Jaye Ellis

Jaye Ellis
McGill School of Environment
Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
Faculty of Law

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I ask a lot of questions, and the questions are usually not “What did the author in this reading say?” but rather, “Why do you think this reading is in the case book?” I also introduce key words at the beginning of the semester, and then bring them back later on. I’ll say, “Think about our key words, which ones do you think apply to this reading or to this case?”

I also use the Prezi presentation tool which has helped me to structure lectures in a way that is much more conceptual, more focused on how to read a case and pinpoint what’s important. My courses are becoming less about presenting material and more about helping students approach the material with a more critical eye. I begin by modeling, by saying, “Here are some questions that I would ask about this case.”

There is a good deal in the law courses that’s rather dry and technical and highly detailed. I use small working groups so that students can work through dense articles together while I circulate. The working groups started as a way to get the students to talk to one another and discuss problems, and I discovered completely by accident that they could also be used as a diagnostic tool. As I work with each group, I can see where students’ problems are and respond immediately.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

There is a definite move away in the Law Faculty from exams. It’s not always possible, but my classes tend to be on the small side so if I have one exam, I’ll also have a different kind of assignment so that people can play to their strengths to some extent. I would like to try having three or four optional assignments over the semester. Students would be able to choose to write one or two or none, but the schedule would be very flexible. I would also like to use evaluation strategies that require students to solve a legal problem in a more natural setting than an exam.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

For students in my discipline, the most important thing they learn is legal reasoning. In a law course, the sources are very specific, for example, legislation, the decisions of judges and other documents that have some kind of legal authority. Oftentimes the problem students run into is they look at the legal rules and they say, “Well, there’s nothing that applies to this kind of problem, so I guess that’s the end of that.” But you can’t do that. You have to look at the legal rules and say, there’s nothing that applies to this problem so I have to pursue my reasoning in a slightly different way. Students have to learn to make an argument that can be justified and supported by authoritative sources, but they also need to learn to critique other arguments.

For students from outside the discipline, I hope they learn practical reasoning, the making of arguments and the analysis of arguments.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

I try to help my students learn to make an argument about a piece of literature or a legal judgment. If the students’ premise is that a certain law is ‘bad’ then they have to figure out what ‘bad’ means, and they have to figure out what objectives the law should be maintaining. And that’s something that students don’t generally understand. They read “critique an author’s argument” as “explain why it’s wrong,” and they understand that as “give your opinion as to why it’s wrong.” Instead, I want to help them think like legal scholars who may ask themselves questions about whether a judge or a lawyer has properly understood the law and reached the right conclusion. Such scholars would think about the objectives that the law or the policy is supposed to attain and work backwards. This is the sort of legal reasoning that students should be learning to do, and it’s very difficult.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

My first recommendation to new faculty members is to try and survive the first year—teach a course off the shelf. Just get through it once. After that, you can begin to tweak it. Once you have a year or two under your belt, then put together your own materials. Ultimately it’s really important to take the course and make it your own. In the process, don’t hesitate to consult colleagues in Law who experiment with an immense number of different techniques in the classroom and have a wealth of knowledge about what can be done.

Another thing that I would suggest is to try some things in the classroom that you can walk away from if they don’t work. If you gear your entire course around a really innovative evaluation method, you’re stuck with it for the entire semester. Try shaking it up a little bit in the classroom, try new techniques such as working groups. That way, if for some reason it doesn’t work out, you can try something else. So start small.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

The first thing that I would say to undergraduates is to stop thinking about the final exam and other evaluations and start thinking about learning the material. With Law students, it’s perhaps a bit easier to get that message across because you can say to them, “In three or four years, you’re going to be doing this, so the point is not what’s on the final, the point is what’s going to happen when the client walks into your office.” One of my messages to students is that they are responsible for their learning, and what I’m doing is just helping out, creating an environment, providing some parameters within which to work, and then giving feedback on how they are doing.

Why do you teach?

Partly because I have to. It’s part of the job description. It is also, of course, an excellent way to learn. Teaching helps me figure out what I don’t know. It’s incredibly good for teaching myself the basics. I suppose that’s also why we go to conferences, to try and explain things and then realize the limits of our own knowledge. Also, in my university career there were five or six people who made a big difference to me in ways that they may not even know about. I guess there is a certain sense of obligation to try and do that for my students. But yes, teaching is an excellent way to learn. It gets me out of my office.

Photo by Owen Egan

Contact Information
Email address: 
jaye.ellis [at] mcgill.ca

One of my messages to students is that they are the ones responsible for their learning, and what I’m doing is just helping out, creating an environment, providing some parameters within which to work, and then giving feedback on how they are doing.

McGill University is located on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. McGill honours, recognizes and respects these nations as the traditional stewards of the lands and waters on which we meet today.
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