Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Dilbertic Method

The Socratic Method takes a lot of flak from law students and lawyers, many of whom regard it as some form of hazing/hiding the ball/rite of passage. Those are not entirely inaccurate criticisms--by which I mean to say that while I think the method has its place, I never much enjoyed it as a student. For that reason--and for the more important reason that mixing up teaching methods helps (I hope) keep class more interesting and is more conducive to learning--I do not rely on the Socratic Method all that heavily.

I am writing about the Socratic Method because of today's Dilbert comic strip. It was, yet again, about the pointy-haired boss. When I read today's strip (11/25/07, which is available in the Dilbert archives here), my first thought was, "Wow, I used to have a boss just like that." (And no, I am not telling you who it was.)

And then I started thinking about this Dilbert strip in the context of the law school classroom, and it got even better. And funnier. First you need to read the strip. And then you need to read on.

When Dilbert's boss says "I need you to do something, but I don't have time to explain it," that's akin to the feeling law students sometimes get when called on in class under the Socratic Method. That is, you read the cases, think you know where the material is going--and then you go to class, and BOOM, you have no idea what is going on. All kinds of ideas are being extrapolated from the text by the professor. And then you get called on socratically. You hear the words, but what do they mean? What's the answer? In fact, what's the question?

Then the professor asks some sort of leading question, which is intended to facilitate class discussion and critical thinking, but it smells and feels like a trap. Which is sort of like Dilbert's boss saying, "I'll give you just enough information to send you down the wrong path." Like I said, a trap.

Then the professor asks a follow-up question that reveals a potential flaw in your answer or argument. Like I said, a trap, and you have to think your way out of it, shooting from the hip all the while. Which is like Dilbert's boss then saying, "After you do it wrong I'll treat you like you're some sort of idiot . . . [and] then I'll put you through the embarrassment of undoing everything you did." You are faced with revising your answer, in front of the whole class. Not a lot of fun. It's a good skill, mind you--lawyers need to be able to think on their feet and argue their points (we are advocates, after all)--but it is often not fun.

And of course, the ultimate judgment on what students say and think is--grades. It is a common feeling for students to think that a course has been one big game of "hide the ball," and that final exams, especially in the first year, are a crapshoot. Only after you have taken them do you get the chance to figure out if you guessed right or not.

So, Dilbert is funny. Ha ha. But law school is serious business. A lot of what this strip suggests, in the Socratic context, is that law school classes would be better with less hiding of the ball, more engaging teaching, more frequent testing (whether actually for grades or mock exams,) and a lot of other changes. I've actually written an article about it, which I will be posting about soon. In the meantime, we can learn how to improve law schools from Dilbert.


shell said...

I concur with your observation that this is the kind of response a first year law student would experience when encountering the Socratic Method for the first few times. These were scary experiences, especially since I have made a fool out of myself on more than one occasion when I couldn't think on my feet.

Ironically, I am appreciative of the Socratic Method now than I do two years ago. However, I don't believe that the Socratic Method should be the sole teaching method. It has its strengths and weaknesses, and I believe it should be used in conjunction with other types of teaching methods.

I have written a post on the Socratic Method and a separate post on engaging classroom experience. I am curious as to your thoughts as a professor.

Emily said...

Dear writer,
I am writing a paper and a source provided by my professor blatantly cites the socratic method as "a legal way of hazing." Tempted to quote this article, I thought-is the socratic method some secret that I have yet to understand known only by law students? Alas, although it may not be fun, it is not hazing, but rather individualized critical thinking, which may seem harsh and terrible, which I am sure it has been at times, but an opportunity to help you learn with no other intentions. Making the soccer team remove itself of all hair and then dousing them in hot sauce is, indeed, a different matter. However, what this longer than expected comment was supposed to say, was that your post helped me a lot and almost discredits this author's article, giving me a paragraph or two more of arguing to do for this paper. Thanks! :)