July 11, 2010

Glenn rewatches "The Paper Chase"...

... and muses about the lack of any real Kingsfields these days.

Would you want a Socratic professor? Would you want to be one?

30 comments:

Seven Machos said...

I loved the Socratic professors. Loved them. The think-like-a-lawyer stuff is important but I think the exaltation of the Socratic Method misses something vital: law is boring as shit and the Socratic Method makes class halfway interesting, if only out of terror.

former law student said...

If the process makes you think, fine. If it's a way for the professor to intimidate you while feeding his own ego as the smartest man in the room, no.

Psota said...

My contracts professor was in full scary-Socratic mode for the first month of 1L. Then, she became a cuddly teddy bear for the rest of the year. But, we all sat on the edges of our seats, waiting, just in case Socrates came back.

Allison said...

I find it strange that the Socratic method is used as a name for a way to guide student's inquiry.

Socrates never did that. He sucker punched those fools dumb enough to want his approval, making them take stupid positions they never would have agreed to in the first place but for his bizarre line of argument, only to turn on them with a sneer by showing how dumb they were to listen to him in the first place.

So, do I want Socrates as a professor? Most certainly not. Neither do I want the cruel "pretense at inquiry" which is actually a trial by fire to see if you're clever enough to think along the pre-approved road your professor expects, lest he make you painfully aware of how stupid you are. A real inquiry-guided discussion, where a professor meets you where you are at, and then from there, encourages your thinking by subtlely changing your understanding? Sure. Do such profs still exist? Did they ever?

Seven Machos said...

For me, the benefit of the Socratic Method, in addition to the alleviation of tedium, was that it helped me understand that in every legal argument worth having there is always at least one other side that has very good arguments.

That's important because a good lawyer is not a propagandist. A good lawyer is somebody who can see a problem coldly from several angles.

Flexo said...

There is (a) asking questions in order to lead students to figuring out the answers, and then there is (b) hiding the ball and doing nothing but forment confusion while misleading students after they have arrived at the right answer, but having them believe that it is the wrong answer. Too many professors use the latter method.

El Pollo Real said...

Would you want a Socratic professor? Would you want to be one?

I thought that was your job.

wv: "dormoo" Wisconsin version of dormouse. Feed our heads!

El Pollo Real said...

Also, what FLS said at 11:49

Bruce Hayden said...

I think the high point of law school, or at least 1L, was going one on one with my torts prof, and surviving. That was about half way through the year, and after that, it was downhill all the way to graduation.

The low point was when much of my Con law class formally protested having to take the anti-Roe side of the abortion debate.

Sure, Kingsfield was over the top. But, at least in the 1L core courses, I have a hard time envisioning practicing law without the ability to argue, under pressure, either side of an issue.

Of course, today grade inflation has made that sort of pressure less effective, esp. at, I would expect, Harvard.

Bruce Hayden said...

I loved the Socratic professors. Loved them. The think-like-a-lawyer stuff is important but I think the exaltation of the Socratic Method misses something vital: law is boring as shit and the Socratic Method makes class halfway interesting, if only out of terror.

The terror only works for so long. I quickly discovered that by volunteering, I could control fairly well which cases I had to fully brief and prep for class. I discovered that the more I talked, volunteered, and asked questions in class, the less the prof wanted to call on me.

And that is how I stayed awake. I was one of those who sat in the first row and caused many of the rest of the students to hate me (I was even asked once, by a self-appointed representative of the class, to talk less - I didn't).

Bruce Hayden said...

There is (a) asking questions in order to lead students to figuring out the answers, and then there is (b) hiding the ball and doing nothing but forment confusion while misleading students after they have arrived at the right answer, but having them believe that it is the wrong answer. Too many professors use the latter method.

I think that it depends on where you are in law school. I see making the students work for the answer in 1L having advantages. But after that, definitely not. I think esp. in maybe Torts and Contracts. Thankfully, my Con law class was explicitly not taught that way, and I was able to retain enough to get through two state bar exams. I think though, that if any class can be taught with hide-the-ball, it is Contracts. And maybe that is because, at least in my mind, it is straight forward enough that you should be able to develop an understanding of the law there despite the antics of the prof.

Seven Machos said...

Oh God, Bruce. I did hate students like you.

I sat in the back, close to a hot girl if possible.

former law student said...

Socrates ... sucker punched those fools dumb enough to want his approval, making them take stupid positions they never would have agreed to in the first place but for his bizarre line of argument, only to turn on them with a sneer by showing how dumb they were to listen to him in the first place.


Wow, then I did have two professors who followed the Socratic method.

Largo said...

@Allison,

How much of Plato have you read?

Largo said...

[I do so wish that the email followup thingy was opt out rather than opt in.]

traditionalguy said...

The value derived from watching a Kingsfield type in action is the confidence that you can take a beating and keep on ticking. A secondary benefit is confidence that you know the secrets of that field of law. I remember talking with the prof who did that job at our Law School at graduation day reception. He was actually unable to be normal and friendly. That was sad. Legal minds are also a unique form of meanness, not that there is anything wrong with that.

Happy Warrior said...

Style points for the post using the Socratic method whilst discussing the Socratic method!

Salamandyr said...

While I can see its value in teaching, I find people who use Socratic dialog in every day argumentation to be cowardly.

Stake a position and defend it! Don't just sit there congratulating yourself on your ability to throw spitballs at those braver than yourself.

Flexo said...

I see making the students work for the answer in 1L having advantages

So do I.

But I repeat -- there is a difference in making the students work for the answer, in a class like contracts, and then there is hiding the ball and never letting them know when they have found the ball and have been walking around with it for the last hour. There is making them think and reason to an answer, and then there is not bothering to tell them when they have come upon the right answer. There is coming out of a class knowing the law, and there is coming out of the entire course not having a f***ing clue as to what is the law and what is not the law.

The latter method is NOT "making the students work for the answer," it is merely confusing the hell out of people because the professor himself doesn't have a f***ing clue how to effectively teach. Sure, it gives them an early exposure to those lousy judges who write 100-page stream-of-consciousness opinions, but it does not teach them the law or how to think like a lawyer.

Largo said...

@Salamandyr,

I find it often leads to arguing past each other -- the "staking a position and defending it". Words being used in different ways. Hidden premises that neither of us are aware about. With questions, we are ostensibly "on the same page" -- and when unexpected answers come, they often point rather precisely to the real items of disagreement. Perhaps the people you have encountered using "Socratic dialogue" just happen to be bad at it, or just happen to questioning with bad motives?

(In any case, why would you want me to "stake a position" on something about which I am fairly ignorant?)

james said...

One of the best teachers I had said (every morning) "Get out your paper for the quiz" and (once) "We have doughnuts this morning." Every other statement was a question. If you didn't get it he'd restate it, and if a third question about the background didn't evoke an answer he'd call on someone else. He taught Calculus.

c3 said...

Sorry, I went to medical school.

Too many facts to stuff into my head to waste precious time with rhetorical questions!!

Salamandyr said...

(In any case, why would you want me to "stake a position" on something about which I am fairly ignorant?)

To answer this part first, because I think it's most important. If you're ignorant on a subject, you really shouldn't be arguing it should you?

Asking questions is not Socratic Dialogue; it's requesting information. That can include asking for clarification of someone's argument. Then, once you're a) brought up to speed, and b) find yourself disagreeing with someone you can say, with honesty and forthrightness "I disagree, and here's why". The Socratic is nowhere near this honest.

Socratic Dialogue is choosing to, rather than state plainly your position in opposition to your opponent, you pose as an innocent questioner, with the intent of maneuvering the poor trusting fool into either talking himself out of his position, or into some verbal cul de sac to make him look like a fool to yourself or others. And ask enough stupid questions (Socratic questions are almost always stupid, as they are designed to trip someone rather than elicit information) and you can tie anyone up in knots and make them look stupid, mostly for being willing to play along.

Socratic Dialog is a useful teaching tool, since making someone work their way from the (wrong) answer to the (right) answer in class is the job of a teacher. Outside of a teacher student relationship, it's a mark of condescension.

Donald Douglas said...

I like Socratic professors, and I am one on a good day. A John Houseman? Not quite, but I try.

David said...

I would want a professor who makes you know the subject, explain it cogently and take a position on issues that are posed. And then makes you defend your views--against a knowledgeable assault--with facts, reason and internal consistency. A little fear of humiliation for the student helps. You damn well don't want to be humiliated after you have left the academic cradle.

It has seemed to me that a large percentage of our educated young people--including the so called elites--don't think very well. They can express an opinion nicely, but reasoned skepticism--including skepticism about their own views--is lacking.

David said...

My kids thought I was a socratic father.

I had the dialog down pretty well, but the wisdom part was shaky, now that I look back.

All the more reason for them to think for themselves.

Ralph L said...

...my Con law class formally protested having to take the anti-Roe side of the abortion debate.
I hope someone publicly berated their close-mindedness.

mtrobertsattorney said...

The use of the Socratic method is most effective in a conversation with someone, usually some important blowhard, who claims to be a great authority on what is good art, what makes a law a good law, or what is justice. After the person expounded, for example, on what is good art, Socrates would simply request that he define his terms,i.e. how do you define "art"? When a series of these definitions were shown to come up short, or lead to contradictions, the individual's ignorance about his claimed expertise would be exposed. Of course those who thought quite highly of themselves did not take kindly to this kind of public exposure.

Socrates point is that if one is under the false belief that he already knows all about something, he will never gain any true understanding about it. Such a person doesn't know that he doesn't know.

What got Socrates into serious trouble was that he publically exposed the ignorance of important politicians and various "experts" who dominated Athenian society.

We certainly could use Socrates in Washington today.

Largo said...

@Salamandyr,

I fear we may be using the phrase "Socratic dialog" to mean different things.

I was referring to my asking of questions so that I could learn from someone. Sometimes (not always) the answer is vague or can be taken in equivocal ways. When asking for clarification leads to more of the same, I find it helpful to ask "do you mean this, or this, or some other thing?".

If the clashes with something I believe to be true (and my background beliefs often need correction), asking questions has been, in my experiences, a faster way of getting up to speed.

Sometimes what I want from, say, a prof, is not a clearer argument (it may already be clearly stated). it may be a conceptual problem interfering with my following the argument's logic. It often helps me to have him walk with me through my chain of thought, as a way of discovering: "ah - here is where your (my) problem lies." In this case I have an argument of sorts, but it arose as a consequence of what the prof was saying. (Of course here I am doing the questioning rather than the prof, and you may substitute "friend" for "prof").

Are we really thinking different things my "Socratic dialogue"? If not, I am speaking of it here as a learning tool rather than a teaching tool, with the following distinction: I, as the student, am taking (for the moment) a leading role in the conversation -- I am attempting to lead the teacher to precisely where my problem is, even though I don't know precisely where it is myself, but I do know that it appears to lay somewhere down this path.

So you could say that I am trying to help the teacher to learn where my problems lie, so that I will then know them myself. But I would hardly say that I am "using the Socratic method in a teaching role."

Do you consider what I am doing as on the "up and up", as it were?

If so, is it something quite different than what you meant "socratic dialog" -- or is it the same sort of thing, but practices "honestly" rather than dishonestly?

("While I can see its value in teaching, I find people who use Socratic dialog in every day argumentation to be cowardly."

I would hate to be called cowardly without justification. But maybe I am using Socratic dialog in every day conversation, as opposed to argumentation, and that this may make the difference.)

Largo said...

"Asking questions is not Socratic Dialogue; it's requesting information."

From what I have read Plato, this seems to be the bulk of what Socrates does. Not all asking questions is Socratic Dialogue, I agree. But I don't agree (or understand your sense) of the converse.