« An exciting honor from the ABA for LSI | Main | What should we make of all the (not-always-so?) innovative grading changes? »

December 2, 2008

The Quandary of the Beautiful Tangent

It is something most law teachers have come across at least once:  You are working your way through some kind of a doctrine or point of legal history, and a student comes up with a brilliant and compelling question.  It may not be what you wanted to talk about that day, but it is within the subject matter of the course, and the students are eager for further the discussion.  Perhaps it is a question of race, class, or gender, or relating to the economic underpinnings of the aspect of law under consideration.  For many of us, our best memories of law school are from those times we headed off down an unforeseen path.  There is a cost to the teacher, though-- If you allow that discussion to develop, you will fall a day behind.

That's the quandary of the beautiful tangent.  Some think of them as distractions, other as wonderful teaching moments, but it does raise a tough question.  Basically, the instructor has three options:  (1)  To haul the class back to the trajectory you have planned; (2)  allow the tangent, but make the class up later; or (3) allow the tangent and skip over the material you planned to cover that day. 

One creative option I have come across is to build in room for a beautiful tangent when creating a syllabus.  That is, a professor might schedule in a "blank day" late in the quarter, and use that in case a beautiful tangent comes along.  Of course, that raises questions, too-- what if you don't come across such a tangent?  What if there is more than one beautiful tangent.  Still, it may be an option worth considering if you are comfortable with planning for the unplanned.

-- Mark Osler

December 2, 2008 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Quandary of the Beautiful Tangent:


One of the joys of teaching online. When this happens in one of the chatrooms, I say, "Great point, but a little bit off the focus of where we're going. Matt/Amanda/Liz, whomever, why not start a new blog thread on that on the Week 12, or whenever, blog space, and we'll continue the conversation there."
Works perfectly on all levels...

Posted by: Michael Perlin | Dec 3, 2008 7:12:12 AM

Huh-- that is a good plan, Michael. And it might work in a regular classroom, if you run a blog associated with the class.

Posted by: Mark Osler | Dec 3, 2008 10:11:24 AM

Michael and Mark, you both have perfectly captured one of the chief reasons I now create a class blog with each course I teach. It is a great setting for the "beautiful tangent."

On the topic more generally, I find I have a hard time not thinking most tangents that really get the students excited are not "beautiful." Unless really off point or unless only of interest to a few gunners, I tend to be eager to wander where the students want to go, especially in upper-level courses.

That said, sometimes I wonder if I enjoy these tangent even more than the students because it gives me fresh insights into what gets the current generation of students excited.

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 3, 2008 12:59:52 PM

This is another argument for something I regularly do, particularly in first-year courses: I do NOT put dates on the syllabus. Of course I have an idea of where we should be. But I do not want students to ever feel they have "fallen behind" because they aren't getting it or because they are asking too many (good) questions.
Each week I give the projected assignment for the following week. And a few students seem to be uneasy with the uncertainty (though we usually do settle into a "normal" pace). Being able to follow the "tangent", or spend more time than anticipated if the class doesn't catch on to a topic, is relatively easy. And one can always find a later class where a given case or topic is covered more quickly to recapture the "lost" time.

Posted by: howard katz | Dec 4, 2008 9:57:05 PM

I prefer the tangent that will get the student removed in handcuffs by the teacher, after the teacher has attacked the student physically.

1) The core doctrines of the lawyer are supernatural and forbidden by the Establishment Clause. a) the mind of drunken criminals can be read; b) the future of rare accidents can be forecast; 3) twelve strangers off the street can detect the truth by using their gut feelings; 4) the standard of conduct may only be set by a fictional character, why? to make the standards objective; 5) lastly, the real meaning of the word, reasonable: in accordance with the New Testament.

2) The intimidation and the 80 hours a week of the study of unlawful gibberish are cult indoctrination methods to force modern students to accept and believe the above anti-scientific garbage.

3) The indoctrination is so good, no one knows it is going on, until pointed out. And that should be done loudly whenever the professor seeks to impose anti-scientific garbage on students. Bring Mao's Little Red Book, bang it on the desk whenever the cult criminal indoctrinator says something supernatural.

4) The professor is liar. All the achievements of the US have been despite the law, not because of it. It is in utter failure in every goal of every law subject. It is garbage. Every lawyer destroys $1 million in economic value every year alive.

Here is the best tangent. At some point, the professor should be restrained, made to stand in the corner, wearing a tall dunce cap, and and caned until forced to apologize for the garbage peddled in law school.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 6, 2008 7:55:31 PM

Nice post and a good discussion following aside from the Supremacy Claus comment, which is a tangent though not necessarily a beautiful one.

I too have found that incorporating online elements both elicits beautiful tangents and allows them to flourish. My experience of requiring students to blog has been particularly instructive in this regard.

Congratulations on the blog award, by the way, which led me to this blog. Well-deserved!

Posted by: Gardner Campbell | Dec 12, 2008 4:19:11 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.