Coffee on the Third Floor: with Prof. Randal Picker

Viva Zhou Ronco, Class of 2018

Viva Zhou Ronco, Class of 2018

Randal Picker is the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law and the Ludwig and Hilde Wolf Teaching Scholar at the UChicago Law School. He teaches a class at Booth called Legal Infrastructure of Business. I took the class last quarter and it absolutely blew my mind!

Professor Picker is a master of the so-called Socratic method. You thought you’d understood the legal cases in the assigned readings, only to find, through Picker’s thought-provoking questions, other different dimensions to the issues at hand. The classes were similar to the process of onions peeling - layers after layers, we’d eventually get to the core of the problems. Each week, we'd cover important legal issues in a business area, ranging from bankruptcy, intellectual property to privacy. By the end of the quarter, I don’t pretend that I know any topic in great depth, but I do feel inspired by my own ignorance, and feel an immense respect to the legal infrastructure that’s been supporting the sustained growth in the U.S.

Professor Randal Picker

Professor Randal Picker

This year, I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Picker for a nice chat on his teaching, his productivity routines and his advice to students. I’d love to share the conversations below with the fellow Booth community.

Q: How did you start offering the class at Booth?

P: I have 3 degrees from the University of Chicago. When I was an Economics grad student, I was doing research for John Huizinga, who was one of the deputy deans at Booth. At some point when I was teaching at the law school, John rang me up one day, and we then decided to try a version of this class. From my perspective, this class covers such a broad sweep.I’d never be able to do that in my classes at the law school because they always focus in a particular topic and drill very deep. I love doing that, but it’s also nice to have a class where you don’t do that. There’s no must-do in this Booth class, so I can be very responsive with the content to current event. For instance, I wasn’t covering Uber and Airbnb 4 years ago, and now I am.

People generally found the class very different from a standard Booth course. It has little lecturing and is very talk-intensive. I believe that the back and forth process, what we call the Socratic method, is an important part of learning. You get a wrong answer from a student, that’s great. We work with that idea, shake it, and see where that takes us. Only then we figure out that maybe that’s not where we want to be. We’d have to think hard where exactly it went wrong, as it seemed so plausible in each step! Sorting through that is incredibly useful. You see that while a particular problem can be analyzed in one way, there are 20 other ways of looking at it at the same time. Seeing all these perspectives can be very important when the students go into business or law, as they might find that the “right” method in class might not be the possible approach.

Q: Your MOOC, Internet Giants, doesn’t have interactive component but has very good content. How was your experience producing that?

P: I had students who took both but thought that the real class is a lot better. It’s good to know that what we do in the classrooms won’t be replaced by MOOC. However, MOOC allowed me to reach people that I’d never thought I’d have access to. Thinking that there are some government officials in Ireland sitting there and watching me for 20 hours is just mind blowing.

I took a filmmaking class at the Second City in preparation for the MOOC. All the sudden, you see how telling stories visually matters. It was a real challenge to talk to an empty room for 20 hours and try to present law content in an interesting fashion.

Q: You also worked 3 years at Sidley Austin, a very respected law firm, for 3 years. What made you leave and started teaching?

P: I enjoyed practicing law and had a very positive experience at Sidley. I saw what it was like, liked it, but thought I’d just apply to one place for a  teaching position. I got lucky. At that point, I didn’t know at all if I’d like teaching, but I knew it would be a great adventure. The truth is that I enjoyed the classroom experience more than I’d expected and thought it was a very good use of my time.

Q: How does it feel now that you’ve taught for many years? Were there new phases in your experience?

P: I’ve doing something new in the last few years, that is taking improv classes at Second City. The experience of improv has made me a better teacher, though I didn’t go in there with this vision. The heart of improv is listening, so I am willing to be more improvisational in the class. I consider this a slight new phase. At the law school, I also get to teach in different areas. Every time I teach a new subject, the learning process also gives me insights in the other areas I already know more. These cross-linkages are a source of inspirations and new ideas.

Q: What’s your daily source of information?

P: I have 3 different ways of getting informations. I skim through 4 physical newspapers everyday: the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Financial Times. I use RSS and Twitter to get specialized services, though I only follow 100 people so I am actually able to absorb the information. I also use professional news services like Bloomberg for my research.

I set up my information system based on the projects or research topics I have. Whenever I have a new idea, I will either write down and email myself or send myself a voice mail via Google Voice.The whole point of this system is to divide my projects into storage phase vs. producing phase. I’d constantly generate new ideas from the things I read while I’d also have to focus on the projects that have higher priority.

Q: Any advice you’d give to your students?

P: The only advice I give is that take a few classes that you are purely interested in. Don’t know if this would be useful in a few years? That doesn’t matter. It’s such a special opportunity to get an education in this intellectual environment. You also just never know when it would be useful.

If you want to see Professor Picker in action, I strongly recommend this class in the fall, or you can search for his MOOC, Internet Giants at Coursera.

Viva is a first-year double Maroon who loves interdisciplinary and intercultural conversations