Theory into Practice: Coverage vs. Comprehension

It’s been quite some time since I believed that Lecturing was the best way to teach legal research.  But I still find myself having the same dialogue, internal and external, that led me to believe that it is better to sacrifice comprehensive coverage for the sake of better retention:  do I assemble everything I know about research into a carefully crafted lecture where everything fits together perfectly (what I’ve come to call the “tetris lecture”)?  Or do I sacrifice the time it would take to explain,  for example, what the appellate division of the trial court is, where its decisions are found and what authority it wields, in the name of giving students practice doing hands-on research, analyzing fact patterns and discovering effective research strategies?  The answer seems clear:  I think it’s far more important to give students practice working through complex research problems than it is to devote the time to teach them how to navigate, say, the Descriptive Word Index, when the likelihood is they’ll never use one outside of law school (if even there!).

The answer seems clear.  But the problem is, every year, it seems like there is more to cover.  Every year we want to devote more time to practical work to make sure students “get it.” And so every year it seems that there is more to sacrifice.  For example, this year we want to devote more time to having students work through transactional research problems – which is a type of practice many of our graduates wind up in.  And so this year, we are seriously considering eliminating any time devoted to public international law, because the reality is, few if any of our current class are going to end up working in international human rights, with the United Nations, or for anyone else “doing” public international law (NB: at this point we do still cover private international law research, because our graduates are much more likely to encounter issues between private parties in separate nations, than they are to encounter issues between nations themselves).   But it pains me to do this, because I know this stuff; I love this stuff.  It seems like the right thing to do, especially given all of the hub bub about “practice ready” graduates.  But the warehouse of knowledge I will likely never share – how to deftly assemble all of the necessary Shepard’s volumes and supplements for an accurate analysis, or how to link up the dates of the various lists of sections affected so as to not miss a single federal register – is growing.

Does this story seem familiar?  Are you having to sacrifice things you know and love to teach, in the name of making sure students walk away more competent and confident?  If so, what have you dropped?

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