View from the Classroom: Hallway chatter

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.

Some of the best conversations in law school happen by chance.  These are the unplanned chats right after class, or casual talk in the office, or accidental run-ins in the halls.  Sometimes they’re with one student; sometimes with many.  Sometimes they include other faculty; sometimes not.  But however they happen, we inevitably learn something.  And it’s usually something important.

What is it about hallway chatter that makes it so good?  Part of it, undoubtedly, is that all involved let down their guard.  Professors are less stilted and students are more open.  We don’t speak at arm’s length, as we do in the classroom; instead, we talk as colleagues, even friends.  We see our partners as the full people they are—with families, friends, and passions outside of law school—and not merely as the students or professors we know in class.  We get to know our partners, more than we ever could in the classroom.  As a result, conversation is freer and usually better than our constrained classroom discussions.

Part of it, too, is that hallway chatter is usually more interesting and more relevant.  We talk about current events—and how legal principles that we study in the classroom actually work in the contemporary world.  Students are freer to ask more daring questions or pose more creative ideas—thoughts that could lead to ostracism and embarrassment in the classroom.  And professors are freer to speculate, to argue, to learn (and not just teach), and even to admit they don’t know an answer.  The informality of hallway chatter opens up all these possibilities, and more.

Finally, part of it must be the marriage between preparation and opportunity.  After all, hallway chatter only happens when one partner stops another with a percolating idea—the “I’m glad I ran into you, I have something to discuss” moment.  (Without this, the would-be chatters simply pass with, at most, a “Hello.”)  Good hallway chatter depends on at least one partner’s preparation.  And when that happens, it can be very good.

Now if hallway chatter is so good—and it is—then wouldn’t it make sense to bring it out of the hallway and into the classroom?  After all, the classroom is the principal place in law school where we expect the best learning to happen.  And it’s easy to do: Let down the guards, encourage daring, creative thinking (especially about current problems) and prepare—the exact things that make hallway chatter so good.

Some of our most memorable and most valuable conversations happen in the hallway, outside of the classroom.  Maybe these conversations can teach us something about what happens inside the classroom.

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