Last week was the whirlwind ABA Section on Dispute Resolution annual conference in Miami. At the conference, I presented an exercise in “critical patience” designed to promote the kind of deep attention and focus that law school and dispute resolution practice require–and that, so often, excessive technology use (skimming, surfing) can degrade.
Here was my inspiration: Jennifer Roberts, art history professor at Harvard, speaking on cultivating “deep attention” in students through intentional “deceleration” in teaching and assignments. Roberts observes that her students expect that learning (especially visual learning) should be immediate and so do not know how to take time with the material. She argues, therefore, that professors must teach students how to take that time, to learn “strategic patience” as a critical skill in mastering their field of study.
Roberts’s comments resonated for me because my students expect to understand cases immediately and seem frustrated by what they perceive as needless complexities, archaic language, convoluted argumentation, etc. I worry that my students believe that superficial responses are good enough and that this belief is bolstered by the rapid-fire pundit-driven political scene that they think constitutes policy debate. This made me wonder whether there are ways–similar to Roberts’s pedagogical strategy of instructing her students to sit for three full hours looking at a particular painting before writing about it–to teach our law students how to be more patient, observant, thoughtful, attentive, and curious about what we read.
So last semester I experimented with deceleration in civil procedure. One day in class I asked my students to put all their materials under their desks except a pen. I then handed out an excerpt from Federal Rule 12 and told them that we were going to look at the rule in silence for 20 minutes. They looked aghast. I told them they could make little notes on the margin if they wanted.
As we started on this exercise, I felt a wave of anxiety but decided to power through. For the first five minutes, I fidgeted and fretted and wondered if I should just cut them off at ten minutes. Then I thought, hey, I should probably read the Rule too, even though I’ve read it a million times. So I started looking at it and noticed some interesting things: one sentence starts with “But” — that’s kind of strange. Why would the drafters structure it that way? What is the rhetorical impact of starting with that instead of appending it to the sentence before? Would the meaning change if it were structured differently? Then I noticed that a phrase is repeated in two places with one tiny change in language, which made me wonder: is there a difference between these two sections and if so, what? Before I knew it, 20 minutes had passed and I told the students that time was up.
The interesting thing: we then discussed what we noticed about the Rule, following up with a worksheet with short hypos designed to test the various provisions of the Rule. They completed the worksheet without difficulty, in stark contrast to previous classes in which I had given the worksheet after they (supposedly) read the Rule before class. Afterward (and on my evaluations) they told me what a valuable exercise it had been.
I think I will try something similar in my next Negotiation class, but instead of a statute I will choose some visual art and assign them to look at it for a longer time, like Roberts does. Afterward, we can talk about the importance of patience and observation in dispute resolution and dealmaking.