December 19, 2006

If I Were a Law Prof

by PG

Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum. A couple of Sententias bloggers are posting about the proper way to deal with readings and exams.

Raffi supports David Post's controversial call to make all law school reading full text rather than the edited casebook version. When I took law school constitutional law, I rarely used the book and just pulled up the cases on my laptop during class -- but that was because I had a) read casebook versions of most of them already in undergrad courses; and b) become accustomed to picking through constitutional law cases after a year blawgging. In my evidence class, on the other hand, I would loathe having to pick through the full text of every case in the assignment in order to pick out the one distinction the professor wants to get across about how Rule 901 has been applied. I know that I need to know these rules, just please teach them to me and let me go collect my other 15 credits, for God's sake. Prof. Post's enthusiasm for the full text of every case indicates that he's thinking too much within a subject he already knows and therefore feels plenty of time to luxuriate in the semicolons thereof. I'm not saying that people can't get a deep feeling for copyright, or at least for copyright professors, but most of us lack that devotion.

I wonder if Raffi's enthusiasm for Post's proposal and difficulty in understanding procedural posture stem from a difference between his law school and mine. While Harvard* apparently shoves first years right into substantive law, we get Legal Methods to teach us how to read and brief a case, and how legal reasoning works. At least in my class, they were all old dull cases, I think purposely to make us accustomed to slogging through such material and picking out what was important. (Or given the age my professors tend to be, perhaps these were the cases in which the prof felt most adept.) The course was pass/fail and only as interesting as it was thanks to a good teacher -- I got so sick of hearing about people crushed between railroad cars that I managed to block out the term for what they were doing out of my memory** -- but it indicated that our school realized we didn't matriculate already knowing how to read this material. I feel an intensive three weeks of reading 19th century cases in a Socratic class where one may be called upon to describe the procedural history, facts, holding, etc. is sufficient to learn how to find these things.

Will takes up Prof. Vladeck's question of how an exam grader ought to deal with students' going over a stated word limit in their answers, and says, "For what it's worth, when grading papers, I usually state ahead of time an explicit if vague remedy-- that a paper that exceeds the length must make up for it in superior quality. The vigor of this thread is making me contemplate replacing it with a harsher rule, though."

Coincidentally, that's actually the rule I have for the exams I'll be grading during break, albeit one I came up with under duress. Specifically, I'd sent out a "model answer" from the previous year's exam, and someone e-mailed to point out that it was over the stated word limit and what did that mean about these word limits? I retorted that the model answer writer had made the extra words worth it, and those who just ran to excess verbiage without a reward wouldn't be given the same slack. But I have it easy; it's a pass/ fail, open everything, 10 questions to be answered within five days test, and if someone gets everything right while writing too much pointlessly, she'll get a pass and just not be considered for the dean's award. Unlike Vladeck's associate professorship, this ain't my full-time job. (Being driven crazy by the mock trial program is...)

Vladeck's method, which would decrease the student's grade in proportion to how much over the limit she was, struck me as unduly harsh, and certainly a departure from the standard noted in the comments and observed by every prof I've had who imposed word limits, which is to stop reading at the point where the answer goes over. The notion of failing a student who wrote excellent answers aside from their being too long disturbs me, but it seems a likely consequence: "Thus, for the questions for which the student wrote twice as much, halve the grade; for the question for which the student exceeded the word limit by 50%, take 1/3 off the grade for that question." Assuming all questions are weighed equally and worth 33 points each on a 100 point scale, a student with an otherwise perfect exam who went over would have 16.5 points taken off the 100 for each of the answers that was twice as long as it ought to have been, and 11 points for the one that was a 50% too longer. That's 44 points subtraced from 100, which gives the student a 56 -- far into failing range. Such a result with a nonstandard method, and that has not been previous advertised as the consequence of disobedience, is ridiculous.

Sheesh, at least I stalked into the first review session this year and warned everyone assembled that I'd failed some of their predecessors and wouldn't hesitate to fail them if they didn't take the course and exam seriously enough to write pass-worthy answers. Any of them who are going down were put On Notice.


* If you google "harvard law school," you see the following on the search page:
Harvard Law School
The world's premier center for legal education and research.

Every other law school comes up on the search page as some variation on "Features news and events at and about --- Law. Provides information about programs..." And they wonder why people give them shit.

** To avoid its keeping me up all night, I looked it up. Damn coupling. If I could think of a word that rhymed with it, I'd write a Law Revue ode just to get it out of my system before graduation. Though I do heart that Justice Thomas listed the problems with manual coupling in the following order:

For most of the nineteenth century, the link and pin coupler was the standard coupler used to hook together freight cars. It consisted of a tubelike body that received an oblong link. During coupling, a railworker had to stand between the cars as they came together and guide the link into the coupler pocket. Once the cars were joined, the employee inserted a pin into a hole a few inches from the end of the tube to hold the link in place. The link and pin coupler, though widely used, ultimately proved unsatisfactory because (i) it made a loose connection between the cars with too much give and play; (ii) there was no standard design and train crews often spent hours trying to match pins and links while coupling cars; (iii) links and pins were frequently lost, resulting in substantial replacement costs; and (iv) crew members had to go between moving cars during coupling and were frequently injured and sometimes killed.

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