Defining the Problem and Going Beyond: The Importance of Dialogue

I have now shared this blog with a sizable group of former students, and I want to thank those of you who visited and shared your thoughts with me.  It is my strong desire that you will continue to visit and, more importantly, that you will share your thoughts with the community by commenting on posts.

One of the primary goals of this blog is to gather anecdotal data on the experiences of law students here at DU.  Specifically, I’d like to know about your experience of law school—does something like “Law School Musical” resonate with you, and why?  Or do you think this is all a bunch of whining and B.S. (to use the vernacular)?

This leads to another topic that ties in to the movement to humanize legal education, and that is also a critical aspect of the health of our community here at DU Law: the quality, frequency and relevance of our dialogues.

To keep this brief, I offer the following points for comment:

(1) The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines “dialogue” as follows:

a : a conversation between two or more persons; also : a similar exchange between a person and something else (as a computer) b : an exchange of ideas and opinions <organized a series of dialogues on human rights> c : a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution <a constructive dialogue between loggers and environmentalists>

(2) Does your experience of a Socratic Dialogue meet this definition?  Why or why not?  With whom are you engaged in dialogue?  With whom are you not engaged in dialogue, but wish you were?

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2 responses to “Defining the Problem and Going Beyond: The Importance of Dialogue

  1. I hope to answer these questions about Socratic method somewhat indirectly by writing about a few things I’ve noticed in being part of the Socratic method of teaching here at law school. As I understand Professor Pollvogt’s definition, a dialogue is a conversation and exchange of ideas between people with a goal of resolving a problem.

    First, I don’t think Socratic method allows for a conversation or exchange of ideas. I think it allows the questioner (a professor) to put forth his or her own ideas. Sometimes the professor’s ideas are expressed by the professor. Sometimes, the professor’s ideas are stated by the student. This happens when the professor’s questions are so pointed that they are actually simply a statement with the intent to get students to “participate” by giving them the chance to answer the obvious: ‘Yes’ or ‘The holding of the case is….’ When Socratic method is used, I hardly ever get to express my ideas, because I am only allowed to answer the question I am asked. When we students aren’t given the opportunity to express our ideas or engage in a professional discussion, how could it possible be a dialogue or true exchange of ideas?

    Second, I don’t think Socratic method in law school reaches a resolution. From my perspective, we aren’t presented with clear pictures of the problems. Why not? I speculate that professors don’t want to seem as if they aren’t experts or don’t have a professional stance on issues. In that vein, rather than present impartial, equally-powerful, legal rationale for all sides of an issue (problem) and then turn it over to the class for debate, professors argue for a position (resolution) and then use Socratic method to dare the class to challenge his or her position. What may be worse than the abuse of the Socratic method, though, is that the professors tend to meld the issue (problem) with their position (resolution). I often leave class struggling to identify what the issue was and whether the professor’s position was merely a personal/professional opinion or actually the undisputed, resolved Black-letter-law.

    Finally, a few thoughts on Socratic method. When done poorly, it’s patronizing, condescending and a waste of time. Many times I have sat through classes where Socratic method was used to review the facts, holding, reasoning and procedural posture of the case. Why did I do the reading if we painstakingly were going to review it for the first hour of class? What was I learning from the professor, if I had already learned everything being said in class from doing the reading? Why was I sitting in class, or, why did I even bother doing the reading? I find it patronizing that professors think I don’t (can’t?) understand the basic facts and holding of a case. I find it condescending when professors are visibly shocked that a student could possibly have such an insightful comment. Or, when professors say things like, “I have never thought of that before” or ” I’ve never heard that in all my years of teaching.” In one class during my 1L year, if a student had a particularly impressive comment, the professor would not attempt to provide further insight, but rather would restate the student’s comment in his own words, presenting it to the class as if he, the professor, had thought of it himself. It seems like Socratic method would be better served if used to delve into the big-picture concepts or flesh out the unwritten assumptions instead of using it to do book review-like case summaries.

    I think Socratic method could be great. I think it should be a part of legal education. It has the potential of teaching through showing, by walking students through logical steps so that students may arrive at a WHAT with a solid understanding of the WHY. I’m just not convinced that professors use Socratic method purposefully in legal education.

    • susannahpollvogt

      Thanks for your comment. It would be interesting to try and diagram a useful Socratic dialogue along the lines that you suggest.

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