Law tutors reveal why they pick on students for answers

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By Katie King on

Cold-calling phenomenon is terrifying but well-intentioned

Revelations by academics at both UCL and Harvard have shed light on why tutors push students for answers, rather than relying on contributions from volunteers.

Law students probably all know the feeling: you stumbled your way through your equity preparation this weekend and have everything crossed you won’t get asked to explain the facts of Vandervell. Then, your tutor looks through the rows of raised hands and picks on you for the case summary. Why not ask the students who are keen to give their own answers?

UCL senior lecturer Steven Vaughan has provided some much-needed information on what’s known as this ‘Socratic method’ of teaching.

Writing for The Limits of Lawyers, Freshfields solicitor turned academic Vaughan thinks it’s vital he fosters healthy debate in his classes, stressing: “I tell my students that I don’t care what they think as long as: (a) they think something (i.e. they can come to an opinion); and (b) as long as their views are respectful, civil and sensitive”.

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But this debate would cease to be healthy if he did not cold-call his students because, he says:

“A decade worth of teaching suggests that (in my classes at least) when I ask open rather than direct questions (‘Can anyone tell me about X?’) women and minority students pipe up less frequently. And this upsets and worries me.”

Vaughan’s experiences are not unique; they align closely with a recent paper written by a professor of law at Harvard University, Jeannie Suk Gersen.

Gersen, who teaches crime and family law at the world class university, admits she tries to call on 30 to 40 students every class, even though she realises some students see this as an “assault” or a “traumatic experience”. Regardless, she doesn’t rely on volunteers because:

“[W]hen I have done so, that has produced an uneven distribution of participation, skewed male and white, and away from women and minorities, sometimes without my even realizing it.”

This observation has been made by a number of other academics, including in a text by Harvard lawyer Duncan Kennedy described by Gersen as “an acid critique of legal education written while he was a Yale Law School student”.

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Why is this? Vaughan’s keen to find out, though he thinks he might already know why. Speaking to Legal Cheek, he says: “I think men can dominate in class sometimes because that’s the way society is. They’ve grown up in environments where white male voices are privileged. These are not ‘bad’/’mean’/’unkind’ students. They may not even be aware they are monopolising the conversations.”

Gersen knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of these “assaults”. An ethnic minority woman, she admits she was “terrified” of speaking in class when she was a student, but that a light switched after she forced herself to face her fears. She continues:

“Soon, I was even volunteering to engage in this dialogue, and I was thinking more intensely, independently, and enjoyably than I ever had before. Eventually, learning through speaking, reasoning, questioning, and revising in conversation with others became a way of life that I treasure and try to cultivate in students.”

So while this cold-calling method may be resented by some students, Gersen thinks that, overall, “the Socratic professor is better positioned to ensure that all students have opportunities to practice participation than a professor who relies on volunteers already most inclined to offer up their thoughts”. Remember that next time your tutor asks you for a summary of the Unfair Contract Terms Act.

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