Roderick A. Macdonald
Faculty of Law
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
Honesty, integrity and humour, those are the best things that you’ve got! The rest is just technique. I also like to use personal stories, and I like to use irony instead of canned jokes.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
I think one of the most significant ways to evaluate students’ learning is to have casual conversations with them over coffee or in the hallway about, for example, their career plans or to discuss letters of reference.
In terms of more formal assessment, I work hard to encourage students to do midterm assignments which may include field trip reports, short memos, negotiation exercises, the preparation of applications for radio/television licenses, or security agreements. I only offer final exams to students who choose not to do midterm assignments or to students who have done midterm assignments and are dissatisfied with their grade.
One exercise that I have found to be very helpful for doctrinal courses, which tend to involve a lot of data, is an optional assignment that has one hundred true-false questions. Students have 72 hours to complete the assignment and can do it in a group. I’m careful about the way I structure the questions, so there’s no obvious answer, and students have to really work to get the answer. Encouraging law students to work in a group means that they’re constantly arguing about every possibility and digging around and debating the questions. Year after year, students tell me that this is the most effective form of studying that they’ve ever done because they had such passionate group discussions. And every year, we have to throw out about ten of the questions because they turn out to be somewhat ambiguous. Everybody gets a point for those questions because the students discovered something that I didn’t see. The assignment involves judgment and reflection. Students get to practice teamwork, analytical acuity, and the ability to take a question that seems straightforward and keep turning it around like a diamond in the sun so that different reflections are revealed off the same question.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
A better understanding of themselves. Nothing else matters. To see what it means to live a virtuous life and what that says about your relationship to other people. That’s what comes out of exploring your own sense of self.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
You’re always trying to illustrate points with your own experiences, like the research that you’re doing. I think that part of what students come to appreciate is that fundamental to learning is looking for insight where nobody else is looking for it, especially from people that nobody else thinks are teachers, like the bus driver or the janitor, who can also teach you what the law is about. Part of the course is to open up their understanding of what the law is about. In the Secure Transactions class, for instance, one of the field trips is to find a house or a building that’s for sale, call the real estate agent, and see if you can understand why the house is for sale, what’s the price, the flexibility—understanding the financing of housing transactions and reporting on it by posting a 1000-word memo on the course webpage. The students can choose any format they like for the memos, and some are plays, some are stream of consciousness, some are in the form of a dialogue. With the field reports, we then start a discussion thread.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Assuming that we are talking about young faculty members in their thirties, I would say, “Don’t forget that you’ve spent the first thirty years of your life teaching people.” That’s the primary recommendation. Your job didn’t start today. If you look back at all the opportunities that you’ve had to be taught by and to teach people, you will develop good instincts about what it means to engage appropriately with students.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Well, in terms of preparing for class, I would say whatever you read, don’t think about how it applies to the subject at hand, think about how it applies to your own life. And in class, remember that we learn more from wrong answers than from right answers.
There is much to be learned by talking with your classmates before class about what’s going on. Also, if you can talk about what you’ve read with someone who’s doing something else, like a family member or your roommate, and you can have an intelligent conversation with the person about it, then you probably have a good handle on what’s going on. And if you can’t, if you’re constantly stuck with jargon and stock phrases and formula, then you probably don’t.
Why do you teach?
Because I like to learn. You certainly learn a lot of things from your students: important lessons about keeping an open mind, about not judging people, about understanding the beliefs and experiences that shape the way different human beings attend to and work through problems. Students come to the study of law with a set of epistemological reflections, which are untutored and largely erroneous, and you are able to watch how, when they are confronted with puzzles and challenges, they are able to move from one state of knowledge and understanding to another. Watching that process gives you clues about your own ways of learning and your own ways of seeing things differently.
I think you could reasonably say that teaching is not something you do in order to make a living. Teaching is a commitment you have about a way of being alive.