion and debate.  Between the two, we try to push our students hard in a comfortable environment.

Tough love or kids gloves?  A little of both.

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