By Craig Forcese

Full Professor
Faculty of Law

Email: cforcese[at]uottawa.ca

Twitter: @cforcese

 

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Bleaching Law

Welcome to my blog on teaching law.  I have entitled it "bleaching law". This is an obvious contraction of "blog" and "teaching".  It is also a play  on words capturing the endless struggle of a law professor to convey as neat, tidy, proper and well-starched things that are emphatically not, like the standard of review in administrative law.  All opinions are my own and do not reflect on anyone else who I work with, for or around. 

Thursday
May012014

Summer Opportunity for uOttawa JD students: Public Interest Litigation Practicum

Lorne Waldman and I are beginning the next cycle of our Public Interest Litigation Practicum at uOttawa Common Law.  We are looking for two JD students entering their third year at uOttawa to work on aspects of the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in J.P., G.J. v. Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.  The Court gave leave to appeal in late April, and work in preparation for the appeal will begin this summer.  We are interested in having two students involved in the entire appeal process, starting in the summer and continuing into the Fall.  The emphasis of the Public Interest Practicum is to allow students hands on experience with a "live" case, in real time.  Academic credit would be for Fall term, in the form of a directed research course.  There is no need for students to be in Ottawa for the summer.

Students interested being considered for this opportunity should email cforcese@uottawa.ca with a copy of their curriculum vitae and law school grades (unofficial version is sufficient).  (No hardcopies please.)  The expectation is that students will perform to an A level or higher, as work below this level will be of limited use.  We are looking for students who are willing and able to make this kind of effort.  Given the subject matter, the successful applicants will also be students with a record of achievement and interest in Administrative Law and/or Immigration and Refugee Law.  Students will be operating (and writing) in English.

Applications should be submitted by May 30.

 

Thursday
Apr242014

Jerry Seinfield and Scholarly Productivity

As any academic will tell you, "finding time to write" is one the great existential crises of the modern era.  Whatever the traditional time allocation of 40%/40%/20% (teaching, scholarship, service to the academic and broader community) might dictate, the middle 40% feels the squeeze.  The explanation is simple: if you don't prep your courses, you risk serious embarrassment.  It's pretty easy to over-invest in an area where you run the risk of being reduced to a deer caught in the headlights.  As for service to the community, well, not everyone comes close to 20%, but if you do dip your toe into really pulling the oars on administering an academic unit, there is never enough time.

So if you're like me, you're always looking for ways to squeeze in scholarship.  And if you're like me, you vacillate between years of decent productivity, and years that I'll call, um, "fallow periods".  In an effort to forever more stave off the fallow years, I have a couple of principles I have started applying that are a tad unconventional. 

For one thing, I am fairly religious in applying a "return on investment" (ROI) analysis to my scholarly activities.  That is, how much "return" is associated with the expenditure of a given "resource", usually time but often energy.  So applying my ROI policy, I turn down a lot of conference invitations, especially those that require travel.  I think the ROI on conferences is very low.  Setting aside the agony of modern air travel, the jet lag, the inevitable head cold, the email backlog, the bad food, the interruptions in family life (a big deal when you have young kids) and a regular exercise routine, I just don't see the point of swelling my carbon footprint for, usually, a 20 min talk.  Just filling out the endless reimbursement forms for travel and organizing my receipts leaves me weary. 

Sure, the "between the sessions" conversations and catching up with colleagues is fun (and is actually what it's all about), but that's what Skype is for.  Yes, I do feel a quiver of doubt watching colleagues jet here, there and everywhere.  There is a status associated with conference invites, with the status directly related to the distance travelled.  But I've been there and done it, and airports and stuffy conference rooms are never as exotic as the cities in which they are located.  Plus, I'm anti-social anyway. 

I know that others strongly disagree with me on my anti-conference animus, but I'll commit to my opinion. (And in truth, I do go to -- and do organize -- conferences -- but I cap them and try to be really strict in looking at each from the ROI perspective.)

In comparison, on an ROI basis, my blogs are a much better investment than any conference I've attended.  Well, maybe not this one.  But my substantive blogs have sparked more opportunities, more follow up and more useful attention that any academic conference I've attended. That may mean I haven't been going to the right conferences, but I don't think so. 

But still, there remains the above-noted existential crisis.  Whether its blogs, books or articles, I still struggle to "find the time", even when my ROI philosophy is firing on all cylinders.  Binge writing is rarely possible for me -- for the last few years, I've been pulled in so many directions that the idea of setting aside a solid chunk of time for writing, and nothing but writing, hasn't often been realistic.  And when I have had the time, I find my concentration span is now approximately 15 minutes.  I get board, read the Globe and Mail website, see what's happening on Twitter, have long conversations with my dog etc.

So what to do (above and beyond pining for the next sabbatical where I will clearly miraculously reach heretofore superhuman levels of productivity)? 

This is where Jerry Seinfield meets How to Write a Lot (by Paul Silvia).  Professor Silvia observes that it's never about finding time and always about allotting time.  "The secret," he says, "is the regularity not the number of days or the number hours" (Ch 2, in the kindle version).  As the fortune cookie might say: even the largest stalagmite is formed by the cumulative effect of drops of water. 

Jerry Seinfield, for his part, is credited with the "don't break the chain" anti-procrastination tool.  To wit: Pick a task that you will do each day, and create a wall calendar.  Mark an X in the calendar for every day in which you perform the task. Explained (reportedly) Mr Seinfield: "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

Now, this being the 21st century, there is an app for that.  I chose "Good Habits" for iOS.  And as my task, I have imposed "500 words of writing every week day".  (I have also included: "15 minutes of house cleaning every day", which is a real crowd pleaser at home.  It's amazing how much you can dust in 15 minutes each day.)

Now, I'm not particular about what the writing is (although emails don't count).  Just writing.  Do the math.  A law review article might be, say 12,000 words.  At 500 words per day, that's an article every 24 working days.  Yes, I know I exaggerate -- there will be raw research days in there, and editing and re-editing.  After all, it would be nice if the article were good. But still, the drops of water add up.

So why does this work?  It works for me because I am totally obsessive about not breaking the chain.  It becomes a challenge where I am always competing against my prior personal best.  And I can never turn down a challenge.  (Disclaimer: I also enjoy ridiculous endurance sporting events.)  Really, it's a personality defect. But since the "break the chain" movement seems to have a real internet presence, it's a defect in common with a lot of people, and maybe it'll work for you!

More than that, in the Good Habits app, a little red number appears above the app icon, just as it does when there is mail in your mail app.  The number represents the tasks left to accomplish that day.  Personally, I can't stand letting little red numbers accumulate.  I have to clear them.  (If Pavlov didn't have his dog, he could have studied me).

So to summarize: allot modest -- emphasis on modest, not heroic -- time regularly and do so in a manner that makes a "game" of meeting that daily objective, deploying every ounce of anal retentiveness to your advantage.  It'll be interesting to see how long I can keep this up.  But what's really important is that this blog entry in now 1170 words.  I wonder if I can count it as covering off two days?

Thursday
Dec052013

"Doing it All", One Thing at a Time: Block Planning 

One of the things I do on this eccentric blog is voice conclusions about "lifehacks" and strategies that I have found useful, in the vain expectation that someone out there may also find them useful.  (Lots of people did come by to see my standing desk after my blog on that).

My topic du jour is a bit narrower and really is written with junior academic colleages in mind who are developing their time management strategies through hit and miss.  (Universities can often be institutions that provide modest assistance to junior colleagues in terms of career planning.)  My topic concerns organizing one's life as an academic, and specifically how to balance the three traditional demands of teaching, research and administrative (and service to the community) activities.

Like everyone else, I have struggled to "do it all", or at least "do it all well".  Some years I do better in one area than in others, with the areas changing from year to year.  That is life.  But my most common modus operendi has to been to spread my teaching load between our three academic terms (Fall, Jan, Winter), concentrate on admin in the interstices of these "in term" periods and try to reserve summer for research and writing.

Over the past several years as vice dean, this failed completely the first year (I was fried by summer and spent more time staring at my monitor than clacking on my keyboard and found it a lot easier just to keep the focus on admin -- which requires less real thinking). 

The second year, I paced myself better and had by then developed a "system" for vice dean work, but also concentrated on revamping my teaching (with one new course and a completely revamped teaching philosophy that prompted a redesign of another).  I also did a fair amount of conference travel in the Fall.  As a consequence, I still overclocked it, but had a better writing summer than the year before (albeit, one article short of my overall objective).

This year, I am in the midst of a new experiment, which I call "block planning".  Basically, I moved all my teaching into one term -- carrying my (vice-dean reduced load) of 3 courses between Sept and Dec.  I also was fortunate in being able to concentrate teaching days -- teaching twice in one day each week through the Fall, and once two days later. 

Meanwhile, I kept admin duties to "maintenance" as much as possible.  I also strictly adhered to a "maintenance" schedule on research and writing, confining myself to edits in anticipation of publication, mini-essays for my more substantive blogs (which serve as placeholdors for articles I intend to write) and participation in local (and only local) conferences.  And then I said no to other invitations that would take me far away, and bring me back jetlagged and with make-up classes to do.

I think the "block" strategy has worked very well so far.  Focusing on teaching meant that I could be "all in" with that pursuit, and not distracted by a million other things or consumed with existential angst about "not having time to write".  I also found that there actually is an economy of scale to teaching, even with radically different courses.  I found myself ticking along with a really focused habit of prep, teach, marking and giving constant feedback.  An emphasis of the last item: because I wasn't crowded by competing demands, I could really focus on giving feedback (something I find validating and rewarding, although I'm not sure my students would always agree). 

I don't record this kind of things, but I was probably in the range of 50-55 hour weeks on average.  But I also think I could have pared away a little more of the "mini-research" and done four courses in the semester, so long as they were concentrated into two teaching days (and I wasn't doing a course for the first time).  This block was 13 weeks out of 52, so there is still ample time to be well-rounded in the 2013-14 period.

Yes, exams and term papers remain to be marked.  But now, I can shift to a second "block" -- course planning for next academic years and other vice dean tasks.  And because I have "systems" for that, I anticipate having more time on the margins for other "service to the community" activities (peer reviews, grant application reviews etc.) and also for more sustained writing and research.  What I will not have come January is more than 100 students in my various classes whose emails I try to respond to in an expeditious manner.  I also will not have "lost days" -- teaching days tend to disappear even with a relatively short class.  I don't know why that is, actually, but between prep, teaching, questions, catching up on emails that come while you're teaching etc., the day seems to disappear.  (That is a compelling reason, in my view, to concentrate teaching days as much as possible.)

So in the next "block", I hope to achieve economies of scale and also real economies of scope. 

Come May, I shall be able to shift away from admin (because most of it will be done) to a fuller "research block".  There too I have a plan: go off the grid as much as possible and be ruthless is distinguishing between administrative wheat (that which needs to be done) and administrative chaff (activities analogous to trying to drive through the snowbank at the end of my drive after the plow comes by).

Time will tell.  But my advice so far to colleagues in similar situations who struggle to "do it all" at the same time is to instead approach the year as a unit, subdivided into blocks.  Try as much as possible to be a one-trick pony in each block and be as ruthless as you can reasonably be in guarding that objective.  Worry about "doing it all" only as an annual objective.

This may not be universal advice, but for me it has worked so far.

Friday
Nov292013

Coach's Eye for the Aspiring Lawyer

For those interested in technology in the classroom, I share a recent experience this term with a $4.99 app installed on my iPad known as "Coach's Eye". 

Designed for coaches, the app is a video analysis programs that allows a user to draw on or pause and narrate commentary on videos recorded by the iPad (or iPhone) camera.  The user may then upload the edited video to a blind URL on the Coach's Eye website and share with whomever. 

I used the app this year to record student presentations in one of my seminar classes.  I then reviewed and narrated comments on those presentations, uploading the video to the website and sharing with the student. 

I don't know what the students thought about my comments, but this is absolutely the best experience I have ever had giving (what I hope was) useful feedback.  Truth be told, written feedback on an oral presentation doesn't work very well, in my experience.  A student seeing themselves on video is worth a 1000 written words.  And all this for $4.99.

Thursday
Nov072013

Flipping the Classroom without a Flop

Appreciating entirely that the title of this talk is an act of hubris, you can find below a video of the presentation Peter Sankoff (uAlberta) and I did on our experiences flipping law classrooms.  I hope it is of some use.