Stone Soup:  Q&A at the ABA

This is a Stone Soup continuing education report about the program on Stone Soup course assignments at the ABA conference, “Lessons From the Stone Soup Project and Ideas for the Future.”

The program included an overview of the Stone Soup Project (SSP), presentations by four colleagues who used Stone Soup in their courses, and Q&A with the audience.  The wonderful presenters described their Stone Soup experiences in the following courses:

Carrie Kaas, Quinnipiac (Externship)
Kelly Browe Olson, Arkansas-Little Rock (Mediation Clinic)
Martha Simmons, Osgoode Hall (Mediation)
Gemma Smyth, Windsor (Access to Justice)

For a brief overview, see our powerpoint of the presentationsRafael Gely, the SSP co-director, took these detailed notes of the discussion, which are the basis of this post (along with some comments from other sessions).  This post summarizes people’s questions and the responses.

Focus on Teaching.  One person asked if the goal of the Project was to produce scholarship.  Currently, the main focus of the Project is to help faculty enhance their teaching.  We originally planned to develop a database of reports of actual cases, primarily for research, but we decided NOT to develop the database.  Instead, we are developing materials and sharing information to help faculty tailor Stone Soup assignments to fit their instructional goals and circumstances.

That said, Stone Soup can give faculty ideas for research.  Several colleagues described how their students and courses gave them ideas for their scholarship.  Since Stone Soup provides insights about actual practice, faculty are likely to learn new perspectives that they can explore in their theoretical and/or empirical scholarship.

Most US Faculty Don’t Seek IRB Review of Stone Soup Assignments.  One person asked if it is necessary to get approval from their schools’ institutional review boards.  I asked faculty who used Stone Soup last fall if they sought IRB approval and virtually none of the US faculty did so.  The only exception I recall was by a colleague who actually planned to use his students’ interviews for research.

Federal regulations do not require IRB review for teaching activities – only for research.  IRBs vary in their interpretations and requirements and US faculty could consult their IRBs if they want to check if IRB review is required.  Although US faculty generally haven’t sought IRB approval, many have faculty used or adapted materials we developed, which are consistent with research ethics of getting informed consent and protecting confidentiality.

Our Canadian colleagues said that in Canada, there are stricter expectations of getting research ethics board approval for their Stone Soup assignments.

Should Faculty Specify Interview Questions or Let Students Decide What Questions to Ask?  Faculty varied about this.  Some faculty required students to focus on certain topics and issues.  Other faculty provided a list of suggested questions, giving students freedom to ask questions they were most interested in and/or seemed appropriate during the interviews.  Some faculty used or adapted the materials we developed, including a list of questions to ask, and others developed their own materials.

Students and interview subjects may gravitate toward dramatic or unusual cases.  While this can be instructive, especially if they recognize the unusual nature of the cases, it can be particularly helpful for students to focus on more typical cases.  For example, in Stacey-Rae Simcox’s Trust & Estates course, students who learned about undisputed cases noted the contrast with all the bizarre cases they read in their texts – a very useful observation.

Who Should Students Interview?  Faculty often assign students to interview mediators, arbitrators, and lawyer-advocates and some faculty assign students to interview clients.

Focus on Clients.  In Gemma Smyth’s Access to Justice course, she assigned students to interview individuals who had worked with a lawyer because she wanted students to focus on lawyer-client relationships.  This is valuable because clients often have very different perspectives than their lawyers.  Focusing Stone Soup on clients’ perspectives can be very beneficial (and could help frame programs for next year’s ABA conference, whose theme is “Shining the Light on the Client”).

In most law school reading assignments, parties – the central characters in the work of lawyers and other DR professionals – typically are portrayed as cardboard figures who are included merely to demonstrate our teachings, not as the principals, who professionals serve.  Using Stone Soup to focus on clients’ perspectives can contribute to a somewhat more balanced “educational diet.”  If students interview friends and relatives about their experiences as clients, the students can avoid or minimize ethical problems from interviewing clients who they don’t know.

Should Students Do Stone Soup Before or After Relevant Material is Covered in Class?  I suggested that faculty should use Stone Soup assignments as early as appropriate in a course.  One colleague asked whether faculty should assign students to do this after covering the relevant material in the course.  I had assumed that this made sense – and that faculty should have students do Stone Soup as soon as possible after that.  However, several faculty suggested that it is better for students to do Stone Soup before covering material, which makes some sense to me.  When students do Stone Soup afterwards, there is a risk that the theoretical knowledge would color their observations too much and actually could blind them to the realities to some extent.  In any case, having students do Stone Soup early in a course will help them understand the theoretical material for the rest of the course.  Discussing students’ experiences in class should further enhance their learning.

Is Stone Soup Appropriate for First-Year Courses?  Two Stone Soup faculty expressed concern that Stone Soup is not (or may not be) appropriate in first-year courses because 1Ls are overwhelmed by their first-year experiences and adding Stone Soup would be too burdensome.

I think that modest Stone Soup assignments could be great in first-year courses. Faculty don’t need to have students write papers or grade the assignment, similar to Brian Farkas’s approach in his arbitration course.

For example, in a Contracts course, students might interview friends or relatives about a challenging contract negotiation or contract dispute.  This might be a good way at the beginning of the course to have students appreciate the range of the subject and how contracts – and legal issues about contracts – are everywhere.  Faculty could spend 25-50 minutes in class having students describe what they learned in their interviews.  During the rest of the semester, faculty could refer to some of the situations that students described.  Some faculty suggested that having concrete situations in mind could actually help students learn and retain the theoretical concepts throughout the course.

My colleague, Amy Schmitz, is planning to use a Stone Soup assignment in her year-long Contracts course next year.  She plans to assign students to conduct interviews over the winter break and discuss them in class at the beginning of the spring semester.  Students will not be required to write a paper and it will not be graded.  I developed this model assignment tailored to Contracts courses.  It could easily be adapted for other courses.

Similar to a Stone Soup assignment in a Contracts course, faculty teaching Property could assign students to ask friends and relatives about property negotiations or disputes.  In Civil Procedure courses, faculty could assign students to interview litigators about civ pro issues such as pleadings and motions.  Some students may not be able to find lawyers to interview and so faculty could make this assignment optional.  I bet that many 1Ls would jump at the chance to learn about how law works in the real world.  Motivated students who can’t find lawyers to interview might ask the alumni office for suggestions of alumni who might enjoy telling students “like it is.”

Presumably, if faculty use Stone Soup, they would omit some material that they otherwise would cover.  Thus faculty would weigh the benefit of the Stone Soup experience against the loss of coverage of the lowest priority material in the course.  This actually could reduce students’ experience of being overwhelmed as they probably would feel that the interview is much easier than whatever reading they would otherwise do.  Hopefully it would help them feel more comfortable with the course because they would have some concrete experiences to refer to.

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