It is possible to get undergrads to fall in love with “no PowerPoints”. It is also possible to get them to grow as writers in a content course. For the Fall of 2019, I was teaching Law and Society, a 300-level sociology class at the University at Buffalo, SUNY (UB). The 70-student section primarily consisted of juniors and seniors. On the first day of class, I polled the students to see who had the intention of going to law school or graduate school. Over 80% responded “Yes,” and there were a handful of “Maybes.” This reaffirmed my decision to structure the course as a “mini grad class,” both in terms of content delivery, and as an opportunity to improve their writing.
With 22,000 undergraduates, UB is similar to other large, R1 institutions. Lecture halls, PowerPoints, and Scantrons are the default for much of an undergraduate’s time here. Writing assignments may be completely absent from many classes, or if assigned, graded quite liberally. These assignments usually do not offer much by way of feedback or growth opportunities for students. To my mind, churning out underprepared, incoming graduate or law school cohorts is a royal disservice to both the students and the programs.
I opted for a grad-style course approach, which used no PowerPoints, no exams, and no textbook. And, no laptops or tablets were allowed (yes, you can probably hear the groans on the first day of class in your mind). I provided articles and scanned chapters to Blackboard. I was forthright with the students on the first day; if they wanted to go to – and succeed in – law school or grad school, they had better get used to this style of class. Instead of a single term paper, I opted for an incremental paper scheme, to both assess their content comprehension, and help them grow as writers.
This incremental paper approach is a hybrid of growth and proficiency models, and loosely based on Vygotsky’s (1978) Gradual Release of Responsibility. While still assessing their understanding of the material, the papers themselves increased in length and point value, and were graded more stringently each time. There were four short papers throughout the semester, and one final paper due at the end of the semester. Paper 1 was 1 – 1.5 pages in length; Paper 2 was 1.5 – 2 pages; Paper 3 was a firm 2 pages in length; Paper 4 was 2 – 2.5 pages; and the final paper was 6 pages, plus a reference page. The grading was 50, 75, 100, 150, and 500 points respectively. The prompts for each paper varied, but allowed students choice or flexibility in their responses. Paper 1 allowed for ungraded/low-penalty feedback, and also provided me with a baseline for their individual and collective writing aptitude. As long as they put forth solid effort responding to a prompt that gave them lots of free space to connect course material to their own lives, they received full credit. However, their papers were marked heavily with corrections and notes about spelling, grammar, and structure. I used a “two ink” strategy: green ink for positive comments, blue ink for neutral or corrective comments. Paper 2 saw point reductions for major or repeat grammatical errors, and so on, and so forth with each subsequent paper. The final paper was held to very high standards for spelling and grammar, format and structure, and content comprehension.
Because the course material was delivered through peer-reviewed journal and law review articles, and academic book chapters, holding a discussion-based and paper-based semester allowed immediate engagement and clarification on complex concepts (i.e., their first exposure to legal consciousness, or the disputing pyramid). While a PowerPoint-style lecture class may drive recall and rote definitional regurgitation, is an undergraduate who has never encountered legal mobilization before really going to have an “a-ha!” lightbulb moment in that setting? By the time they completed the first paper, students’ responses showed that they were on board with this style of class; and that they understood and appreciated how our discussions and writing assignments were opportunities for them to explore their own thinking. Since the papers allowed students some flexibility in their responses, or required them to connect concepts to their own interests/experiences, the discomfort with new or difficult material was softened.
In addition to the assignment format and schedule, certain classes were designed as workshop days. In one class I covered how to efficiently extract information from peer-review or law review articles; another was a half-class overview of ASA and APA citations; another session was dedicated to an in-class write and ask questions day for their final papers. These were the moments where I overheard the, “I really like getting to write like this,” or, “This is actually a fun paper idea.” Paired with mid-semester and end of semester evaluations, it was clear that the students came around to the no PowerPoint, “mini grad class” environment.
I was utterly impressed with their growth by the end of the semester. While grading their final papers – a prompt requiring them to take a stance, formulate an argument, and provide evidence for the course throughline question, “Does law shape society, or does society shape law?” – I was so proud of how well their skills had developed. Their writing was noticeably stronger and sharper, and their ability to make claims and incorporate concepts stood out. It is important to note; this model may not be appropriate for every institution or situation. 70 students are about the maximum I would feel comfortable getting away with this as an unassisted solo instructor. However, if anyone teaching undergraduate Law and Society or Sociology of Law wants to use this approach, please do. There is a bit of a “rip the band-aid off” curve at first. But, when presented as a way to prepare students for the rigors of graduate or law school, and that you are actively committed to helping them grow as writers, the approach was successful in my experience.
Zaque Evans is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His interests include all realms of public policy, urban/spatial sociology, political economy, and media. His current research projects are focused on media framing of the 2017 Tax Cuts, and where urban and economic redevelopment funds are distributed across Western New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.