Accounting for Unaccountability
Wow. I just had my whole post erased. So this will be a somewhat pithier version of what I just wrote.
I am generally in agreement with Brian on this issue, but I have some thoughts about the perspective we take on this issue. I think "student accountability" is somewhat of a misnomer because students are commonly also interested in helpful feedback/evaluation from faculty, and having their in-class experience be worth their time.
From our focus group and other conversations it seems to me that students do not prepare for class because most classes just cover the reading material in some version of a lecture format* that provides the Cliff Note version of the reading material.** From the notes these students take in class they develop outlines, and that's all they really need to get a decent grade. When a decent grade can be obtained in this way, it tells us two things: 1) the class time is being wasted because it is completely redundant with the reading material (that is, I can read, so don't waste my time telling me what I read), and 2) students are being accountable; they are efficiently getting decent grades, and that is what they think they should be doing in law school.
So, it seems to me that the solution to the misnamed "student accountability" problem is neither to require attendance (though I have no problem with doing that), nor to attempt to punish or shame students into being prepared for class (though I do agree w/ Brian that more students should fail classes and fail out entirely - though I've never heard anyone else suggest this before Brian).
Better solutions are going to focus on providing something useful to students, such as feedback/evaluation in the form of midterms (perhaps the most common student suggestion I've heard) or other writing assignments, etc. with prompt feedback so as to make us better understand what that 86 means, and what we can try to do better. And using class time for something other than telling students what they already read, and instead using class time to practice, drill, present, role-play, test, etc. which not only requires and encourages students to be prepared, but also helps to develop skills that they may use as attorneys when in and out of court, such as being grilled by a judge while making an oral argument, interviewing clients and witnesses, working together in groups, giving testimony in front of a legislative committee, objecting to leading questions, etc.
------------* In which I'm including the Socratic Method, once students start "passing" all the time, reducing the Method into a halting lecture.** I've even had a faculty member tell me that she always read after the class for which the material was assigned because then she had notes that outlined the important issues in the reading and made the reading faster and easier.