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The “Burden” of Being An Excellent (Legal Research) Teacher


The challenge of being an excellent teacher stems from the necessity of having to be an expert in two areas, one’s subject specialty and the craft of educating. For law librarians who instruct, this means first being an expert in using constantly-evolving legal research databases, not to mention those newly developed resources that we must quickly learn to use, and in the analytical process inherent to legal research. Staying fully abreast of changes to the huge volume of legal materials could alone be a full-time job. When combined with efficiently and effectively serving our patrons, engaging in collection development, and doing any of the other dozens of tasks that librarians undertake on a daily basis, it becomes easy to see why finding the time to hone our craft as teachers would be difficult. Despite these challenges, it's critical that we make time to do so.

As one scholar explains,
Really good teachers who want to preserve their skills and get better over time have to go into the same kind of hard training that all other practitioners of immensely difficult crafts commit themselves to, and for the same reasons. Teaching is just as complex a practice as any disciplinary research, and this is the reason why being an excellent teacher is harder than being a good researcher: it forces the good teacher to endure the same training on two fronts—research and training—while standard issue or inferior teachers often endure hard training for the sake of disciplinary knowledge, but take it for granted that good teaching will follow automatically because they are so good at their discipline.[1]

Most law librarians, like most law school faculty in general, are not trained to be teachers. We didn't take classes on curricular design or educational theory. But as librarians spend more time in the classroom, it is critically important that we are more than just “standard issue" teachers. Both to show our value to our colleagues in the legal academy and for our students to view our classes as critical in their legal upbringing, we must demonstrate our excellence in this area—and we cannot do this without honing our craft through critical self-evaluation of our teaching. Furthermore, because our time in the classroom with students is often limited (I don't think I've ever heard a law librarian say they really get sufficient time to ensure students have a strong grasp on their research skills), we must use that time in the most effectual means possible, to make certain that our students are ready for the practice of law. Because our time with the students is insufficient, we must make the most of it.

We cannot maximize our instruction by relying solely on our subject matter expertise. Trial and error, enthusiasm, and good intentions will only get us so far. We need to rely on reflection and analysis, and root ourselves with a teaching vision that takes into consideration not only our content, but background classroom dynamics, delivery, and teaching methodologies. We must have an educational philosophy that serves as the basis for our learning outcomes, our assignments, and our interactions with students. We must cultivate our teaching skills thoughtfully and deliberately.




[1] Marshall Gregory, Teaching Excellence in Higher Education 13-14 (Melissa Valiska Gregory ed., 2013).

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