“Speak Up” and similar studies documented something that many thought they already knew about large law school classes: Male students talk a heck of a lot more than female students do. A recent study of the University of Virginia School of Law adds important nuance to this observation. The gender participation gap is not set in stone but responds to, among other things, shifts in pedagogy. For example, the gap expands when professors achieve participation by calling on the students who volunteer to answer questions at the moment they are posed, and it retracts when professors use a system for choosing in advance the students on whom they will call.Some readers may construe this finding to be an endorsement of the law-teaching technique known as the Socratic Method, an umbrella title bestowed on a motley collection of question-and-answer strategies used by law professors for the last century or so, including the technique of “cold-calling.” Were it correct, this takeaway from the University of Virginia study would be a painful irony for the numerous women who have reported over the years that the Method, particularly a version that relies heavily on cold-calling, fosters a classroom “dynamic in which they feel that their voices were ‘stolen’ from them.” As we read it, however, the University of Virginia study comes neither to praise nor to bury the Socratic Method and its cold-calling kin. Instead, the study reveals only that professors may help to shrink the gender gap by using a participation method that does not depend solely on the alacrity of student volunteers. Cold-calling is one such method, but there are many others that law professors could adopt. Since that is the case, our agenda in this Essay is to provoke a conversation about the value of retaining cold-calling at all. Like other law professors, we have found cold-calling to be an ineffective way of teaching important topics with which some students—and, surely, some instructors too—have had painful experiences. If cold-calling impedes the teaching of materials in which many of us have the deepest interest and investment, why would we continue to use it?
Anne M. Coughlin & Molly Bishop Shadel, The Gender Participation Gap and the Politics of Pedagogy, 108 Virginia Law Review Online, 55–71 (2022).