Posted in Teachable Moments, Teaching

Adventures in Teaching Legal Research

Is it odd to walk away from a lecture and feel that it was simultaneously disastrous and highly successful?

Today I gave my last lecture for the year on basic legal research.  The structure of the 40-minute lecture was to spend the first half discussing legal periodicals and the second half reviewing statutory and case law research.  I gave this lecture to two sections of students, back to back.  In the first section, my colleagues (giving the same lecture elsewhere at the school) and I realized that the indexes and databases we were showing were inexplicably inaccessible from our students’ laptops, problematic since they were to use these resources tonight in an assignment due tomorrow!  Disaster #1.  Because it took so long to try and resolve this problem in the first lecture, my review of primary sources was cut abruptly short.  In the second class, I was prepared for the problems with the databases, but my students – quiet in all of my other lectures – unexpectedly asked many questions about legal periodicals, thus again cutting drastically into my review time (I was actually thrilled by the questions!  See below.).  Disaster #2.

So how could I possibly walk away from these lectures with a positive feeling?  To be sure, I am disappointed that I didn’t get to do the review justice; primary source research is critical, and a thorough review would have been very helpful for the students.  And yet I ultimately walked away feeling successful because the first half of the lecture, discussing legal periodicals, went so well.  It’s true – it didn’t really go that well.  After all, the students couldn’t access the databases!  But that was a technical glitch that was quickly resolved after the fact, and on my classroom computer the databases worked fine, so the students still got to see how each operated and the purpose each serves.  Furthermore, I was able to convey the information I wanted them to have thoroughly, clearly, and efficiently.  In fact, watching the clock, I was making really good time on my lectures, were it not for the technical glitches and the curiosity of the students!

I think what I found most thrilling, to be perhaps a little dramatic, was that the students were so inquisitive.  I love that they asked me questions!  It showed that they were paying attention and that they were engaged.  For the most part, these weren’t questions born out of confusion, but curiosity, a yearning to learn a little more.  As an instructor, you always wonder if you’re getting through to the students (especially when they don’t ask you any questions!), and today I walked away from each section knowing that I had at least gotten through to a few students in each class.

To make me feel even better, this is the first time that the students have really taken me up on my suggestion that they come to me with research questions.  After the last lecture, a couple of students came to me with questions about their assignment.  After today’s lecture, students came to me, both with continued database problems (that have now been resolved) and with further questions about the resources I have shown them and how they work.  I even had a student ask if we offer any more lectures on legal research!  He said he really got a lot out of my lectures (what a relief to hear, let me tell you!), but because they were over so quickly, he often felt like he needed something more in-depth that reinforced these principles.  I immediately told him about a few different opportunities we have coming up, and he seemed very interested.  (I’ll admit that he, in particular, made my day today.  He even complimented me on my handouts – seriously, he knows the way to my heart!)

So yes, despite the disasters I encountered, I cannot help but feel that today’s lectures were a success.  I handled a technological crisis well, I seemed to really reach my students, and I finally reached the point that at least some feel comfortable coming to me with questions.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a good experience.

Author:

I am the Assistant Director for Public Services at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. My research interests include exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education as well as how to address knowledge gaps and meet the educational expectations of today's law students.

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