Life As Is

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005
  Ambivalent Imbroglio : You might see some estate-planning jargon accidentally slipping into this post because... I am in class right now. It almost never occurs to me to get out laptop during class. But in this case I can't resist the irony of tuning out lecture in order to come here and get on a soapbox about "student accountability." And while I'm in full confession mode—I skipped class last week for absolutely no reason (other than that I wanted to go drink coffee and read the Isthmus). I blame Ethan; he's filling my head with dangerous ideas. You think I'm kidding.

I want to highlight a comment to yesterday's post that was left by Chardrian. He has a positive memory of his 1L year, which you don't hear too many people admit. But his overall impression of law school—more or less an ambivalent one—is shared by many. I'm paraphrasing: The luster had worn off by the middle of the second year, and things could definitely stand to be improved although I would be hard-pressed to say exactly how. Overall, it was okay, though.

It's a very honest and (like I said) widespread assessment, and one worth looking at. Ironically, I see a certain symmetry between it and the all too familiar experience we have with (not) getting feedback from our professors: You lost me a bit by about the middle of the second question, and your analysis could have been stronger but there were no glaring errors. You get an 85.

When we first got to law school we expected to be inspired. Or at least I did. (I suppose that's how a professor feels when she opens one of our blue book to read, too). And we were inspired. Or at least I was. How could I not have been after Whitford's Contracts class first semester? I give him a 92. But for most of us, if we ever even felt that way, it didn't last for too long into the second year. That is the point, I guess, at which we students begin to explore the joyful possibilities of skipping (or blogging during) class! No longer shooting for marks in the 90's--either in our expectations of ourselves or in our expectations of the school.

To get back to curriculum and to instructional-reform issues, Ethan, I'm shocked that you agree with me about the law school flunking more people out. I'm serious in my support of that proposal, interestingly, no one has surfaced yet that is willing to try to talk me out of it. Just curious, what's your opinion on the "sacred institution" of pass/fail classes?(*)

And in turning to what is our point of disagreement, you say that a better solution, at least insofar as changes in curriculum/instruction can help improve (what we'll call) student accountability, would be to (1) make "better use" of class time and (2) give students constructive feedback. If we focus on the first point, no matter how we define it, we're going to run smack dab into a wall of opposition to whatever we try to embrace as a better use. Should we even run the risk of getting derailed like that? And as for feedback--why is it that we've both made an implicit connection between it and student accountability? Can we get away with just assuming that the two are as related as we say they are?

* For non-UW Law Students: beginning in our second year we are allowed to take one class each semester pass/fail. It rocks.
One thing that is starting to strike me about the discussion on this board and as it related to the impending presentation is that you two have a real problem in discussing changing things at UW: there is no consensus as to the actual problem.

Much of the discussion thus far really is a discussion about the problem, not the solution. Yes, various solutions have been presented, but they span so many issues that they can't be said to address the same problem or deficency.

A word of advice on the presentation: Have a clear articulation of the problem(s), from students' perspective. If you can't come up with problems that most students would agree are problems, you can't really advocate solutions.

"The J.D. program at UW law school could be better" isn't a problem, it's a sense of things that probably encompasses about 100 "problems", each with a separate solution.

Of course, none of my comment addresses the real problem--others have previously mentioned this--which is: How do you allocate limited resources to solve one "problem" without creating or worsening other problems? A solution isn't really that helpful if you can't implement it or it makes something else worse.

All that being said, I commend y'all for trying, even if it is a little late for one of you.
Perhaps one reason why we get so little feedback on exams is because the grading tends to be subjective, and thus the reasons for assigning a particular score are hard for professors to articulate. Even with issue charts that track whether you discuss an issue, there are point ranges that provide lots of discretionary wiggle room.

When I received my lowest score ever, I desperately sought feedback from the professor on what went wrong and how to prevent this in the future. After several weeks of calling and emailing her, I finally got a paragraph of feedback. Her main gripe was that I discussed the issues in the wrong order. I discussed last what she thought were the most important issues, which to her meant that I had not thought of them soon enough. So grading often comes down to these minor issues that seem insignificant in retrospect, but which the professors either care a lot about (the spread being that tight), or use as an excuse to justify a score when in reality grading is a very holistic process that is difficult to break down and quantify. For example, you can’t just say “you are a poor writer and don’t apply the facts well,” and leave it at that, yet that might very well be all that is going through the professors mind when assigning a low grade. Demanding feedback requires them to retrace their footsteps and in many cases, invent ex-post-facto reasons to back up their gut reactions. This has got to be a pain in the neck for any professor, and might explain the reluctance to give feedback.

Church/Paff were very helpful in taking an entire class period before the exam and telling us exactly what he wanted on the exam: grammar & spelling are important, be organized, use headings, be creative with your policy arguments, and most importantly, be as brief as possible. I guess after grading exams for 30 years, brevity is the most important virtue. I remember in that exam particular I made a huge mistake – I only used two of the five bluebooks and finished 30 minutes early because I misjudged the time. Being a 3L who skipped most of the classes there, I just thought “screw it” and turned it in, remembering that he wanted us to be brief anyhow, and wanting badly to go home and chill for the rest of the afternoon. If I had used the full time I would have certainly written more and damaged my score, but because of my mistake, I was the second one to finish and I think that was a real benefit in the end.

So sometimes professors are very explicit in what they want, but it is hard to follow them because we have our own ideas of how a good answer should read. In my case, I always thought long and involved answers were better, when in reality I think professors, like judges, prefer short and to the point answers. But these are the hardest to write because you have to carefully choose what you are saying rather than throwing in the kitchen sink.
Ok 2 more cents.

1) Feedback - I agree feedback is sparse and is a major reason why the first year is generally the most anxiety ridden. But I don't see how midterms will help in this regard. In the end all you will getting is a score which I thought people are saying does not tell you much. Instead, this is a major reason why the Socratic method is useful I think. You can't help but get some feedback on how you are doing just by how well you handle yourself when you are suddenly called upon. One suggestion I have, which no professor ever used in my classes, would also be to have each student turn in a paragraph outline of a case, stack em up in front at the beginning of class and instead of the professor calling on someone to relay the facts of the "Hairy Hand" just randomly pick one from the stack. Even better would be to then critique what is good and bad about the case brief. Just an idea - but one that I think could be useful.

Another great way to get "real" feedback is through clinicals.

2) Grading - When I had to read student submissions for the International Law Journal I realized what a pain it is to grade papers. I now understand when professors say that they might not be able to explain exactly why one exam got an 83 and another got an 84. Law students just have to deal with that at some point.

3) My take on lawschool - I think you are right that I gave an overall impression of lawschool being just ho-hum. It wasn't. I really enjoyed law school. Crazy as it may seem, I really really enjoyed my first year (and a half). And I think a big reason why, was because I remained so engaged in all of my classes. I did disengage my last year but that doesn't mean I thought law school was just okay. It was much better than okay. My comments may not make that clear but what I really was (and am) trying to figure out was how could my experience have improved from very good to outstanding? Besides shortening law school to just 1 1/2 to 2 years (which I don't think would be such a bad idea especially if you could somehow mandate a year of "apprenticeship" afterwards), I don't think there was a way. For me 2 1/2 years (with both summers doing clinicals) was just two semesters of classes too many.
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