My Written Communication article has dropped…

24 Sep

My article in Written Communication is now available online. (The print version comes out next month.) You can read it on the journal’s website only if you have a subscription to the journal. You can read the version I submitted here (not formatted as it appears in the journal, but same content other than a few typo corrections):

Gender/Genre: The lack of gendered register in texts requiring genre knowledge

You can also contact me directly for a copy of the PDF from the journal (with the official page numbers).

Here’s the abstract:

Some studies have found characteristics of written texts that vary with author gender, echoing popular beliefs about essential gender differences that are reinforced in popular works of some scholarly authors. This article reports a study examining texts (N = 193) written in the same genre—a legal memorandum—by women and men with similar training in production of this type of discourse— the first year of U.S. law school—and finds no difference between them on the involved–informational dimension of linguistic register developed by Biber. These findings provide quantitative data opposing essentialist narratives of gender difference in communication. This essay considers relevance theory as a framework for understanding the interaction, exhibited in this and previous studies, of genre knowledge and gendered communicative performances.


Use what you choose presentation at SIGDOC ’16

23 Sep

I’m presenting the paper below at SIGDOC ’16 in Silver Spring, Maryland today. The paper is the outgrowth of an RSA workshop that Bill Hart-Davidson and Ryan Omizo led in Madison, WI, in 2015. Here’s the abstract:

This paper reports on the results of an intensive application development workshop held in the summer of 2015 during which a group of thirteen researchers came together to explore the use of machine-learning algorithms in technical communication. To do this we analyzed consumer electronic product customer reviews to reevaluate a central concept in North American Genre Theory: stable genre structures arise from recurring social actions. We discovered evidence of genre hybridity in the signals of instructional genres embedded into customer reviews. Our paper discusses the creation of a prototype web application, “Use What You Choose” (UWYC), which sorts the natural language text of Amazon reviews into two categories: instructionally-weighed reviews (e.g., reviews that contain operational information about products) and non-instructionally-weighed reviews (those that evaluate the quality of the product). Our results contribute to rhetorical genre theory and offer ideas on applying genre theory to inform application design for users of information services.

Here is the full paper:

And here are my slides from today, along with my speaker notes:

Empirical research into legal comm’n & professional status of LRW faculty

20 Jul

I was delighted to finagle an invitation to speak on a panel at the Legal Writing Institute in Portland on July 12, during the meeting of the LWI Professional Status Committee. The committee met in a plenary session with a larger audience and conducted its business, and then we panelists were asked to comment in short form (two minutes each) on an angle or issue relating to the professional status of legal research and writing faculty. (For readers outside the legal academy, teachers of communication in that field face status challenges similar to those faced by teachers of writing in the broader academy 25 or even 40 years ago.)

Kirsten Davis at Stetson Law (also on the panel) has talked about posting our comments, and I think that’s a grand idea. The others on the panel were Ken ChestekMary Beth Beazley, and Ruth Anne Robbins.

My comments (as I prepared them, possibly slightly different than those I delivered):

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts today! I received my PhD training as an empirical researcher in rhetoric and composition. Though I’m teaching rhetoric and technical communication outside the legal academy in a tenure-track position at Georgia Tech, I did previously teach legal writing for eight years at University of Minnesota.

I want to share two thoughts–one a recommendation and one a caution–about the role of research for legal communication faculty.

My first thought is that legal communication faculty should engage in empirical research into legal communication. Here, I’m speaking of the professional communication practices of lawyers, judges, and others outside the classroom. Your should engage in this research for at least two reasons.

First, quality teaching in any field is motivated by systematic empirical and theoretical consideration of what is being taught. We cannot rely only on our own practical experiences, though they are very valuable. Our individual experience is limited in scope, and our years in the classroom can insulate us from knowledge of new developments. We must systematically examine what is being done in the field in order to prepare our students for it.

Second, the professionalization of legal communication faculty demands that they make the subject of their instruction the object of their research. The professionalization of writing professors in English (and other) departments and the broader academy accompanied the focus those professors put on research into writing: moving away from the old model where writing teachers published articles and books on Shakespeare and the Romantics, for example–literary research–toward a model where writing teachers publish research on writing processes, contexts, and products.

But my second thought is a caution about my first. In these other departments, the focus on research that examines communication outside the classroom (and the ‘professionalization’ of those researchers) has resulted in a devaluing of classroom and pedagogy research. I have been warned by mentors not to do classroom research, that it will harm my job prospects and tenure and promotion case. I’m continuing to do that kind of research anyway, but it’s less of a focus for me.

So, even if you take my recommendation to research outside the classroom, I hope you resist the temptation to devalue pedagogical research.


(I elaborated on some of this in my presentation on qualitative research the next day)

Qualitative empirical research in legal communication (LWI 2016)

12 Jul

This post will ultimately include the presentation slides, handout, and annotated bibliography for my presentation/workshop at the Legal Writing Institute in Portland OR on July 13, 2016. (Until the session is over, only the bibliography will appear here.)

Presentation slides (with notes)

This PDF includes my slides and my (sometimes extensive) notes on them. Try to ignore the little cues on them reminding me how to do the slide animations and when to move to the [NEXT] slide.

Presentation handouts

This PDF includes all the handouts from the session.

Draft annotated bibliography

I meant this bibliography to be more complete and more annotated than it is. Nevertheless, this is the best I was able to do given the time constraints.


Reflections on the Western Front (Part 2)–by the numbers

3 Jul

In Europe this month, there are numerous commemorations of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Meanwhile, I’m distressed that so little attention has been paid in the U.S. to the centennial of World War I. The importance of that war in setting the stage for the 20th Century is hard to overestimate–the rise of Hitler’s Germany, the reluctance of the other powers to check him, etc. (Of course, events like the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier can be seen as setting the stage for WW I. Such is history.) But for Americans, reflecting on WWI seems to be of little consequence. Perhaps the numbers can help tell the story why.

Consider the following table. Note that Civil War dead (750,000 or so) account for more than half of the 1.35 million military dead from ALL U.S. wars right up to the present, combined. So we can see why the Civil War is such a popular topic of interest in the U.S., even today. World War I, by contrast, represents less than 10% of those losses.

War Nation Military deaths Population Mil. deaths as % of population
American Revolution U.S. 25,000 3,900,000 0.64%
Civil War U.S.: Union and Confederate 750,000 31,400,000 2.39%
World War I U.S. 116,500 92,200,000 0.13%
World War II U.S. 405,400 142,100,000 0.29%
Viet Nam U.S. 58,200 213,300,000 0.03%
World War I U.K. and colonies 830,000 45,400,000 1.83%
World War I France 1,800,000 39,600,000 4.55%
World War I Germany 2,000,000 64,900,000 3.08%
World War I Russia 2,000,000 175,000,000 1.14%
World War I Austria-Hungary 1,350,000 51,400,000 2.63%
World War I Canada 60,000 7,200,000 0.83%
World War I Australia 60,000 5,000,000 1.20%
World War I New Zealand 17,500 1,100,000 1.59%

(Data from Wikipedia (U.S. casualties in all wars and other countries’ in WW I) and U.S. Census.  (census). Compare Wikipedia data on WW II casualties from all countries.)

From these numbers, it’s pretty easy to see why the Civil War looms large in the American consciousness, and even why World War II is so much more important than World War I for most Americans. (World War II is probably the moment when it became clear that the U.S. was a super-power, too.) In a way different than these other wars, WW I was not America’s war. We spent most of 1914-1918 avoiding getting into the war. The U.S. did not declare war against Germany until April 2017. By the time a million Americans were present in Europe, in 1918, more than 1.5 million Frenchmen had already died defending their country.

When folks characterize the French as being prone to surrender, I’m wondering what they are talking about. By the time WW I was over, the French had sacrificed the lives of more than 4.5% of their population (that does not even include war wounded)–a whole generation of young men wiped out. The same generation of the U.K. and its possessions was also decimated. It’s not hard to see why popular opinion (and thus politicians) in Europe did not support taking more aggressive action against Hitler as Germany positioned itself for the next world conflict.

It’s also easy to see why World War I still echoes so loudly along the Western Front today, and perhaps why we can barely hear those echoes here.

Reflections on the Western Front (WW I), Part 1

27 Jun

My spouse and I took a tour along part of the Western Front of WW I in Belgium and France this month. I did not, as I had hoped, post reflections along the way, as it turned out to be more work bicycling 40-70 km per day than I thought it would, especially on chilly, rainy days. I posted the following materials, making up Part 1 of my reflections, on Facebook during the journey. I’m gathering them here for friends and colleagues who are not Facebook “friends.” Part 2 and maybe subsequent parts will come later. (All photos are ours, Copyright 2016 Brian Larson and Robert Tendal, unless otherwise indicated. Contact us for permission before using.)

In and near Ypres

On June 16 and 17, we were in and near Ypres/Ieper, a location important throughout the war. For those of you who know the poem “In Flanders Fields,” these are those fields. We were in the “In Flanders Fields” museum and attended the daily Last Post ceremony under the Menin Gate, pictured here, on June 16 which happens at precisely 20:00hr every day.

DSCF0994 Menin gate

It is a quiet, solemn occasion, with hundreds of folks respectfully witnessing. A single lector recites lines from “For the Fallen,” by Laurence Binyon:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

The deep voice of the crowd repeats the poem’s last line:
“We will remember them.”

DSCF1009 Menin crowd 2

Perhaps the most famous war poem ever, John McRea’s “In Flanders Fields” commemorates the deaths of many young men. Writing in 1915, McRea could have had no idea how many more young men the poppies would later commemorate in their blowing. McRae’s language is lovely, but I feel somehow that it is still glorifying war: “If ye break faith with use who die….” In fact, it was used as a public relations tool in increase volunteer enlistment throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth. I’ll post a couple other poems that I think are equally beautiful but show the more complex face of the war. Still, McRea’s words deserve a place of honor:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Looking at Ypres now, you could not possibly imagine the waste in which it lay at the end of the War. The pictures you see here are an idyll, a medieval town reconstructed in its pre-war image.

DSCF1006 Menin from Belfrey

DSCF1007 From Ypres Belfrey

It’s beautiful, and yet it’s a haunting reminder of the way that modern warfare begs us to imagine ourselves in a time before, a time that maybe never really existed, but that comforts us nonetheless.

Rubble, with parts of some buildings still standing
Public Domain,

The Menin Gate Memorial, however, helps to shatter that illusion. Among the 54,000 names on the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, names of men whose bodies were never found after WWI, is that of T.P. Ward. I’m no relation to him (other than as a human being). Someone thought to decorate it with a poppy.

DSCF0995 Poppy

Near Ypres and the Menin Gate is the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial, where many men are buried, but another 35,000 are commemorated on the wall whose graves are not known. Remember that World War I was described during its era as the “war that would end all wars.” This epitaph on a soldier’s tombstone–provided by his parents after the War–at the Tyne Cot cemetery is a fitting rebuttal of that ‘argument’: “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.”

DSCF1068 fallacy

LMC3408: Design in progress, Part I

3 Jun

I’m teaching a “new prep” in the fall–that is, I’m teaching a class for the first time. This post is about my efforts to develop the course and shows some preliminary work, on which I’d be very interested to read your comments. The course is LMC 3408 Rhetoric of Technical Narratives (Fall 2016, Section D, listed for graduate credit as LMC 6215 Issues in Media Studies, section BL). The theme for the course is “Technical and Professional Presentations and Posters.” After teaching LMC 3408 this way a couple of times, I’m hoping to get a presentations course on the books at Georgia Tech with its own course number (I’m amazed there is not already such a course). You can see the promotional work I’ve done for the course on another page here; it must be working, as the section is almost full (with four grad students and the rest undergrads).

Though I have been giving professional and technical presentations in my business career(s) for 25 years, I have never taught a course on the topic. As I’m going through the design process now, I thought perhaps I might describe what’s happening as I go along in hopes my experiences might prove helpful to others developing similar courses.

I’m not alone in the course-development process: First, I’ve reached out to friends and colleagues, who have provided extensive resources. Thanks are due especially to Laura Pigozzi and Annalise Paaby. Second, I’m attending a Course Design Studio presented by Georgia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning (CETL). The studio runs alternate days starting today and going through next week.

I began today’s studio session hoping to organize the learning objectives of the course using the classical canons of rhetoric:

  • Invention
  • Arrangement
  • Style
  • Memory
  • Delivery

After today’s session, though, I’m inclined to think that the canons may not provide the best framework for course objectives. (I’ll still be using them to organize my own thinking behind the scenes, though.) Based on the thinking I’ve been giving the class over the last few months and today’s session, I’ve identified the following draft statement of learning objectives and “skill dependencies”–skills necessary to achieve each objective. Later, I’ll be building out the skills by identifying what activities are necessary to learn/model them and what information I need to give students so they can do those activities.

I’d be very interested in the views of anyone reading this (assuming anyone does), so please feel free to chime in.

Draft learning objectives

Your instructor’s vision for this course is that it will help you develop skills and confidence so that you look for opportunities to present your ideas or research and do so with excitement! Thus, upon successful completion of this course, you should be able to:

  1. Describe the rhetorical situation in which a presentation or poster occurs, including the goals of the presentation, its audience, and its ethical, physical, social, and economic contexts.
  2. Develop a strategy for a presentation or poster, taking into account the rhetorical situation and the available time, creative skills, and technological tools.
  3. Design a presentation or poster, making effective and ethical use of written, oral, and visual modes, committing to memory key definitions and messages, and preparing any technological aids to be used.
  4. Deliver a presentation or poster, enunciating effectively and making use of appropriate nonverbal communication.
  5. Evaluate presentations and posters, your own and those of others, to provide critical and constructive feedback.

Draft list of skill dependencies

I’ve presented the draft list of skill dependencies in two forms. The graphical form shows the learning objectives (as little targets)) and the skills (as merit badges) required to be able to perform the learning objectives. You probably need to make it bigger to really read it. The list shows the skills listed by learning objective.

160603 LMC3408 LOs and skills

1 Describe the rhetorical situation

  • Describe audience
  • Establish goal
  • Identify contexts (ethical, physical, social, econ)

2 Develop a strategy

  • Identify constraints and affordances
  • Invention

3 Design a presentation or poster

  • “Archiving”
  • Ethical design
  • Memorize key messages/def’ns
  • Presentation software tools
  • Verbal design
  • Visual design

4 Deliver a presentation or poster

  • “Archiving”
  • Appropriate dress
  • Body language
  • Delivery preparation
  • Enunciation/speaking
  • Memorize key messages/def’ns
  • Presentation software tools

5 Evaluate presentations & posters

  • “Archiving”
  • Appropriate dress
  • Body language
  • Describe audience
  • Enunciation/speaking
  • Establish goal
  • Ethical design
  • Identify constraints and affordances
  • Identify contexts (ethical, physical, social, econ)
  • Invention
  • Presentation software tools
  • Verbal design
  • Visual design

La même chose: Lawyers’ use of exemplary reasoning in persuasive writing (#RSA16)

27 May

Below are the slides and handout from my talk at RSA 2016. The abstract appears on a previous post. And the program for the session appears in another post, too.

Law and rhetoric panels at #RSA16

25 May

Updated 5/27, 3:30p.m. EDT: Added session today at 3:30.

Below is a list of concurrent sessions at the Rhetoric Society of America conference that have an overt focus on law and rhetoric. If you are giving a talk focused on law and rhetoric in a session not listed here, please add it in the comments! If you are giving one of these talks, and your presentation, slides, handout, etc., are available on the web, post a comment with the link. And finally, if I’ve messed up any of these titles or presenter names (which are taken verbatim from RSA program), please also comment on that, and I’ll correct the error(s).

Legal Rhetorics: Conflict, Law, and Social Movements

Friday, May 27: 9:30 AM – 10:45 AM  P140, Panel Concurrent Session A, Hilton Downtown Room: 310

Memoranda as Weapons of War: Deconstituting Legal Subjectivity in the “Enemy Combatant” Memos, Dr Michael Vicaro, Penn State- Greater Allegheny

Rhetoric and Change: Activists and the Media in India Articulate New Delhi’s Gang Rape-Murder Case Online Before a Global Audience to Catalyze Transformation in the Way the Country’s Legal System Works, Ms Moushumi Biswas, English Department, University of Texas at El Paso

The Viability of Precedent: Social Movement Discourse and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Donovan Bisbee, Communication, University of Illinois

Changing Precedent: New Discussions in Rhetoric and Law

Friday, May 27: 2:00 PM – 3:15 PM , P75 Panel, Concurrent Session D
Hilton Downtown, Room: 404

Legal Education and the Field of Rhetoric: Time for a Change, Delia Conti, Communications, Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus

Legal Redress as Rhetorical (Dis)possession: The Shift in Sexual Consent from “No” to “Yes”, Larissa Brian, Communication, University of Pittsburgh

Mythos and Mediation in the Law: The Circulation of Romantic Realism in Public Responses to Legal Judgments, Brian Amsden, Clayton State University

Quit Calling It Forensic: The Complex Publics of Legal Discourse, Doug Coulson, English, Carnegie Mellon University

Defining, Constructing, and Interpreting “Obamacare”: Changing Health Care amid the Wrangle of the Three Branches

Friday, May 27: 3:30 PM – 4:45 PM, 1465, Panel, Concurrent Session E
Hilton Downtown, Room: 214

Chair: John Rountree, Pennsylvania State University

Respondent: Chris Darr, Indiana University-Kokomo

“Constructing Means and Ends in Defining Obamacare: Contrasting Supreme Court Constructions of Congressional Motives in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and King v. Burwell”, Clarke Rountree, University of Alabama in Huntsville

“Obamacare in the Crisis of Government Shutdown: Congressional Attempts to Redefine the Affordable Care Act through 2013 Budget Negotiations”, John Rountree, Pennsylvania State University

“Deliberative Rhetoric and the Executive: Creating Definitions of the Affordable Care Act”, Matthew Klingbeil, Georgia State University

Constitutional Transitions: The Pivotal Role of Legal Rhetoric in the 2015-16 Supreme Court Term

Saturday, May 28: 8:00 AM – 9:15 AM 1969 Panel, Concurrent Session F
Hilton Downtown, Room: 303

Ideals of Sound Judgment: Free Speech and Judicial Ethics in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, Dr. Timothy Barouch, Communication, Georgia State University

The Fifth Persona, Dr. Catherine Langford, Communication Studie, Texas Tech University

Threats or Therapy: The Possibility of Regulating Violent Discourse After Elonis v. United States, Dr. Jeremiah Hickey, RCT, St. John’s University

Corporeal Politics and Late Modern Rhetorics of Law

Saturday, May 28: 9:30 AM – 10:45 AM, 2407, Panel, Concurrent Session G
Hilton Downtown, Room: 311

Is Seeing Really Believing? Legal (Pan) Optics and the Murder of Eric Garner, Dr. Byron Craig, Kelley School , Indiana University Bloomington

Is Seeing Really Believing? Legal (Pan) Optics and the Murder of Eric Garner, Stephen Rahko, CMCL, Indiana University Bloomington

Postracial Creators, Hyperracial Pirates, Dr. Anjali Vats, Boston College

Retrenchments of State Surveillance in an Era of Judicial Change, Peter Campbell, English, University of Pittsburgh

Rhetoric and Law: Permanence and Change

Saturday, May 28: 12:30 PM – 1:45 PM, P207, Panel, Concurrent Session I
Hilton Downtown, Room: 203

Lawsuits and “Legacies”: Competing Memorializations of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Tuskegee, AL, John Lynch, Communication, University of Cincinnati

Permanence and Change in the Obergefell v. Hodges Decision, John Tiedemann, University Writing P, University of Denver

The Changing Character of Contemporary Liberal Prudence in the Judicial Opinion: Liberty, Due Process, and the Social Contract, Dr. Timothy Barouch, Communication, Georgia State University

Legal Education as Rhetorical Education

Sunday, May 29: 8:00 AM – 9:15 AM, 1271, Panel, Concurrent Session M
Hilton Downtown,  Room: 307

Respondent, John Lucaites, Communication, Indiana University

Law as a Liberal Art, Francis J. Mootz III, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law

Rhetorical Criticism as Essential Legal Skill: Developing Lawyers as “Special Public Citizens”, Kirsten Davis, Stetson University College of Law

The Situated, Embodied Actors of Clinical Legal Education, Elizabeth Britt, Northeastern University

Directions in Teaching Writing: Identity and Institution

(Note: I’ve included this session because it includes my talk, though I think mine is the only one addressing law and rhetoric.)

Sunday, May 29: 9:30 AM – 10:45 AM, P200, Panel, Concurrent Session N
Hilton Downtown, Room: 312

Critical Latticework: An Identification Heuristic for Writing and Performance, Dr. Amanda Fields, Fort Hays State University

I Connect: What’s your Super Power? Or, Exploring my Role as Facilitator/Instructor in a Virtual Collaborative Professional Writing Space, Dr. Shreelina Ghosh, Dakota State University

Institutional Success and Writing Centers: Reverting Back to Remediation, Cristine Busser, Georgia State University

La Même Chose: Lawyers’ Use of Exemplary Reasoning in Persuasive Writing, Brian Larson, LMC, Georgia Institute of Technology

Changing the Meaning of the 1st Amendment: How Other Rights Reinterpret “Free Speech”

Sunday, May 29: 11:00 AM – 12:15 PM, 1660, Panel, Concurrent Session O
Hilton Downtown, Room: 313

“Guns as (Dangerous) Speech: Conflating the First and Second Amendment”, Amy Pason, University of Nevada

“The First is Greater than the Fourth: Citizens Conflating Unreasonable Search and Seizures with Free Speech”, David R. Dewberry, Rider University

“The First is the First for a Reason: Free Speech vs. Guns on Campus”, Rebekah L. Fox and Ann E. Burnette, Texas State University

“When Some Voices are Louder Than Others: Free Speech, Due Process, and Campaign Finance”, Robert Margesson, Regis University

Perspectives on Law, Policy, and Citizenship

Sunday, May 29: 2:00 PM – 3:15 PM, 2194, Panel, Concurrent Session Q
Hilton Downtown, Room: 310

Belt Buckles and Big Sticks: Rural Drag, Political Campaigns, and the Construction of an Ideal Citizenry, Dr. Garrett Nichols, English, Bridgewater State University

Fourteenth Amendment As Retrofit: Un/Constructing a Constitutional Humanity, Dr. Casie Cobos, Independent Scholar

Il/legal Acts: The Lacey Act of 1900 and the Construction of Space Presented, Donnie Sackey, English, Wayne State University

My spring 2016 teaching reflection

18 May

I love to hear from students at the end of the semester how they felt the semester went. It provides me an opportunity to reflect on my teaching style and to focus on areas where I can improve. In the interest of complete disclosure, I’ve embedded the aggregate teaching evaluations here, and below that, I’ve written some thoughts about the semester


This semester surprised me in some ways: I expected much poorer reviews in LMC 3412 than I got (my first 5/5 overall effectiveness rating!). But it reassured me in others: My efforts to get students in LMC 3403 comfortable with an environment of uncertainty largely paid off. Below, I briefly describe the two courses I taught, share what was difficult about them this semester, consider what appeared to work, and report some student comments that I most appreciated.

Brief course descriptions

I taught two courses this semester: LMC 3403 Technical Communication, Theory and Practice, which had the theme “Responsible End-User Licensing Lab”; and LMC 3412 Communicating Science and Technology to the Public, which had the theme “Writing the Law of Science and Technology.” I had very small classes, ten students in LMC 3403 and only seven in LMC 3412.

LMC 3403 was experimental for me. I took the approach of spending the first few weeks of the semester doing two things: (a) acquainting students with basic tech comm theory and genres; and (b) acquainting students with a “problem space” that I intended to be the grounds for their final projects. The problem space was the issue of end-user license agreements (EULAs) and terms of use (TOU) on websites, in mobile apps, and in consumer products with embedded software. After we wrote a couple grant applications relating to this subject matter together, the students grouped and picked their own empirical research projects (though one group worked on developing a project website instead–more on that in a future post).

LMC 3412 was essentially a repeat of WRIT 4431, which I taught at University of Minnesota in spring 2015. My version of the class is closely based on the one developed by Professor Mary Schuster there (my Ph.D. adviser). My goal with the course was two-fold: (a) train students to understand (and to a certain extent, to practice) the ways that the law is constructed in written genres, especially court opinions, statutes, and contracts; and (b) help students to develop a basic understanding of three areas where science and technology interact with the law–privacy, copyright and patents, and medicine/healthcare.

What was hard

I’m still learning how to work with Georgia Tech students. They just feel different than students I had at University of Minnesota–both undergrads and law students–though they seem more like Minnesota’s law students in terms of their drive and poise. My Tech students have not been afraid of intellectual challenges; in fact, they seem to relish them. But they are very focused on knowing where they stand, what their grade is so far, etc. Unfortunately, my goal in LMC 3403 is to use “ill-structured problems” to scaffold their problem-solving skills in the communication context. That means forcing the students to work in an environment of uncertainty, not just about what the solution is, but about what the problem is. I tried to find a balance in LMC 3403, where I provided continual feedback to students about their grades at the same time that I encouraged them not to worry about specific deliverables.

In LMC 3412, the challenge was the class size: seven students is too small for a discussion-focused class on a challenging topic. If there are two or three quiet students and one or two of the more talkative ones just pulled all-nighters for tests/projects in other classes, any given class session could be quite quiet from the students’ side. Generally, this group did great, though. But more students would mean fewer silences. To prepare for this possibility in future, I’d plan to have more class activities designed to get the students moving and talking, even if they had not done the readings for that day.

What went well

LMC 3403 proved to be an amazing group of students who really embraced the flexibility of the REUL Lab approach, despite its uncertainty. My goal is to create a “continuous course lab,” where students bring their varied disciplinary backgrounds to study (and perhaps solve) problems regarding a problem space in technical and professional communication. The lab and is projects continue from semester to semester, with students in any given semester receiving projects from the previous semester and  handing them off to the next semester. This semester was a first test of the model: Three groups of students started projects, two of them empirical research projects and one a project website, that they knew they’d be handing on to students in my fall-2016 section of LMC 3403. I’ll post later about what these students accomplished and what we will be doing going forward. The students helped me write grant proposals to extend this approach next year; one was funded. (I’ll post on the continuous course lab concept and the grant-funded project soon.)

The students loved that they were working on “real” problems and that their work would actually be put to use by future sections of 3403.

LMC 3412 surprised me. Despite the sometimes difficult moments of having to coax comments out of such a small group, they apparently valued the content and approach. For one assignment, I had the students write a predictive memorandum about a legal question (having to do with fair use in copyright). I swear that a couple of the student efforts were as good as the top efforts I’d expect from law students at the end of the first semester of legal writing. (I taught such a course at Minnesota’s law school for eight years.) What a thrill it was to read such thoughtful papers!

For the second semester in a row, I received a “Thanks for Being a Great Teacher!” certificate, resulting from a student submitting a comment to CETL. My favorite bit from the student’s comment was “you teach in a way that ignites interest and promotes learning.” I’ll take that!

Student comments I appreciate most

Among the student comments I most appreciated (either because they were kind to me or provided useful, constructive criticism) are these:

  • LMC 3403 student regarding instructor strengths: Instructor “is very well prepared for every class and has everything organized for the students. He is very willing to provide feedback and lets you know where you stand in the class with grades. I have never received this amount of helpful feedback from any other professor at GT.” I spend a lot of time on course prep and building a “course pack” before the semester begins. I think it pays off.
  • LMC 3403 students on desired improvements: (1) “Less readings for the course. We had a lot of readings that we often didn’t go over in class.” (2) “The only thing that I wish was done differently that could be improved in the future is how the reading assignments were scheduled. All of the reading material was helpful, but knowing exactly which articles would be discussed in class for that day and mentioning how long it is estimated to take to read all of it would be helpful. That way I could plan more in advance and contribute more to in class discussions.” In fall 2016, I’m planning to work much harder to get the students to draw explicit connections from the readings to the problems they are working to understand. Overall, I find that my (mostly biz and STEM) Georgia Tech students are not as keen on reading longer essays as my (mostly liberal arts) Minnesota students were.
  • LMC 3412 students regarding desired improvements: (1) “More out of class assignments/project.” (2) “More variance in class type/assignments.” This also came up in the lass class session, when I debriefed students about the semester. When I teach this class, or a variant of it, in future, I’ll plan a little less reading of court opinions and a little more interactive work to get the students “out into the world.” I think in future I’ll reduce the number of legal topics from three (privacy, copyright/patent, and medicine) to two or even one to focus better. At present, I’m thinking of shaping it as “Writing the law of digital media,” as digital media is a research interest for me and is generally of interest to Tech students.
  • LMC 3412 students regarding instructor strengths: (1) “Larson was very interactive and always had insight that could be offered to help us understand the material. (2) ” The feedback on assignments were helpful on figuring out how the work can be taken further, along with the revised submission giving opportunity for students to apply the feedback and make improvements.” (3) “Being able to communicate very tough legal language to the layperson” As for interactivity, I don’t like to lecture, so no surprise there. My continuing view that any communication course must focus on feedback and revision comes with a cost to me (more grading) but also comes with great payoffs (much better final products from students and student appreciation of the chance to revise). I intend to keep it up!