This past week for the frist time I did a full unit of syllogism and analogy activities with my legal writing students to prepare them for the concepts and language of IRAC-style writing. And it not only went very well–it also taught me something new.
Previously, I had taught the concept of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) first and then had the students work on it through the Jogger/Banana Peel question. This question is the vehicle through which I have been teaching students IRAC-style discourse as well as the written language of that discourse. It involves a jogger who throws a banana peel on the beach after passing a sign that indicates a fine for “littering.” A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket, remembering that her supervisor did give a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground but did not give a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.
In my approach, the students come to understand the IRAC concepts and signal words, but they still struggled in many ways with the underlying style of argument expected. For example, they would see the exercise as a simple application of a rule. The jogger littered; there’s a rule against littering; hence, the jogger should get a ticket. To not give a ticket would be to undermine rule of law and all that is good in our society, etc. Or, if they focus on the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, they make conclusory statements without really explaining or showing how those ideas connect. (Or rather, they don’t do it in a way that meets expectations for our writer-responsible writing culture.)
This semester, however, I decided to start by having students work explicitly on syllogism activities followed by analogy activities. The syllogism activities are handouts I found online, and the analogy activities are just SAT analogy practice questions I found online. The key was to have them work on the language of expressing these ideas.
Additionally, I have the students complete a reading on legal reasoning and IRAC-style writing which (like similar chapters from other books) explains that IRAC-style legal writing is an expansion of syllogistic reasoning, and analogical reasoning is used to help prove the truth of the premises and the resulting conclusion.
The new step I stumbled into (but which in retrospect now seems so obvious) was to work sort of in reverse on the problem. After lots of practice with syllogism and analogy, and after getting the students to understand their connection to IRAC-style legal writing, I gave the students the Jogger/Banana Peel question and asked:
- What is the syllogism in this situation?
- Where does analogical reasoning fit in?
I thought this would be a straightforward question the students would figure out, and then we would move on to actual writing practice. But what happened is these questions helped flush out that students did not recognize that the definition of “litter” is at the core of the legal issue. This resulted in syllogisms along the lines of: And for their
- There is a $100 fine for littering.
- A banana peel is litter.
- Therefore, the jogger should pay a fine of $100.
When students took that approach (as nearly all of them did), then they quickly realized that there is nowhere for analogy to fit in. By working backwards and thinking about the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, students were eventually able to understand that the major premise in the syllogism needs to be something like:
- All things that are more like candy bar wrappers and less like coffee poured on the ground are violations of the littering rule.
- The banana peel is more like [a candy bar wrapper/coffee poured on the ground].
- Therefore, the banana peel is litter.
The epiphany for me was that the students need to struggle with the logic of the issue first, and the language of the logic, in order to be able to write a good answer. This fits with my general belief and philosophy about teaching writing, i.e., that if the students don’t understand the underlying substance of the topic, then I am not assessing their writing; I’m assessing their reading and comprehension. So if I want to help them with their writing, it is my responsibility to make sure they know what they’re talking about first. And I realized that I had not been following my philosophy in connection with the Jogger/Banana peel question.
This semester, now that I know they all have a much clearer understanding of the problem, the logic, and the language of the logic, I anticipate that it will be much easier to help them apply the IRAC-style discourse to the problem. I also expect it will be easier for them to buy into a writer-responsible writing style.
Stay tuned for updates.