Caution for Law Professors Who Plan To Generate Their Own Content

Developing high-quality content is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. No content may be better for students than weak content.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


In March, schools around the globe went online in a manner of days. Professors, who had never used distance learning, were suddenly forced to take a crash-course in Zoom and other similar tools. Students, for the most part, were understanding. But I think everyone would agree that the pedagogy from the Spring 2020 semester was not ideal.

The Fall 2020 semester will be better. Professors will have now had a full semester of Zooming under their belts. And, they can spend the summer adapting their classes to an online environment–either synchronous or asynchronous. Some professors may decide to generate their own content.

I define the word content very broadly. That word can refer to videos, where the professor is on the screen. It can refer to "narrated" powerpoints, where the professor narrates slides. It can refer to a recorded podcast, where there is only audio, and the professor is speaking. In my mind,"content" refers to anything more than the printed word: either spoken audio or recorded video.

Professors should be very cautious before developing their own content. And I offer this advice after having spent nearly two years and $100,000 on developing my own content for constitutional law. Developing high-quality content is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. No content may be better for students than weak content. And professors would better spend their time preparing assessments (both summative and formative), and scheduling one-on-one visits with students, than generating content.

Let me explain. The central element of being a professor is writing. That is what we do. We can write articles. We can prepare powerpoint slides (a form of writing). We can compile examinations. The other central element of being a professors is speaking. We present papers. We lecture. We engage in Socratic dialogues. We engage in respectful, pithy discourse during faculty meetings. (Or at least we should). And so on.

Generating content is completely divorced from how professors usually write and speak. It is not enough to write a script and read it aloud, the same way you would read from lecture notes. You have to generate a script that is geared towards the format of a student listening to a podcast or watching a video. Here are two useful tips.

First, sentences must be short. Long, winding sentences with different clauses may work well enough in print. (I avoid, at all costs, long sentences.) Readers can jump around a long sentence if they get lost. But when you are listening to a recording, you are not going to rewind if you lose your place. Short sentences give the brain a chance to process a thought before you move on. For audible content, periods are your friends. Semicolons are your enemies. (How many of you would have put a semicolon after friends? You see!). And never use an em-dash. That punctuation cannot be readily converted to the spoken word. Use a period and move on.

Second, place subjects at the beginning of sentences. Legal prose often buries subjects at the end of a sentence. You may read 20 words before you figure out what the sentence is about. That approach doesn't work for recording. Let the reader know up front why she is reading the sentence.

So far, I have only offered tips about style. The substance is even harder. Students crave simplicity. The law is not simple. Often, when you distill a complicated concept into a few sentences for a podcast, you leave stuff out. And you know it. When you start to prepare your own content, you will agonize about what to leave in, and what to omit. The process becomes so painful. Writing a script for a podcast is different than creating a powerpoint. You cannot simply read long blocks of text, as you would include a blockquote on a slide. People will tune out. Striking the right balance is very, very difficult.

These tips concern the preparation of the script. But there is an even bigger challenge: delivering it. Most people do not know how they sound when they speak. It is very difficult to listen to a recording of yourself. I do so all the time to help improve my diction. Indeed, I took classes for nearly a year to help slow down my New York pace. I would routinely rewatch my classes, radio interviews, and TV hits. It wasn't easy. I've gotten better, but I occasionally revert back to old habits.

When you speak in a live class, and stumble or slur words, students are forgiving. But when students hear hard-to-understand speech on a recording, the reaction is different. They may ask, "Why didn't the professor record another take?" Of course, you may have recorded a dozen takes, and that was your best one. But the students will never know it. The margin of error for recordings is so much lower than for live speech. Plus, static and other clicks become very noticeable on most microphones. Editing bad parts out of audio often makes the problem worse.

So far, I have only discussed the spoken word. Recording video is much, much more difficult. Here, I repeat several of the lessons I offered about recording zoom (See here and here). Professors, in general, have poor eye contact. In a large class, it is not a big deal. But with a camera, poor eye contact can create a huge disconnect. You need to maintain direct eye contact with the lens. If you start to move your eyes around, it looks shifty. Keep in mind if you are reading from notes, you will constantly have to move your head up and down. The ideal solution is a teleprompter that goes over or behind the camera. But most professors do not have that setup. And reading from a teleprompter is harder than it looks.

You may need to record several takes before you get the video right. It is tough to stop mid-sentence. You may have to start at the beginning of a paragraph to avoid an awkward break. For example, when Randy and I were in studio, it would take about an hour to record enough content for a five-minute video. We did two full takes from start to finish, and then recorded individual sentences over and over again. And, it is tough to monitor your own speech. When Randy was behind camera, I carefully monitored his speech. If I heard any glitches, I would ask him to start again. And he did the same when I was behind camera. If you decide to generate your own content, you should have someone in the room to raise their hand if there any glitches.

Finally, editing video content is tough. I would not suggest you learn how to use Adobe Premier, or any similar tool. Those products have steep learning curves. I spent several years editing video before law school, and I still don't feel qualified to make my own content. There are some online tools that let you mix together videos. But precise editing is hard.

The hardest part of creating a video is to develop engaging visuals. It is very, very boring to watch a static shot of a professor at a podium for any length of time. Likewise, I find narrated powerpoints to be soporific. I know professors use both of these approaches. They may be effective in a pinch. But in my mind they add little value. Students would be better reading a script in their head than trying to follow along as a professor reads a script. There is no intrinsic value to have audio or video. Students can use a narrator feature, just as effectively. Most smartphones and devices have this feature.

When Randy and I developed the script for our videos, we used a rule of thumb: the visual had to change every 8 to 10 seconds. In other words, we would not show the same visual for more than 10 seconds. We would cut to a photo, a video, text on the screen, or a different camera angle. Indeed, while writing the scripts, I would deliberately write sentences or clauses that matched up with specific graphical cuts. That process was immensely difficult. But it created engaging and entertaining videos that keep the viewer hooked. It is not possible to develop this sort of content alone over the summer. I am very cautious if professors attempt to go it alone.

***

So far I have offered only caution. What should professors do? Do what you do best. Focus on written material. Distribute written summaries that students can read. Write sample questions and model answers. Give frequent assessments. And go over those assessments. Schedule one-on-one sessions with students. Provide a benefit that cannot be given over Zoom or other asynchronous measures.

Professors have limited time. Generating content is not a prudent use of that time.

Next week I will share some modules for constitutional law classes.