Guns ’n’ Roses singer Axl Rose, left, and John Houseman as Professor Charles Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, right.



 

Emily Grant just might be the anti-Charles Kingsfield—the terrifying Harvard law professor from the 1970s movie “The Paper Chase.”

Rather than strike fear into the hearts of her students like the fictional Kingsfield, Grant, a professor at Washburn University School of Law, seeks to foster a supportive and collaborative classroom where students are pushed to excel but know that she is there to help them along the way. She also encourages them to have a little fun.

To that end, she plays a video by a 1980s hair band in the prelude to each of her legal writing classes. (Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” is her go-to pick for the first class of semester, replete with a leather pants-clad Axl Rose gyrating onstage.)

“Why?” Grant wrote in a new law review article centered on best practices for the first day of law classes. “No real reason other than it gets some good energy into the classroom before we start.”

Grant draws heavily upon her own teaching experiences and the advice of legendary law professor Tina Stark for her article Beyond Best Practices: Lessons from Tina Stark About the First Day of Class, which appears in the latest edition of the Oregon Law Review.

Now retired, Stark is a pioneer in the movement to teach transactional law and founded Emory University School of Law’s Center for Transactional Law and Practice before ending her academic career at Boston University School of Law. But Stark is also well known for her teaching skill and ability engage students while pushing them academically. (She is among the 26 professors featured in the 2013 book  What the Best Law Teachers Do.)

Grant’s article is an outgrowth of a 2014 presentation Stark delivered on how to make the most of the first day of class—a subject rarely afforded much analysis within the legal academy, she said in an interview Thursday.

The first day of class is an important opportunity to set the tone for the course, articulate expectations, and establish the nature of students’ relationships with their professor and each other, Grant argues. Rather than simply dusting off an old syllabus and hoping things go well, law professors should think carefully about how they want that initial class to unfold and how they can quickly build rapport with their students

Following Stark’s lead, Grant requires her first-year students to fill out an index card with information including their work experience and what they would be doing if they hadn’t come to law school.

But Grant and Stark diverge when it comes to how they wish to be addressed by students.

Stark, a former corporate partner at Chadbourne & Parke, Grant had students address her by first namea somewhat controversial approach in the academy. As Grant’s law review article explains, Stark had heard from senior law partners that junior associates were often too formal in their conversations with their bosses and clients. Having students use her first name was an opportunity to model and practice professional conversation without being overly formal, she reasoned. Grant began teaching at a relatively young age, she said, and felt students addressing her as “Ms. Grant” helped establish the distinction between teacher and pupil.

Grant acknowledged this week that not all law professors will be comfortable with the more informal approach, and many believe that Kingsfield’s formality and reliance on the Socratic Method serve a purpose in the law classroom.

“Part of the first day is to set the tone for how you want the semester to go,” she said. “If you are a much more formal person in the classroom, and your class is going to run in a more traditional, Socratic, Paper Chase-y way, then you need to model that. You can’t come into class the first day making jokes, then all of the sudden try to be Professor Kingfield the next class.”

The first day of class is the optimal time to establish class logistics and expectations, Grant wrote. Professors can clarify how students will be assessed, how much time they should allocate to specific assignments, when office hours are, and how students should communicate with their professor outside class while reviewing the syllabus.

Grant said that Stark’s approach to the first day of class was not meant not to coddle students, but rather to set forth the challenges awaiting them and make clear she was a resource.

“Tina was very set on making sure her students knew she was there to help them,” Grant said. “A big running theme with her was, ‘This is going to be hard, but I am working with you on learning this material.’”