Reflections on my second year of teaching

July 6th, 2014

Following from my post after my first year of teaching, here are the syllabus, examinations, and evaluations for the four classes I taught this academic year:

Fall 2013

Spring 2014

My progress from year one to year two was on the whole positive. I felt considerably more comfortable with the material. I felt better prepared in every class to answer questions that a year earlier would have thrown me off. And, I thought I was able to more effectively explain some dry material.

With respect to constitutional law, in particular, I was extremely pleased with my performance. I received my best best comments yet. The overwhelming majority of the comments were quite positive, and the negative comments focused more on displeasure with the class itself (some students just don’t care about ConLaw) than my teaching. Though, some thought the class was not organized or clear enough.

Here are a smattering of my favorite comments:

  • “Zealot for ConLaw”
  • “He had immense knowledge of the subject but spent most of the class period teaching us random trivia facts that we would only need to know if we were ever contests on Jeopardy.”
  • “One of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable professors I have ever had.”
  • “We learned so much! I can’t believe he is a human. His knowledge is on a different level. Enjoyed it but my stress levels do not. Thank You!”

My students haven’t learned yet that I consist of several clones. So *mostly* human.

One of my biggest concerns for ConLaw was that my politics would show through too much. I usually went out of my way to discuss the opposite point of view. And, if this comment is any indication, I think it worked:

  • I would appreciate it if he left his politics at home. Debate is a good way of learning different viewpoints and there wasn’t an opportunity for that here. His views were very strong and offputting. Many students were afraid to speak up in class. And how about the 2nd Amendment?? Didn’t touch it. This is Texas and a big deal here. We wasted time on history.

Think about that. The student thought I was *too* liberal because I didn’t talk about the Second Amendment in Texas! Huzzah! I win. (Obviously, the student didn’t check my incessant writing about the right to keep and bear arms. Just as well). In fairness, the Second Amendment was on the syllabus for the last class, but we ran out of time, so I had to cover it very quickly. Though I did mention it at several points. And any discussion of the Second Amendment would have been quite historical, which would have disappointed the student. But if a student is complaining that I don’t talk about the Second Amendment enough, I’m in good shape.

Especially in light of this comment:

  • Very enjoyable course. Prof. Blackman made this extremely relative [sic] to every person’s different social, religious, and familiar background. It was a great class.

A number of students commented that the class can be more organized, and that I can be more clear. I agree entirely. I will be teaching ConLaw again next Spring, and look forward to improving on this front. I am eagerly anticipating how I can work in Noel Canning, Hobby Lobby, Schuette, and maybe one or two other cases. But overall, I was pretty happy with how the class came out. And the exams were better than I expected.

One of the most frequent comments I received from Property students was something like, “I wish I could take him for Conlaw.” This is both good, and bad. It is good that students want to take me for another class. (Alas, they cannot select their first-year classes). It is bad, because if they perceive me as a ConLaw professor, the implication is that I don’t take property as seriously. I don’t know how to fight this perception, beyond being the best property professor I can be. I suspect this shades my property evaluations.

For Property, I felt a marked improvement overall. Though, my scores had a dip in the Fall 2013 semester. One large contributing factor was my book launch and tour. In 2012-13, I left about 2 or 3 empty classes scheduled at the end of the semester in case I ran late. I didn’t need to do so, so I simply cancelled the last few classes before the semester ended. The students were ebullient. This fall, I moved the three cancelled classes up to the beginning of the semester around my book launch. I did not need to add a single makeup class (though I did one class by Google Hangout, which was something of a failure so I probably should have). This change backfired significantly. You can read through the comments, but the general gist was that I was not focused on the class, and put all of my attention into the book. This couldn’t be farther from the truth–I covered the exact same subject matter, and travelled about the same amount (and miles) from the previous year–but perceptions matter. One of the major downsides to having such a public blog and persona, where all of my travels are advertised, is that students may think that I am disregarding them. I tried really hard in the Spring to rebut this presumption–by organizing field trips to the museum, etc.–and I think I was marginally successful. In the end I take complete responsibility. I think of my students as my priority, and they need to feel that way. My numbers rebounded significantly from the fall to the spring, and I did not see the repeated comments that I wasn’t committed to class.

The biggest problem, which I know I need to work on, is not making mistakes in class. A few (not a lot) of students noted that I would make mistakes in class, then correct myself later. I know this is maddening to students, and I try my best not to do it. But I know I’m guilty of it. And I usually realize it shortly thereafter, and try to find a good time to correct myself. Usually (but not always) the errors are triggered when a students poses a modification of a question I asked, or something that is not germane to what we are recovering. I think one way to work this through is to really take my time when I get a question like this, and work it through out loud. My natural instinct is to reach the answer quickly, but that speed may not be worth the cost of having to correct myself later. Perhaps more preparation can help on this front, but I think modifying the in-class approach would be more focused.

The issue of technology in the classroom continues to get mixed reviews, slightly tilting towards favorable. Here are a few of the comments:

  • Professor Blackman made use of technology to really engage the class. Everyone got to participate regularly…
  • It took a bit to get used to how “techy” he is, but it worked out very well. I enjoyed the class.
  • I like the way he conducted class, though, was an effective way of teaching
  • His blog is lengthy and freezes my computer. The use of in-class chat is more distracting than helpful.
  • Too much electronics in class! Tablets, webpage, laptop, and chat window. Detracts from class experience.

To recap, during class, I type my notes in real-time using a Google Doc, and keep a livechat open that allows students to send messages to the front. First, with respect to the live chat, I’ve found that usage varies wildly. During my first semester, I let students use pseudonyms on the livechat, and adoption was very strong. After some complaints, during the second semester, I made students use their real names. As I expected, the livechat dried up, and became useless. This year, I let students use pseudonyms again, but was more active in voicing concerns if I felt they crossed a line. I think this strikes a balance. I also found that the night students tend to use it much less, which is to be expected. Also, the night students rate it less favorably. With respect to the notes, some students prefer Powerpoint, which I loathe. Some students complained that the notes were not complete. They were never intended to be. In any event, I’ve tried to make the notes as comprehensive as possible. I think I’ve hit a good balance here.

Another related issue is that I live-stream all of my classes, and make them available on YouTube. The overwhelming majority of students appreciate it, but a few students complained that it isn’t fair that other students can skip class and watch the videos at home. Let me explain this a bit more. The videos are poor substitutes for classroom attendance for one very important reason: you can’t hear any of the students on the recording. You probably miss maybe 40-50% of the class that way. Further, I am positive that students who routinely skip class watch the videos at home. There are exceptions–one students who routinely skipped class did extremely well on the final exam. I can only presume that the student watched the videos–because certain things written on the exam reflected material that wasn’t in the textbooks. But, in any event, due to circumstances somewhat beyond my control, I will be taking attendance this fall. This should obviate most concerns about fairness.

On the whole, the scores between classes make little sense. For example, I would think that my score for “knowledge of subject matter” would increase each semester I teach a class. I mean, every time I teach something, I know it better. But it doesn’t, as measured by students. For example, in Property I, my “subject matter scores” were 4.13, 3.7, and 3.98. For Property II, 4.57, 4.03, 4.56, 3.84. The oddest trend was when I taught the same class twice in the same day, and my scores for the second class were significantly worse. I’ve stopped trying to measure trends.

I look forward to improving even more next year. I’ll be teaching Property I, II, and ConLaw again.