December 18, 2004

Burn the Witch!

by PG

(Pre-emptive clarification: The following is not meant to be a smear against my law school, professor or classmates. I just thought the following was a funny coincidence.)

The night before my civil procedure exam, I was talking to some fellow students and it occurred to me that, in our collective stress and anxiety, we were on the verge of an incident of mass hysteria and delusion in which we would attack someone. Scholarship on the Salem witch trials -- aside from that which blames the incident on chemicals in the food or water -- frequently examines the psychological conditions that led so many people to believe that they were the victims of supernatural attack. I jokingly remarked that my class may be capable of similar neurosis.

Well, we almost went after the proctors on Wednesday, but the dean came in and calmed us down. It was very close though. The proctors were sitting by the doors in case they had to run for it.

We were about to start our civil procedure exam, and the person reading the instructions said, "You are not permitted to use notes or commercial outlines."

It was like our heads spun around. "We're allowed to use our own outlines, right?"

"No, only the course readings."

There was mass outrage. We were already edgy because construction workers were hammering on our end of the building. We'd had two previous exams in which we were allowed to use whatever we wanted as long as it was printed out. I'd brought commercial outlines, my notes, my TA's notes... and I was going to fail without them. Most of my classmates were a bit better prepared, but not by much, and certainly not by as much as they felt was necessary.

For ten very tense minutes, the students and proctors waited for the dean to come clarify. The professor couldn't be consulted because he's in South Africa.

The dean walks to the front of the room. We're all staring at her, kind of vibrating in our seats. (I personally may have added to this problem by bringing a bag full of chocolate candy to share with my classmates, of which they had availed themselves fully.) So there were about 50 young people ready to leap for her throat if our grades were endangered.

The dean says, "If anyone here believed that he or she was NOT allowed to use materials other than the course readings, raise your hand." We're so screwed in the head at this point that it takes us a minute to figure out the question. She goes on, "I don't want anyone to have come to this exam thinking that she only got to use the course materials and therefore didn't bring notes or outlines." No one raises his hand; if someone had, I think that person would have been the witch burned. So the dean says, "OK, use whatever you have." We give her an ovation as she leaves the room, but it was so close.

We hadn't gotten affirmative instructions for this particular exam that said we could use our notes, but it had been permitted every other time. I don't think there was any such person who thought he could use only course materials, but if there was, he knew better than to speak up. We would have turned on him like a pack of rabid dogs.

I got a glimpse of how scary my classmates were when we played Blueblook jeopardy in Legal Writing, but it wasn't until this afternoon that I realized how close we are to our animal natures. I was really surprised by how ugly it was getting verbally, though; people were yelling at the proctors. We very clearly do not deal well with unexpected pressures. And I say "we" intentionally, as I was too dumbfounded to say much at the time, but probably would have been the first with a pitchfork against the person who violated our norms.

(And yes, I know that the Salem "witches" were punished by hanging, but I like the European method better.)

December 18, 2004 07:03 PM | TrackBack

I think it's insane that some schools allow open notes/outlines/printed material first year at all. I didn't have an open material exam until second year. Those are key concepts you're eventually going to need to know for the bar. Why not just learn them now? Can you explain the philosophy behind open material first year exams? Doesn't that take all the fear out of them? We all know, as a first year law student, your outlines more closely resemble the book than a Gilbert's. So, what gives?

Posted by: Fayza at December 20, 2004 03:18 PM

Open-book exams are different animals than closed-book exams because they necessarily ask different questions to account for the availability of secondary materials. The tippy-top-tier law schools prefer to test at a higher level of understanding than the bar exam does, perhaps because they're not especially worried that their graduates will flunk the bar.

Posted by: Ted at December 23, 2004 11:08 PM
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