Given that teaching is very much a kind of performance, I often think about what we can learn from another population of professionals who perform multiple shows each week in season to sometimes finicky audiences that have just plunked down a wad of cash – actors.
One theatrical proverb I find illuminating is this one: “When Shakespeare is going too slow, it’s going too fast.” Some people say they find Shakespeare boring. Others who love Shakespeare find that response incomprehensible. The explanation offered by the proverb is that when people experience a Shakespearean performance as boring – slow and dragging – it is for the seemingly paradoxical reason that it is being performed too fast. Shakespeare is not accessible effortlessly to modern audiences. If the performers present the material too quickly, nuances – or even basic facts or chunks of core meaning – can be lost. The result is that the audience is held inadvertently at arms’ length instead of being pulled into and engaged by what is usually, in truth, a well-constructed and satisfying story. The cure, then, is exactly what modern audiences think they don’t want: a slower performance. The cast must take the time to make sure the audience really comprehends what the characters are saying, and thus what they are feeling, and thus in turn what motivates them. Only when the characters’ desires and motivations are transparent can the viewer understand, and consequently be in a position to engage, the unfolding drama.
Law teachers can profit from this lesson. Granted, our material isn’t Shakespeare, but it is often well-constructed, sometimes satisfying – or just as often deeply frustrating and unsatisfying – and occasionally even dramatic. Lessons are there to be learned by students who engage the material. Taking the material too fast, however, can prevent students from finding the intrinsic drama or satisfaction in – and thus profiting from their study of – the material under examination. Anyone who has had a professor whose idea of teaching consists of relentlessly “doing” one case after another, often in order to “get through” the material, has experienced the law school equivalent of boring Shakespeare. The solution is to slow things down. Give the students the time and space to really comprehend the underlying facts, the motivations of the parties, the problem the legislature was trying to address, the context of any litigation, the point by point unfolding of a judicial analysis. Add some role playing, if it’s helpful; introduce some supplemental documents or extrinsic material. Put the students in a position to feel the material viscerally, not merely to admire, if they can, some kind of passing pageant of the law.
Of course, slowing things down to promote engagement requires sacrificing breadth of coverage for depth. This seems to me a trade any good teacher is always willing to make.