posted by Dave Hoffman
Next term, I’m adopting a new casebook in corporations: Klein/Ramseyer/Bainbridge (7th edition). As a part of the new prep, I’ve decided to try using powerpoint more in class. I’m already second-guessing myself about the choice. I realize that socratic teaching (even when done well) has huge costs. Among them: it distorts students’ views of how to be a good lawyer; it’s very slow; it makes women feel worse than men; it’s not oriented towards transactions and thus it’s hard to use it to lead a drafting session; and it’s a power-trip for the instructor, and thus is susceptible to abuse. But socratic teaching is interactive; it motivates students to be prepared and increases the value of being in class; and (most importantly) it helps students to learn judgment by confronting their bad arguments. Those are tremendous virtues, and up to this point in my career, have outweighed the method’s costs.
Why then the switch in Corporations? Well, for one, the course contains tons of vocabulary that students need to understand. I’ve had mixed success in the past in teaching this crucial foundational material. (My general approach: assign reading which explains the vocabulary and expect students to know it.) Second, understanding corporate cases sometimes requires the professor to sketch out the transactional structure. In the past, I’ve used the white board, but my handwriting is terrible and it’s never as clear as it ought to be. Third, I want to see if I can connect with some of the visual learners in the class, and improve overall performance on the exam. Fourth, the casebook authors provide a set of model powerpoint slides which are very useful — I’m not going to adopt most of them, but I can certainly copy some nice graphics! Fifth, these comments by Steve Bainbridge have been eating at me for a while. Finally, I’d want to make the course more economically sophisticated: to talk in depth about agency costs; to explore the incentives of various corporate stakeholders; to bring in material from history, political science, and psychology. It’s just not possible to do this when the students lead the discussion. So, I’m going to use the class as an experiment. If it works, great, maybe I’ll consider adding more visual aids into the first-year contracts course. If it doesn’t, I can always change gears during the semester.
Having seen many of my colleagues use powerpoint, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to run a classroom using powerpoint as the foundation of the lecture but still get some of the advantages of the socratic method — i.e., asking questions that motivate students to think and prepare. (By contrast, it’s easy to merely flash a few slides that contain code provisions you want to focus on.) Mechanically, it’s just awkward: do you prime the class with questions on powerpoint but not write down the “answers”? If you don’t write down the answers, what’s the point of powerpoint? When I teach socratically, there’s freedom to come off track, since we’re simply doing repetitions on a theme: how could we make the argument under discussion better? But with powerpoint, the class is much more structured: I’ve 86 slides to get through on veil piercing, and, gosh darn it, you are going to see every one.
If you’ve experience melding a Socratic discussion with powerpoint, I’d love to get your comments and suggestions. My current perspective is that a class built around powerpoint that still attempts to have the students provide the intellectual engine is a bit like a badly prepared turducken.