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Gary's Observation Analysis

BACKGROUND

Writing and Representation: Advice and Persuasion (WRAP) is a required two semester course for first year law students at William Mitchell College of Law. The course is described in William Mitchell’s online course catalog as a

[m]ultifaceted study of skills that are fundamental to representing clients effectively and responsibly. Includes interviewing a client, researching primary and secondary sources in paper and computer media, reading the law, reasoning about a client's situation in light of the law, writing office memos and advice letters, counseling a client, negotiating and drafting contracts, investigating facts, settling cases through mediation, and arguing motions in writing and orally. Instruction is through large-group discussion and demonstrations, 12-person small group classes, six-person representation exercises, and individual conferences.

The WRAP class I observed, which met on Wednesday, February 22 from 4:30 to 6:30, consisted of twelve students and one instructor, an adjunct professor who practices insurance law with Meagher & Geer, a large Minneapolis law firm. The instructor has taught the course for several years. Prior to enrolling in law school at the University of Minnesota, he earned an M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and taught first-year composition and introduction to literature as a graduate student. The instructor commented to me that “moonlighting? at William Mitchell gives him the opportunity to teach, something he enjoys very much.

ANALYSIS

1. Class objectives

From my observation, it appeared that the instructor had two primary objectives for the class: one, practicing legal citation format, and two, practicing advocacy skills.

Objective: Understanding Legal Citation Format

Understanding legal citation format by learning to use the Uniform System of Citation (also known as the “Blue Book?) is a key component of the first year legal writing experience. Students must know how to cite cases, statutes, and other legal materials for assignments in other law school classes as well as for clerkships, internships, and positions after law school where they will be doing legal research and writing.

As a former law student I remember well the difficulties I had understanding legal citation format, difficulties I now see in my students as they work with MLA style in my writing courses. I have yet to find what I consider to be a “painless? way to teach students to understand MLA, and I suspect that the instructor faces a similar challenge. Indeed, on several occasions he apologized for how complicated legal citation can be, something I find myself doing with my own students in discussing MLA. It appeared to me that, in the supportive environment of the classroom that he provided, students were able to help each other better understand how to cite correctly, and they showed their understanding in accurately completing the exercises he gave them. His students, with some prompting, seemed well “trained? in using the Blue Book to answer citation questions. His pedagogy reflects my own belief that students need coaching in using the source material to answer their own questions, rather than “rote? instruction in rules that they will not remember.

Objective: Practicing Oral Advocacy Skills

Like citation format, learning to “think like a lawyer? is a key goal of the first-year law school curriculum, including being able to apply legal principles to a particular set of facts, argue a position, and respond to questions challenging that position that would most likely come from another judge or lawyer. In that sense, oral advocacy is as important as written advocacy.

In the class I observed, students were making their first attempts at examining a legal issue, applying a particular set of facts to the law, and then articulating a position. If the instructor’s goal was nothing more than his students “getting their feet wet? with this aspect of the course (which, based on his comments to me afterward, it was), then I think his objective was achieved. Students clearly took the assignment seriously, using the ample time he provided for discussion and synthesis of their ideas, and then presenting their “cases.? In my view, all students were engaged in the task, taking the opportunity to contribute to the discussion and coming to one another’s aid in the question and answer portion of the exercise to convince the “judge? of the worthiness of their position.

2. Students’ engagement

As stated above, my sense was that students were clearly engaged during the second half of the class, when they working on the advocacy exercise. What was more surprising to me was their high level of engagement during the “citation drill? of the first half of the class, when it would have been very easy to lose focus, or engage in other tasks (all had laptops with wireless Internet access). The fact that the class stayed “on task? tells me that the instructor does a good job of stressing the importance of understanding citation format from the beginning of the course, perhaps through grading “stakes? or by emphasizing its “real world? applications (for example, the prospect of risking the ridicule or displeasure of a judge or fellow attorney by not citing sources correctly).

3. Relationship between writing instruction and “content? instruction

In my view, with respect to the first half of the class, writing instruction and content instruction seem inextricably linked. A large part of effective legal writing is understanding citation format. In the second half, however, the relationship between content (making a legal argument) and writing (drafting a brief) is less clear, only because I will not have had the benefit of seeing the written briefs students were going to be writing for the problem that was under discussion and the class was focused on oral presentation of their arguments. The instructor, however, did assign the class to rewrite the facts for their particular position, so I would imagine in the next class he will be working towards integrating their writing with their oral arguments.

4. Sharing of data with the instructor

I did not have the opportunity to share my formal observations with the instructor, but I offered to forward to him this assignment when it is completed. I did chat with him briefly after the class, however, and I commented on what I saw as the high level of engagement of the students, even in something as difficult and tedious as learning citation format. I also remarked that I found his gentle admonition to students to “get the knives out? to be interesting. He said that students often have a difficult time making the transition from writer and researcher in the first semester to advocate in the second (something I can attest to from my law school experience). He commented that it is a “gradual? but necessary process, and it is important to create a supportive but rigorous environment in which students can both practice and be accountable for the positions they take in their advocacy.

5. Representation of theory

In “Inventing the University,? David Bartholomae states:

…students…have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and they have to do this as though they were easily or comfortably at one with their audience [even though] it is difficult to imagine how writers can have a purpose before they are located in a discourse, since it is the discourse…that determines what writers can and will do. (594)

One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of students both appropriating and locating themselves in a specialized discourse than in the class that I observed. In fact, taking control of the discourse is essential to the success of these students in law school and, later on, as lawyers. Indeed, the primary tasks of the class as set forth by the instructor (practicing citation format, arguing a position) were designed to further the students’ comfort level with legal discourse, both as writers and as speakers.

The behavior and interaction of the students with the instructor and with each other supports this view. Though only “first years,? class members made great efforts to engage in the “language? of the discourse. In addition to attempting to learn the “language? that is legal citation format, students made notable efforts to use legal concepts and terminology to reflect their understanding of the issues under discussion, concepts particular to the legal field (“summary judgment,? “mixed question of law and fact,? for example). Further, though the classroom environment was overall informal and supportive, the instructor addressed students as “Mr.? and “Ms.,? much like they would be addressed in court by judges or other attorneys. Students in turn practiced this modeled behavior with each other, addressing one another as legal professionals rather than as students.

Moreover, the class that I observed appeared to place equal emphasis on writing as well as speaking in the academic discourse community that is law school. Therefore, I would tend to disagree with some of Janet Emig’s statements in “Writing as a Mode of Learning? as applied to this context. She maintains that “[b]ecause writing is often our representation of the world made visible, embodying both process and product, it is more readily a form and source of learning than talking? (91) and that “[w]riting tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking? (111). Law students, in order to evolve into effective advocates, need to understand the importance of speech as a persuasive tool that goes hand in hand with persuasive writing, as demonstrated by the instructor’s objectives for the class that I observed.

6. The instructor’s approach compared/contrasted with mine

Though our student populations are quite different (I teach first-year college writers), I do see some commonalities with the instructor. Most notably, as discussed under question 1 above, I face many of the same challenges in teaching MLA citation format to my students and have tried a number of approaches (quizzes, games, or simply choosing not to cover it at all). I have found that, like the instructor, an applied approach—giving students a particular problem to solve, then asking them to write it on the board for feedback from students and myself—seems to offer the most opportunities for student engagement while also “training? them in understanding and using a handbook to answer citation questions.

In addition, I was impressed with the warm and collegial environment that the instructor has created in his class, an environment in which students are clearly comfortable with and respectful of him and exhibit the same behavior with one another. I like to think that my classes have a similar quality in which students have the opportunity to develop as writers and thinkers and to learn from both me and from each other.