Quantifying the Effect of Good Teaching
posted by Dave Hoffman
Why should law professors invest in being better teachers? Different professors would give you (no doubt) different answers. Similarly, the question of why we write has been asked, and answered, in a variety of ways.
I bet that for some law professors, the answer to the write/teach question is the same: they want to sell ideas to an audience and thereby change the world in some way. The transmission of law memes has historically been seen differently in scholarship and in teaching, however. Teaching is said to impart doctrine (the black letter law), and (to a greater extent) the method of legal practice. That is, law teachers help students to “think like a lawyer.” By contrast, scholarship is said to influence the world by changing theoretical perspectives. (Check out lists and criteria of “important” law review articles here and here.) A basic conclusion: important scholarship moves doctrine (i.e., judge’s minds). Important teaching moves hearts.
Since most scholarship isn’t read, and since most read scholarship isn’t read by judges, this view of the relative unimportance of teaching to doctrinal development feels off. But I wonder: has anyone tested the hypothesis empirically? A quick look on WL found no studies – but it might be there. Basically, the idea would be to look to the natural experiment of multiple scholars with different views teaching thousands of law students over the last century. Some of those thousands of students became judges. Some of those judges wrote opinions about topics discussed in the law school classroom. It would be interesting to know if there is any statistically significant relationship between being taught the law is X (or the way to approach the problem is Y) and writing an opinion holding X, or using method Y. To give a concrete example, do judges who were once students in Larry Tribe’s con law class produce similar opinions about the commerce clause as those who were once students of Charles Fried?
Obviously, coding and controlling the data would be tricky. You’d ideally want to look at the first-year subjects only, to avoid the selection biases that the Fried/Tribe example raises. You’d also want to find scholars who taught together at an institution, but who differed sharply on a easily codable area of law. Ideas include: the scope of the parol evidence rule; the enforceability of adhesion contracts; the usefulness of enterprise liability; the proper test for insanity in the criminal law; or even an Erie controversy. Finally, you’d want folks who entered teaching some time before, say, 15 years ago, so that you could have a significant enough crop of resulting judges.
Let’s pretend this project is possible and non-preempted. Do folks have ideas for professor pairs?