Law in Contemporary Society

Eben's Teaching Style

Eben’s teaching method and professor-student interaction style differs drastically from anything most, if not all of us, have ever experienced, especially at CLS. I am not concerned right now with the “correctness” of the material; I am only concerned for the moment with why Eben uses this particular method of communication and whether it is more or less effective than other “normal” and familiar methods.

Eben’s style can be unpleasant in multiple ways. There are times when the unpleasantness is the result of a jarring effect, of being placed outside of our comfort zones – often a welcome change. For example, Eben’s often brutal honesty when responding to students’ questions and ideas can be quite biting – yet refreshing. We are all at least in our early-to-mid 20s – very few of us still need a professor to coddle us when we say something rash or nonsensical. Eben also has no reservations when presenting his opinions about anything and everything. It can be frustrating at times when Eben presents a personal opinion with no accompanying explanation or chance for questions or rebuttals from the classroom. However, knowing that your professor has no intellectual secrets and no false pretensions of neutrality can also infuse energy and even a sense of trust into the classroom.

I believe Eben’s unique style results from a combination of frustration with societal inertia and a desire to break through to students. Eben sees many problems in the world, especially the world of law, and he feels very strongly about the need for change. However, social inertia keeps many people, even those who agree with Eben, from acting on their beliefs (other than perhaps to discuss the issues in a sterilized academic setting). I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for an activist like Eben to watch as even his could-be allies do nothing while society stubbornly clings to seemingly flawed and outdated traditions. For example, in this interview, Eben chews out a young journalist for inquiring about digital privacy without first deactivating her Facebook and Twitter accounts. At first glance, Eben seems to be overly harsh to the journalist. However, the ombudsman presents a different point of view: “After decades of trying to educate and advocate journalists and the public about these issues, I can easily imagine Moglen losing patience for the ineffectual conventions of mainstream journalism.” Perhaps this feeling of frustration with the ineffectiveness of mainstream methods is also at the heart of Eben’s classroom conduct.

A unique and jarring approach might actually be the only effective way for Eben to break through to law students specifically. As a group, we might be among the most indoctrinated, set-in-our-ways mini-culture around. We are not used to being wrong. We are not used to questioning a society that, for the most part, has been pretty good to us. When we do question society, we tend to do so in an academic context, not as activists. We are currently attending a prestigious institution with set traditions that go back many generations. If Eben presented his material in a “normal” course with a mainstream teaching style, at best we might toy with his alternative ideas and discard them at the end of the semester. At worst we would ignore them or memorize them to get an A. To truly engage us in the material, Eben probably feels that he needs to jar us, take us out of our comfort zones, push us, and hope that we push back.

However, Eben’s teaching method also contains elements without readily discernible positive side-effects which can sometimes seemingly needlessly drive students away instead of drawing them closer. I will only briefly discuss one such element. It is clear from reading course evaluations, perusing through past discussions on the wiki, talking to classmates and past students, and my own classroom observations, that Eben can be rude to students, both as a group and as individuals. It can be tough to reconcile Eben’s declaration on the first day of class that there is an important difference between disrespecting ideas and disrespecting people with the fact that Eben himself seems to cross that line on a fairly regular basis.

I know better than to think that this essay will actually change Eben’s teaching and communication styles in any way. Eben is extremely confident, smart, and above all experienced – I have no business telling him how to do his job, nor do I presume to do so. However, I feel like this paper would be incomplete without at least some ideas about hypothetical changes that may improve students’ experiences in the classroom and make them more receptive to Eben’s words.

My first suggestion would be to present alternatives in addition to tearing down normative standards. For example, Eben says that grades are stupid and meaningless. Fair enough. But where do we go from there? How does this realization affect our daily law school routine? Now that we know the bad habits, what are the good habits? Eben often wakes us and throws us out of our cozy nests; but with no direction to fly, returning to the same nest tends to be the most common result. Positive psychology emphasizes the study of how things go right, rather than how things go wrong. I think Eben focuses in large part on law school psychopathology – I would suggest complementing this with a dose of law school positive psychology.

My second and final suggestion would be to treat students with more respect. Perhaps I am channeling the Federal Prosecutor, telling Robinson not to be vulgar. However, I suggest this because I honestly think students will be more receptive when they feel respected. Eben becomes particularly rude when students make choices of which he disapproves. When a student can no longer tell the difference between Eben’s attack of the choice itself and Eben attacking the very individual, this is the moment when the walls go up and the lesson is lost.

-- By JosephItkis - 16 Feb 2012

Obviously valid and useful as a course evaluation. Though it might be suggested that evaluating a fourteen-week course after four weeks is probably a trifle premature.

Whether it is a good idea to submit the course evaluation as coursework, however, is not so obvious. The primary drawback is that I can't edit it and won't evaluate it. You therefore lose any benefit you might gain from working on something we can work on together.

Because you can put anything you want in the wiki at any time, nothing prevents you from publishing your course evaluation as early as you please, which means that you could have said this to the world, exactly as you did precisely when you did, while also giving me the opportunity to teach you whatever it is I might know about how to think and write more clearly, by writing an essay draft too. By conflating the two activities, however, you have lost some benefit you could have had by committing yourself to the activity of thinking and writing about something else, while getting no more from your original gesture of self-expression than you could have had another way.


Webs Webs

r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:33 - IanSullivan
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