Reflections on My First Year at UND

This post is the third in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Julia Ernst, Assistant Professor of Law, University of North Dakota School of Law

Dr. Anne Kelsch, who leads the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program for new UND faculty, asked me to submit reflections about my first year teaching at the University of North Dakota School of Law.  I readily agreed, as I have had such a wonderful experience since my arrival in North Dakota.  Looking back over the past ten months, three major themes emerge that have significantly benefited my teaching:  UND’s strong support for new faculty, the mentoring and guidance provided by my law school colleagues, and our students’ enthusiasm about experimenting with new methods of learning.

The University of North Dakota devotes substantial resources to ensuring that new members of the faculty are well supported in all three primary aspects of our roles as professors – teaching, scholarship, and service.  During the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in January, I described UND’s programs to faculty from other universities, who expressed surprise and great interest in learning more about them, giving me the impression that UND is at the cutting-edge in offering this depth of support.  For example, the UND Bus Tour led by President Robert Kelley just before the start of the academic year enables incoming faculty to learn about our new home state of North Dakota, the communities from which many of our students originate, and key economic factors such as agriculture and energy that will shape the future careers of many of our students.  The UND Office of Instructional Development (OID) provides numerous resources to enhance pedagogy, such as On Teaching (a UND newsletter), The Teaching Professor (a national newsletter), the On Teaching lunch seminars, and books such as Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. OID also offers support for programs such as the two-day Collegiate Learning Assessment Performance Task Academy at North Dakota State University to help faculty develop exercises designed to enhance students’ critical thinking and analytical skills.  I will also be participating in the Teaching with Technology Workshop sponsored by the Center for Instructional & Learning Technologies, as well as the Teaching with Writing Course Development Workshop sponsored by OID and the Writing Across the Curriculum program.  Finally, through the Alice T. Clark Scholars Mentoring Program, including its seminars, reading materials, mentorship support, retreat, and other events, I have gained innovative ideas about how to become a better scholar, teacher, and active contributor to my department and to the university as a whole.  These trainings and materials have provided me with fresh insights and teaching methods with that I will continue to utilize over the coming years.

Since my arrival at the UND School of Law, I have benefited tremendously from the warm welcome, mentoring, and guidance provided by my colleagues at the law school.  Their generosity in sharing insights about pedagogy and scholarship, information about events and speaking opportunities, course materials and other resources, and their friendship, has made my transition to UND smooth, enjoyable, and stimulating.  I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to work in such a collegial environment with a faculty dedicated not only to maintaining the highest standards in teaching and scholarship, but also to fostering constant improvement.  The law school supported my participation in the Workshop for New Law Teachers and the Workshop on Women Rethinking Equality held consecutively in Washington, DC last summer and sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools.  My colleagues have shared resources from the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning and have compiled a collection of books in the faculty lounge on best practices in legal education, which have proven to be invaluable.  Moreover, they support using alternative approaches in the classroom, creating an environment that enables and encourages us to try new teaching methodologies and share the results through our informal discussions and through the evaluation process, so we can each learn from one another.

Finally, I am grateful that our students have generally demonstrated substantial enthusiasm about participating in a variety of learning and teaching methodologies (as compared to the traditional Socratic method of legal education to which I was exposed as a law student a few years back).  For example, the students in my Health Law seminar provided feedback on an informal course evaluation that I conducted part-way through the semester to elicit their input and observations about various components of the course.  The following segments describe facets of the seminar along with examples of student responses:

•    A typical format for our classroom discussions began with a dialogue about the reading assignments with the entire class, followed by the students working in small groups to come up with solutions to problems outlined in the reading materials.  A student commented that “I love interactive discussion because you get to learn and benefit from the diverse backgrounds and opinions of your classmates… I like to discuss the main concepts and then transform that discussion into policy debates/problems in small groups.”

•    Each student interviewed, and was interviewed by, another colleague in the class to draft a mock Advance Health Care Directive (otherwise known as a “living will”).  The goals of this exercise were 1) to educate the students about Advance Health Care Directives, 2) to enable them to practice their interviewing skills with mock clients, and 3) to allow them to gain experience having conversations about difficult issues, such as death and dying, end-of-life decision-making, how religious and other perspectives influence major life decisions, and so on.  A student commented that “This exercise is critical if we want to understand the impact it has on end-of-life issues.”  Another wrote “I felt this was a great way to think about and practice client interviewing, and how to establish rapport with a client on sensitive issues.”

•    The students worked in small groups both in and outside of class to draft a public comment on a proposed administrative rule by a federal government agency, which they then submitted to the agency.  In response to a question about this exercise, one student wrote “Very interesting.  Have used in other courses now.  Great exercise.”

•    As a primary learning and assessment mechanism in this course, the students write a major legal research paper on a specific health law issue.  They select and post their topics on our course website during the second week of the semester, and each must be different from any of their classmates’ topics.  Throughout the course, they post interim assignments related to their papers, such as a research assignment, a 1-2 page paper topic statement, a detailed outline and initial bibliography, and a first draft.  They are encouraged to read and learn from their colleagues’ posts, fostering a very interactive and collaborative process.  A student commented: “The preliminary assignments greatly help us to stay on track.  It was the perfect alternative approach, so we won’t be scrambling at the last moment.”

•    We had trainings on 1) researching health law with librarians from the Law Library, the Medical School’s Library of the Health Sciences, and the Center for Rural Health; 2) interviewing skills with the Career Services Director (since part of their research assignment included interviewing experts on their paper topics), and 3) writing and editing skills with the Director of the UND Writing Center.  A student commented that the research training was “very helpful – reminds us of how many areas of research we have available to us and keeps class interesting, too.”  With respect to the interview training, one wrote that “I liked this a lot, not just for our interview assignments, but for future use.”  A student noted that the Writing Center training was “Very, very good.  I have used their services twice because I have trouble fleshing out all my thoughts on paper in a concise way.”

•    During the last several weeks of class, the students each gave 25 minute presentations (including Q&A) on their paper topics, which were videotaped.  I gave each of them a DVD of their presentations, which I asked them to watch before our individual meetings to discuss their draft papers.  They were required to come prepared to discuss at least one aspect that they had done well, as well as something that they would change.  Although some cringed at the prospect of seeing themselves on video, most expressed that the exercise was useful and was not as intimidating as they had initially thought it would be.

•    At several points throughout the semester, I distributed 3 x 5 cards and asked the students to complete a two-minute “quick-write” exercise, jotting down on one side of the card factors that would positively affect, and on the other side of the card factors that would negatively affect, a particular activity (such as working effectively in teams, managing emotions that could arise in conjunction with a health law practice, having difficult conversations on controversial issues, giving effective presentations, conducting interviews, developing successful legal careers, and getting what they want to out of law school).  We then discussed their responses with the entire class.  With respect to these exercises, a student commented that “They make me stop and think critically, which I often don’t do otherwise.”  Another wrote:  “Reflecting periodically is an effective tool for health law and hard conversations.  I think it’s important to do, and it surprisingly goes fast.”

Of course, in addition to reflecting upon aspects of the course that they liked, the students also provided insightful appraisals of components that could be improved in future years.  For example, one suggested that I provide more detailed feedback on the public comment exercise.  Another recommended that I emphasize in the prior week how emotionally challenging the exercise on the Advance Health Care Directive could be, discussing end-of-life issues.  A third advocated for inviting a speaker who practices health law to lead a discussion in class with the students.  Yet another suggested having the due dates on weekdays instead of weekends, noting that “I don’t have Internet at home, so I have to walk all the way to campus to turn in an assignment on Sunday.”  Several suggested that the reading materials and work-load be reduced or that the number of credit hours should be increased.  I appreciate their observations and will carefully consider all of their comments in preparing for my next Health Law seminar.

To conclude, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to my colleagues at the law school and to the university community for making my first year at the University of North Dakota so fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.  I look forward to continuing to learn from everyone here of ways in which I can improve my performance as a teacher, scholar, and fellow servant of the law school, university, community, and profession.

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