Guidance for discussants, discussion leaders, and panels

DISCUSSANTS, DISCUSSION LEADERS, and PANELS

Every class, you will serve as a member of the class as a discussant. Once every several weeks, you will also serve as a discussion leader. Towards the end of the semester, you will serve as a member of a bigger panel. Thus, over the course of the semester, that means that you are taking on a significant portion of the responsibility for teaching the material.

Here’s some guidance on what you can do to develop your skills at both.

DISCUSSANTS

Class member discussant responsibilities.

Class members are crucial participants in each day’s discussion. Your basic responsibilities as class member discussants are to be prepared for each and every class as if you were also a discussion leader. 

Explanations: Do not expect leaders to explain the basics of a case or rule or law as that is part of your own normal classroom preparation. Leaders are not to waste precious class time explaining things that are clear from the readings; instead, leaders will assume that everyone is prepared and instead focus on important points of analysis, criticism, and clarification.

So what should you do? Every person should always be prepared as if they are a class discussion leader. Class members should come up with their own thought-provoking questions to share with the leaders and the group. In essence, I consider each member of the class to be a co-equal leader at all times. Although I designate several people to lead in each class, every class member must take a role in each class in pushing the discussion forward.

Thought-provoking questions: Every discussant (and leader) must always come to class with a listing of thought-provoking questions based on: 1) the assigned materials; and 2) anything outside the readings you think may be pertinent to the readings. You can find more about thought-provoking questions in the leader section below.

PANEL MAKEUP AND PANELIST RESPONSIBILITIES

What is a panel?

A panel is a group of scholars assembled to talk about a subject. It consists of the panelists and the discussion leader (here also known as a moderator).

Who is in a panel?

  • Panelists will present on a particular matter. It might be a case, statute, or problem from the readings; it might be a “hot” issue currently in the news that bears upon the readings; it might be a hypothetical based on the issues in the readings. If your presentation is not squarely on the readings, be sure to nevertheless tie the readings into it.
  • Discussion leaders will serve as moderators. They will introduce the panelists, keep track of time [I will assist with that as well], and ask thought-provoking questions of the panelists and of the class. See guidelines for discussion leaders for further details.
  • Disscussants are all members of the class (including panelists and the discussion leader when not acting in those roles). See guidelines for discussants for further details.

What will the panel do?

The panel will address the day’s readings, present the materials, and discuss issues arising from the readings. Each panelist will get a pre-set amount of time to present and discuss their materials. The discussion leader will pose questions to the panelists, and the discussants will pose questions to the panelists.

The discussion leader and panel will determine the order of discussion, but an often-used sample discussion format is shown below:

  • Introduction of panel by discussion leader/moderator
  • Panelist 1 speaks for __ minutes
  • Panelist 2 speaks for __ minutes
  • Panelist 3 speaks for __ minutes
  • Discussion leader poses questions to the panel
  • Open discussion

Another possible format, and one that tends to lead to more active discussion is:

  • Introduction of panel by discussion leader/moderator
  • Panelist 1 speaks for __ minutes
    • Discussion leader poses questions to Panelist 1
    • Discussants add their thoughts and pose questions to Panelist 1
  • Panelist 2 speaks for __ minutes
    • Discussion leader poses questions to Panelist 2
    • Discussants add their thoughts and pose questions to Panelist 2
  • Panelist 3 speaks for __ minutes
    • Discussion leader poses questions to Panelist 3
    • Discussants add their thoughts and pose questions to Panelist 3
  • Open discussion (order below is not strict)
    • Discussion leader poses questions to the panel
    • Panelists add their thoughts and pose questions to one another
    • Discussants add their thoughts and pose questions to the panelists

What is the goal?

This is how academic conferences are often structured. The goal here is to teach you how to approach and experience this type of scholarly discussion. It is often used at bar conferences, so this is a valuable experience. This also allows everyone to get a second opportunity to serve at the front of class even though a limited number of classes remain.

DISCUSSION LEADER RESPONSIBILITIES

Discussion leader responsibilities.

Note that a discussion leader might be a co-leader (as we did early in the semester) or a moderator/leader of a group of panelists.

  • Explain key cases and principles of law
  • Get all class members talking
  • Prepare thought-provoking questions, hypotheticals, and materials
  • Take questions from students who are confused or troubled by the result in a case
  • Pull in the professor for guidance as needed

Hint: prepare as if you are the professor and I won’t be there.

I am there. I will typically serve as a co-discussion leader with you. You can and should consult with me in advance to discuss how you might present the materials.

Hint: less is more.

Good presentation sometimes means that less is more. That means it is not necessary for you to provide exhaustive detail on each case. The students and I have read the materials and will likely tune out a lengthy recitation of the facts and holding of a case.

Explanation: Less is better than more. Sometimes a class leader will spend significant time discussing every imaginable detail of the case. That’s unnecessary. Each and every member of the class is already familiar with the case and the facts. Each member is well-prepared to discuss all the assigned materials. When leaders spend excessive time on minute details, others may tune them out. Instead, leaders need to be selective: focus on the most important details in each case. Limit recitation to only the most important details, such as the rule of law, the key facts, the underlying policy issues, or the debatable issues arising from the case. We are all lawyers or near-lawyers here and I don’t want to spend our very limited class time on simple 1L-ish case recitation. Each of us are well-prepared, and I can tell from our frequent and spirited discussions that the members of the class are also “chomping on the bit” to discuss and debate the interesting points.

Hint: don’t use audiovisuals unless they really work.

It is not necessary to create visuals or Powerpoints, but if you do, feel free. Send them to me in advance so we don’t waste time during class.

Explanation: If you use visuals, provide visuals that enhance the discussion, such as illustrating a point that is better seen than read, or that provides a visual example of what you are talking about. Regarding videos, as a general rule, avoid using videos unless necessary as they chew up large gobs of class time that would be better spent on discussion.

Hint: prepare “thought-provoking” questions, and never simply ask “what do you think”.

Call on class members with your thought-provoking discussion questions. Don’t ever ask the “what did you think” question.

Explanation: Ask thought-provoking questions. This takes time, thought, and preparation. Don’t ask the question “What did you think of the case?” The empty what-did-you-think question reflects intellectual laziness and sends an inference that the discussion leader has not thought very deeply about the assigned materials. Would a general ask the troops “What do you think we should do?” Of course not. So you need to use your thought-provoking questions to illustrate your preparation and to lead a spirited and interesting discussion. You should come up with questions that probe or illustrate the materials. Examples include:

Finding examples of recent or past disputes that illustrate the legal issue.

Developing hypotheticals to clarify what the law is and how it will be applied in novel factual scenarios (i.e., doctrinal/descriptive questions).

Asking what the law ought to be (prescriptive/normative questions).

Proposing counterarguments to a court holding or a party’s position; finding holes or fallacies in an opinion or court decision.

Considering the effects the law may have on social values, Constitutional norms, economic interests, or personal freedom.

Considering the interplay of law and technology.

Revised June 20, 2017