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November 14, 2009

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» What is "Soft Socratic" Teaching? from Legal Profession Blog
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw Jacqueline Lipton over at The Faculty Lounge observed that the self-described teaching style au courant in FRC interviews these days is something called "soft Socratic." Here's Jacqueline's description: "When asked about their 't... [Read More]

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John

I hope to throw my hat in the hiring ring one day. If I do, and if I am asked about my teaching style, I'll say I take my inspiration from Professor Kingsfield.

Jacqueline Lipton

That's great. I hope I get a chance to be on one of the teams that interviews you!

Jay

Reminds me of most of my physics profs. Their answer would be something like: "I droningly derive equations on the board. I make my students regret attending class, and make the ones who stay awake regret it most. Also, 30% is a good mean score on a 100 point exam. I prefer to fail 60% of each class."

Eric Fink

Perhaps this is a matter of hedging one's bets? Candidates know that traditional Kingsfieldian Socraticism has fallen into disrepute at least in some segments of legal academia, but also know that there are those who still profess to profess by the Socratic method and would be suspicious of anyone who espoused a truly alternative approach. "Soft Socratic" becomes a handy code-word for "I'm neither a stodgy tyrant nor a crazy hippie". In other words, it is the pedagogical equivalent of Merlot--not very interesting, but a safely inoffensive choice when serving a crowd whose individual tastes are unknown.

If anyone cares, I'd describe my own teaching style as "Diogenesian" (http://tr.im/F0qV).

Jeff Lipshaw

I describe mine as "manic expressive."

John Nelson

I think Mr. Fink is right -- they're hedging their bets.

If I make it to the meat market with an interview in hand, perhaps I will hedge also.

Nevertheless, I am a firm believer in the Socratic method since it requires both the professor and student to be more engaged.

All of the classes from which I still remember lessons were taught the Socratic way. The majority of my friends echo this, although some hated the method.

Even so, some subjects work better in the Socratic method than others.

anon

What's the point of continuing to ask canned and unimaginative questions when you know you will be answered in kind? The blame lies squarely with the committee for this kind of exchange -- the ones with the power in this encounter.

TJ

I think this is similar to how every candidate asks "what research support do you offer junior faculty." "Soft Socratic" is simply the standard, non-informative, low-risk answer to a question that the candidate knows is coming.

AnonHuman

This is said as someone who was just on the market, and gave a close variant of this answer when asked. The thing is, people are saying it because (a) they likely haven't actually taught a class in their life, and they're basing their answer on their class experience in law school, and (b) because it's likely the best solution. Especially considering how students now have a greater variety of distractions (this included me in law school) the motivation of socratic is powerful, as is the way it engages the class if softened.

This is kind of like how faculty members bemoan every candidate asking about research resources. And I get how it gets tiresome to hear. But it likely is the thing we're most curious about, and the answers that are given are rarely just generic.

I know candidates need to do their best to engage the committee and seperate themselves. But honestly, there's only a small universe of acceptable/sensible answers to either question, and most law faculty candidates ARE most concerned about faculty resources, and not knowing much about what it takes to teach and having generally done well in law school, we generally consider the soft socratic method to be the most sensible approach for large survey classes. We (or at least I) would rather talk about our research, publications, experiences what subject matter we'd plan to teach.

Many of of us have written several articles. I'm reasonably sure that in all my interviews, no more than one of them was read by any member of the committee. We're proud of what we written - try asking more questions about it. Or ask us which professor in law school we admired for his teaching style. But don't expect cleverness in areas where we just don't have the experience or expertise to make a terribly unique answer, and where even if our answer is unique and clever, recognize that it's purely speculative.

And no, I didn't interview with Case :)

Jacqueline Lipton

I think the Anons have a great point and I would like to throw down the gauntlet to interview teams to think up more interesting questions about teaching in next year's round, accepting the fact that not all candidates will know much or anything at all about teaching from personal experience. I'm thinking of some crazy hypos along the lines of "If x happened in the classroom, what would you do?" Anyone like to offer a take on what "x" might equal in this equation?

John Nelson

1. If your entire class has not read, and no one seems to be participating (or care), what would you do?

2. If you have a student who is over-eager, overly-opinionated, and annoys you and the entire rest of the class, what do you do? (AKA How do you handle 'that guy'/'that girl'?)

3. In a Thursday afternoon/evening, 2-hour class, how would you run your class to keep the students engaged in the material?

4. If you ended up teaching a UCC-based class, what would you do to keep everyone (including yourself) from skipping? (Okay, this one is just my UCC-based class bias. Although, I actually enjoy contracts.)

Just some quick thoughts before I dig down into some overly-burdensome discovery requests that someone has to answer (that someone being the junior member of the office, me).

AnonHuman

Well...a few suggestions (some of which I heard):

* Who are some of the professors in law school whose teaching you really admired, and what did they do that you'd like to emulate?
* Many of our students go into large corporate / small local practice, how do you think this would influence your teaching of x?
* Area x is a rapidly changing area of law, how would you handle this in your teaching?
* We have these fantastic A/V resources in our classrooms, how would you integrate them into your teaching?
* Do you consider issue-spotter essay exams the best way of grading students? What are some alternate methods you'd consider, and why.

And, of course, the question we DON'T want you to ask:

* I understand this class we'd want you to teach is related to your practice experience, but do you actually have more than a passing familiarity with it?

Eric Fink

John Nelson's and AnonHuman's suggested questions are very good, and I will certainly steal them for use during the upcoming callbacks.

AnonHuman

Cool. Now, um, can I have a callback? I was the person you met with who had those teaching interests and that scholarship. You know, the article about the stuff.

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