For visiting professors overseas, the realities of a short course include the lack of time between classes for students to complete assessments, difficulty getting to know students in the class and a lack of opportunities to incorporate feedback and knowledge into future assignments. With most visiting professors coming to China for one-week or two-week courses, there is simply not enough time to treat the classes as a long-term course. Through my position at St. John’s Law School, I have the opportunity to teach at partner schools for between one month and two months. This affords me some excellent opportunities that help me achieve my course objectives, including:
- Weekly assessments, formal and informal, to gauge how the class is handling the material;
- Dedicated office hours each week where students can come to ask questions about difficult material in class (and interact with me outside the classroom); and
- At least 72 hours after class to complete assignments, and receive heavily critiqued feedback with at least 48 hours to incorporate those changes.
But my favorite part of these longer courses is my ability to conduct an orientation class the week before the first class, which is not counted for credit hour purposes but provides me with an opportunity to learn about my students. In addition to being able to learn the names of all my students before the first class, take care of all administrative and syllabus questions and begin to get a feel for the campus, classroom and dynamic, I asked my last group of students about the name of the course.
We were in a class titled “Legal English,” a term with different meanings to different people. I knew what I wanted to cover (and what I was brought in to cover), but I was not entirely sure what type of material my students thought we would cover. The name of the course provided me with my first lesson in law and language. In my pre-course assessment, I asked the students what the phrase “Legal English” meant to them and what they expected to know after the course. That night, I sifted through the results.
- Roughly 1/3 of the students believed that the course would be focused on U.S. law. To this group of students, the course was meant to serve as an Introduction to U.S. Law course.
- Roughly 1/3 of the students believed that the course would be focused on legal writing. To this group of students, the course was meant to improve their legal writing skills, by teaching them how to write like American lawyers.
- Roughly 1/3 of the students believed that the course would be focused on legal vocabulary. To this group of students, the course was meant to improve their understanding of the key terminology in the U.S. legal system.
Orientation taught me that there were multiple ways to teach the Legal English course in China. Many professors teaching this course are born in China and western educated, and my visit was meant to bring a native English speaker into the classroom. With my first official class 72 hours away, I retooled my syllabus to incorporate each of these three components of legal English into the 32-hour course in a way that would be readily assessed after our last class.
I thought that orientation would be an opportunity for me to begin teaching, but it was where I learned my first lesson in law and language.