[At Columbia Law School,] Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa, a constitutional law scholar, is going through divorce proceedings that have caused her to miss a number of classes. The school responded by dumping all of Professor Ponsa’s students into Professor Trevor Morrison’s Con Law class, creating a huge 200-person Con Law experience that bothered many students.
The Columbia Student Senate formally requested that Columbia replace Ponsa with another qualified professor instead of merging sections. ...
... a 200-person class at what is supposed to be one of the best law schools in the country is just ridiculous.
Why? How big is too big?
I suppose that if one uses the Socratic Method there's an upper bound. Probably around 60 or 70, perhaps? But if you're using the Socratic Method, you're making a mistake to begin with. (See my reflections on the method's disadvantages and flaws.)
If you're lecturing, why would 200 be too big? If student evaluations are anything to go by (admittedly a debatable proposition), some of my best teaching has been done in classes of around 140 to 150. Why would an extra 50 or so manke a difference?
Update: Ann Althouse criticizes my argument by suggesting that "the students would have a few questions like:"
Why am I paying so much tuition if all I'm getting is something I could be watching on the Internet? And why are you paid so much money to lecture in person in front of people who could just as well be watching video of whoever is the very best lawprof lecturer on this subject?
But so what? Lecture is the dominant teaching methodology in lots of disciplines. Students in those disciplines could be asking the very same questions. But lecture survives nonetheless. What makes law students so special that those questions are somehow trump cards? Unless Althouse can demonstrate that legal education uniquely requires pedagogic methods other than lecture, which seems to be the implicit assumption underlying her questions, those questions have no real force.
Conversely, moreover, given how bad most law professors are at using the Socratic Method law students could equally well be asking questions like "Why an I paying so much tuition to be subjected to a series of inane questions?" "And why are you getting paid so much money to hide the ball instead of actually teaching me something?"
In any case, it occurs to me that we can use Althouse's questions to posit a more interesting issue; namely, why shouldn't students be taught by watching the very best law professor on line? I believe there is a very real possibility that legal education--like much of higher education generally--will end up moving in the direction of massive open online courses. It's entirely possible, for example, that we'll end up with a model in which students at Columbia watch an exceptional corporate law lecturer at, say, UCLA give the lectures for the week and then engage in more advanced hands-on work at the home institution.
We already see such courses evolving in other disciplines. Computer science professor Douglas Fisher has a great post on how he blends a MOOC at Stanford with his own courses at vanderbilt:
In Fall 2011, Stanford announced three, free massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Two of these courses, database and machine learning, corresponded to spring 2012 courses that I would be teaching at Vanderbilt University. I recognized that I could use the lecture materials from these classes to “flip” my own classes by having students view lectures before the class meeting, which then could be used for other learning activities. ...
In the undergraduate database course, flipping meant spending class time on larger database designs, created by both students and me, and understanding the basic material in the context of these designs. In the graduate machine-learning course, where I had some different preferences than the Stanford instructor, students watched (most of) his videos in advance of my classes and I also assigned additional weekly readings. In that class, flipping meant synthesizing across the lectures and readings in class. ...
I now view MOOCs, and the assessment and discussion infrastructure that comes with them, as invaluable resources that I embrace and to which I add value. I, and I am guessing many others, are short steps away from full-blown customizations of individual courses and even entire curricula, drawing upon resources from around the world and contributing back to those resources.
We all know legal education has got to change. If MOOCs become part of the new model, as I suspect they will, students will just have to get used to "watching video of whoever is the very best lawprof lecturer on this subject." And the rest of the legal academy will have to figure out how to add value to those lectures if they want to survive.