February 19, 2014

"I also like to use random constraints to fuel a discussion or class exercise."

"For instance, I might ask students to pick random numbers and then we use those pages in the text as our focus passages, figuring out what they have to do with each other. Depending on your course subject, random numbers, sentences, or image selectors might be helpful constraints or prompts for an exercise."

The 4th on a list of 4 ideas under the heading "How to Jump Start a Flagging Discussion Class." This is a post at the lofty Chronicle of Higher Education, and the author Natalie Houston is an English professor. I wonder how this randomness gambit could be adapted for law school. My first thought is: This is ludicrous and unprofessional, and the professor must generate questions worth the students' time. My second thought is: Legal minds can connect or distinguish anything from anything else, so why not randomly extract 2 sentences from 2 places in today's reading assignment and challenge the students to build their legal skills? My third thought, an answer to that question, is: Because this is ludicrous and unprofessional, and the professor must generate questions worth the students' time.


FleetUSA said...

Professor, get on with the lesson for which I am paying.

Sean Gleeson said...

I can see the conundrum, especially for a mind like yours, which delights in finding (or even contriving) unseen connections. And the randomness makes it an honest test of the thinker's skill, as with Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes taking turns deducing facts about passersby. It could be an enjoyable exercise that hones mental abilities. But, yeah, it does kind of seem lazy too, like "I made no preparations for this class, you're on your own." Hard call.

Bob R said...

At least the first three suggestions in the article weren't completely useless. But the one you highlighted made me think that author might have a lot of "flagging discussion classes." I get the idea that there are a lot of classes where the goal is to have a large quantity of discussion without concern for quality.

Sean Gleeson said...

Of course, you could stick with the prepared lesson for in-class discussion, but assign the "randomness" exercise as homework. That way the students would get the full benefit of doing the random puzzle, without using up much lecture time. (It would still use some time, because you would have to explain the assignment. But it would feel much more professional.)

Walter S. said...

In school I learned a cure for writer's block: Narrow the topic. If you can't write about "What I did last summer," then write about what you did on the the first Monday after the school year ended---or about the yardwork you did on that day---or about why you chose a particular shovel for that yardwork. Once the block is broken, you can re-expand the topic. I suspect that the "random page" idea works in the same way.

Patrick O said...

I can see the benefit of the "random pages" approach.

In a given work, there's a shared theme and development of the theme. The tendency is to analyze only the direct steps, focusing on the trees instead of the forest.

While a useful task, it creates a somewhat passive exercise, as one lets the author do all the work.

Conceiving of the work as a whole, however, provokes a more ecological approach, so that the random pages is not a waste of student's time but can become an exercise in engaged and creative thinking. Why does the author talk about this in light of having talked about that? Students learn to anticipate arguments, making their own path to each node on the web. Thus, this gives them the ability to piece together other elements of knowledge that we know must have correlation but the process of the correlation is not settled.

Maybe I appreciate this because this is a key task in theological studies. One must look for correlating connections in seeming separate topics. If theology is to be whole it must be coherent with itself and the world. We can't, ideally, have a doctrine of the church that has little to do with our doctrine of Christ.

In bringing conceptions together we can relate and critique proposals and point to ways correlation has been successful and ways it has not been.

Then again, I'm not sure it's worth an explanation. If a person knows the subject well, they can bring out elements of active engagement for students within each focused topic. Which is to say, I don't think I'm going to take up her suggestions.

Biff said...

An English professor, you say? Perhaps the deconstructionists among us would argue that the numbers selected by the class could not have been random, and it is the task of the class to understand how their choices are social constructs, at least as meaningful as any particular author's constructs.

Yeah, I tend to agree with Prof. Althouse on this one.

Howard said...

Actually, the random trick is un-academic yet completely professional. Professional solve random combinations of problems and customers situation. It's also a lazy gimmick in the right hands could be a powerful tool.

Biff said...

PS. To be fair, it could be an interesting statistical exercise: if the class discovers that obviously random bullshit seems as convincing as the usual bullshit, perhaps they will begin to cast a more critical eye at the usual bullshit. In a way, it's like a scientist asking if the data might refute the null hypothesis.

David said...

One technique is to confront one of the student rascals and not let the person alone for a little while. The other students take notice and then begin to realize that they too may be confronted. This could be called the Samuel Jackson Stupid Interviewer Technique.

This was a common technique when I was in law school. You soon learned that it was not fun to be that fish on that hook. So you prepared.

Of course this technique requires that the teacher also be prepared, which may be why it has fallen into disuse in many fields.

Bob Ellison said...

A group of friends once played a game with me where they sent me out of the room while they decided on a word, and I came back in to ask yes or no questions, twenty-questions-like, to try to decipher the word.

It took a long time to figure out that they had no word. They were answering "yes" if I started the question with a vowel, and "no" if I started with a consonant.

lgv said...

You should go with your first thought, or maybe your third thought.

Just run an experiment and select the two random points and determine for yourself whether it would generate a helpful discussion, before you waste your students' time.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm interested in games like this. I have a book on surrealist games. There's something artists do called "narrative corpse."

I just don't think classroom is playtime. I don't show movies either.

stlcdr said...

Such 'ideas' are common throughout education, it appears. There is great worry around engaging students at all levels, as if this will miraculously allow them to learn whatever they are supposedly being taught.

Unfortunately, almost all academic subjects are dry and tedious. Not that they aren't interesting, but it is up to the student to find how to engage themselves, and not the other way around.

Using colored building blocks to engage students has moved out of kindergarten to law schools, now. The dumbing down continues.

Ann Althouse said...

And I do have a sense of humor and in fact find a great deal of amusing stuff in the actual material, as I pursue the central project of understanding the cases.

traditionalguy said...

He could try an oldie but a goodie approach and call on students for answers, humiliate them if wrong and ask another student for the correct answer.

Or is that considered harassment today?

harrogate said...

"I just don't think classroom is playtime"

So what? Neither does the author of the piece or most anyone else.

"I don't show movies either."

Is there a lot of movie showing in the area of Law that you teach at UW? Or in any area of Law School for that matter?

For lots of classes it might be entirely useful to show a movie. Just to clear that up.

Krumhorn said...

Who's got time fer it? I'm already two cases behind in my business law class. I can't even get them to make rational arguments for each of the parties with the available facts that are right in front of them...leave alone employ disconnected source of random facts for the task.

I'm amazed how many of the students get emotionally wedded to the narrative of one party to the exclusion of any possible righteousness of the other. I love popping that balloon, but it takes time.

Notwithstanding, and for the avoidance of doubt, libruls are the source of most of what has gone wrong in the world, and, in general, a bunch of nasty little pricks.

See what I did there?

- Professor Krumhorn

Rob said...

Althouse, Ms. Houston just described your blog.

MadisonMan said...

I give out candy to students who answer questions.

I direct the narrative from the front of the classroom.

It reads to me like this professor doesn't have a solid list of instructional outcomes for the day, and is just winging it. Surely, from the readings, she must have a list of things she wants the students to appreciate, or understand -- something. Is she that unable to drive a discussion towards those goals? So lame!

madAsHell said...

Pass your papers to the left, and grade your fellow student.

Naked Surfer said...

... I wonder how this randomness gambit could be adapted for law school. My first thought is: This is ludicrous and unprofessional, and the professor must generate questions worth the students' time. My second thought is: Legal minds can connect or distinguish anything from anything else, so why not randomly extract 2 sentences from 2 places in today's reading assignment and challenge the students to build their legal skills? My third thought, an answer to that question, is: Because this is ludicrous and unprofessional, and the professor must generate questions worth the students' time.

Wrong (and right - randomly) all the way around. Unless I’m severely misunderstanding these points.

Wrong first because law school is not an isolated state space existing inside an ideal vacuum or in a friction free (idealized) human environment. It is entirely random – genuinely random – to use such an assumption as the arbitrary null hypothesis by which to define any default status for defining “law school.” Justify this arbitrary-random definition of “law school.”

Wrong second because law school exists in an environment of life itself and life is an open system wherein all kinds of stochastic and random events happen all the time and law school should reflect cases (casuistry) that deal with randomness and stochastic developments in life.

Wrong third because we have no certified definition of ‘random.’ Any English teacher or law school professor should be able to turn to the OED and find at least a half-dozen definitions of randomness because all that we have are a variety of different definitions of randomness that cumulatively or individually define nothing more than pseudo-random states when compared against some presumably ordered benchmark (e.g., random v directed, random v constrained, random v rule-based, random v non-random, random v pseudo-random, random v distributed).

Wrong fourth because the entirety of all legal processes together will reflect every definition of randomness above depending upon the law professor’s willingness and competence experimentally to use metrics converted into prose (or a Bayesian guess) by which to present to law school students these concrete cases of everyday life in all their glorious states of life’s open-system randomness.

Wrong fifth because the central limit theorem about – “generate questions worth the students' time” – will never, ever be determined by the sovereign judgment of any law professor, anywhere, ever, because there will always be students smarter, truer, and more competent than their own professors in judging for themselves what are “questions worth the students' time.” Good luck administering lobotomies on students who out-think their limited professors, that is, law school professors’ limitations are not really an effective central limit on the superior thinking of students. Truth will out.

Wrong fifth because for lovers of Samuel Jackson – see Samuel Jackson as Sargent West in "Basic," saying there are people in this world who – “will shoot you for no other reason than a thought passing through their mind.” That’s a definition of randomness and a law school is foolish if the school itself does not competently reflect such randomness in life, for no other reason than because law professor Samuel Jackson said so.

Wrong sixth because of the reason above, law school professor, Samuel Jackson as Sargent West, by implication (or by observation of the facts of life) judging that law itself is not self-enforcing and that it’s a random and arbitrary definition of law that says that the law is self-enforcing. Law is not. We are never dealing with law in an idealized Platonic state of a frictionless environment. We deal with people – people - who randomly create or randomly enforce the law.

Naked Surfer said...


The limited competence or willingness of a law professor’s mind will never act as an effective random constraint against the minds of students (as a population - there are certain individual weak-minded students) who understand this.

Well, that’s my exam answer. Here's my blue-book, I'm going to have waffles now.


Sigivald said...

English ain't Law, and "questions worth the students' time" are damned hard to manage in English.

Because unlike with the Law, there is not necessarily some Important Thing the Text is About, that you can ask generically "worthy" questions about.

And the goal of the class isn't to make sure the students learn Specific Key Theses Or Points Of Law, because it's not like Law at all.

Anything that the class gets interested in can be made into a worthwhile discussion, is the thing.

Randomizing passages from a text and looking for connections could easily be profitable if the idea is analyzing literary structure.

(Contra FleetUSA, that is the lesson you're paying for if it's an English class.

If you want to be taught specific useful things ala trade school*, you want classes that aren't English Lit.

* Which should not be taken as a dismissal of such education; just an admission that English Lit classes are definitively not that sort of class.)

Naked Surfer said...

Casuistry at the Samuel Jackson Randomness Law School

Good morning class. Today we study primal origins of law. We can consider the following case as a study in the origins of the law of care, or contracts (both licit or criminal), or property law, perhaps as product liability case (say handgun manufacture and defects, or gun regulation), or as a case in local city ordinances governing health standards at local restaurants ... or whatever you feel.

Here is your case, affectionately titled, "The Bonnie Situation!"

Please read, then visit your local restaurant and experience this first-hand, and then return to class to discus the legal implications of "The Bonnie Situation,” with random emphasis on ...

Jules – “A sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie. I'll never know 'cause even if it did, I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I don't wanna eat nothin' that ain't got enough sense to disregard its own feces.”

Question - is this statement about whether the restaurant passed or failed the local city ordinances for health standards? Or is this statement about what they feed you in law school?

Jules – “Don't you see, Vince, that shit don't matter. You're judging this thing the wrong way. It's not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my fuckin' car keys. You don't judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God's touch, God got involved.”

Question - compare and contrast Jules’s comments about God with Lincoln’s comments about God in “The Second Inaugural Address” – and determine how and whether God is involved in American law, to win the class prize of the Harold Berman Book Award for your answer.

Honey Bunny - “ Everybody be cool, this is a robbery! .... Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherfuckers! Got that?!”

Okay class! Wtf do you do now?

Pumpkin – “You Mexicans in the kitchen, get out here! Asta luego!”

Class, is this a case for hate speech?

Yolanda - “I gotta go pee! I want to go home.”

Jules – “Just hang in there, baby, you're doing' great, Ringo's proud of you and so am I. It's almost over, (to Pumpkin). Now I want you to go in that bag and find my wallet.”

Pumpkin - “Which one is it?”

Jules - “It's the one that says ‘Bad Motherfucker’ on it.’”

Class, okay, you are Yolanda’s attorney in this situation. Do you advise Yolanda that she has the legal right to go pee and she should go pee because it’s her legal right? Or, do you advise Yolanda to hold it?

Class, you are now Pumpkin’s attorney -- should Pumpkin return the wallet that has “Bad Motherfucker” engraved on it?

What if the wallet has an Amazon link to “Bad Motherfucker” wallets for sale? - return the wallet immediately and ignore the Amazon link, or instead, keep the wallet so you can shop for your own BMF wallet, and the return the wallet (under a bailment theory? - would bailment work here? is there a better legal theory?) after you do your Amazon shopping?

Jules - “Now I'm thinkin', it could mean you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or is could by you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin'. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd.”

Class, discuss the legal merits of all the points that Jules makes here. Is he righteous? What is darkness? Does it make any difference, class, if you are the one looking down the barrel of Mr. .45? Is this question worthwhile, dear students?

Ambrose said...

Professor: I expect one could take a random case - certainly any Supreme Court case - and learn something from it in any law school class. It might be off topic (a contract case in and antitrust class), but the students could walk out knowing more than when they walked in.

kentuckyliz said...

There are students who don't want to think, just pass. Who needs an education when you can just look shit up on google and Wikipedia?

Seattle lawyer said...

When I was at Penn law school, Professor Robert Gorman would come into a lecture hall with blackboards on which something from another class had been written and seamlessly weave whatever was on the board into the socratic discussion. He did it in both labor law and copyright.