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Sunday, March 20, 2005
  Efficient Use of Law-School Resources: A First-Year Seminar Course : We're on Spring Break this week, which has given me a chance to catch up on work. part of what I want to do is go back and read comments people have left below and respond to those. Also, I'm catching up on e-mail.

Here's an excerpt from a thoughtful message sent by a law student. She starts off with general thoughts, and (after a discussion of resource limitations, which I leave out here) she suggests that the law school would do well to start "play[ing] to our strengths." It's a good introduction to the second theme of our presentation--resource allocation. Here's what she has to say:

First, what does the law school do well? I felt the first semester was a solid introduction. There are plenty of good or decent courses, many good clinical programs, and many devoted faculty members. However, the school appears not to have more than a passing commitment to any sort of overreaching theory of teaching. Law in action, sociology of law, thinking about theory and practice... all of these things [could] provide a solid basis, and we certainly heard about them during orientation, but they don't really come out in the classes in an appreciable way. More on this in a moment.

Second, part of the curriculum's identity crisis seems to stem from the lack of definition in the target audience. The school probably cannot be all things to all students, and we shouldn't try to be. If we're focusing solely on being a state school for in-state students who need basic competency, that's one thing. If we actually want to make an investment in being a good law school, or even a well-regarded, well-ranked (though I don't want to equate rankings with actual degree of excellence, of course), that's another. I do believe in the Wisconsin Idea--there is a special commitment on the part of the law school, as the only public law school in the state, to provide for in-state students by preparing them for practice here.

Well stated. (And, BTW, if anyone needs more convincing on the Wisconsin Idea... my family and I were completely touched by what we heard on the radio this a.m. Adjunct Prof. Meg Gains interviewed on on To the Best of Our Knowledge. If you didn't here it, listen here.) Now, on to the the idea for a first-year seminar course. Back to the e-mailer excerpted above, from a bit later in the e-mail, where she makes a series of suggestions (I'm giving you one) for improving the Law School:

[W]e have plenty of assets as well--and why not play to our strengths? We can't have the same sort of depth in every area that some of the best-funded schools do, but we can choose some areas in which to specialize. In addition, we are still known, in some sense, for law-in-action and the sociology of law issues this school has worked on....So, my proposal[]:

Require a first-year seminar in either law-in-action-related subjects or a "law and" class. Some sort of guiding principle, even one that many of us may reject eventually, is a healthy thing. I came here partially because I wanted theory and practice, "logic and experience." The small group experience is widely varied and doesn't provide what an actual seminar could.

I LIKE this idea. I mean I REALLY LIKE this idea. I want to hear more.

This idea asks us one question: What do we want to spend money on? After all, do the math on the cost of putting every first-semester law student through a seminar course--I'm sure it's a lot. But hopefully I've given you enough context above to demonstrate that the idea is actually motivated out of a desire to use our resources more effectively. The school should focus on doing one thing well. Why? to use its resources effectively. How? By grounding students in an ideology. A "guiding principle" to frame our education and that we ultimately will either accept or reject--but it's good for us either way. Don;t just give us pieces here and there, depending on which profs we draw first year, but give it to all of us in a concerted way--i.e., with a law-in-action seminar--front and center.

Moreover, law in action has theoretical underpinnings that play into the more policy-oriented courses that some students will choose to pursue during later semesters, and it also plays right into a practice-oriented model of a legal education. So, by taking a step further in that direction, the law school could would continue to serve the needs of a broad range of students and the State as a whole.

Finally, injecting a unified focus into the curriculum is one way to respond to the "ambivalence" problem/situation among students that was the theme of last week.
Comments:
"law and" classes: I took them; I liked them. However, they are a bad idea for first-year students.

First year should be less about "law and" or even law in action and more about getting students to (here comes the cliche) "think like lawyers." Only once there is an intellectual framework in place can law in action and "law and" classes have any real relevance or usefulness (many debate the true value of "law and" classes anyway).

One comment on pass/fails: Four p/f over two years is too many. I would have preferred a system like UCLA has, which is give students only two to use over the course of their final two years. They can use them anytime they want (i.e., both in the same semester) and a student can opt to use them up until the end of their exam. Pass/fails should be there as a safety net, but I am confident they have become more a mechanism for coasting/protecting gpa.
 
You mean even during the exam you can choose to go pass/fail?
 
Even during the exam. And really, it makes sense. Why do pass/fails have to be lodged two-weeks before other than administrative ease?

They create a heavy incentive for students to check out--like I did for T&E.

Of course they can still be used in emergencies, but only if the emergency occurs before an arbitrary date. What about the student that goes in and for some reason locks up, or realizes that he or she doesn't get one of the questions, or the person next to them has horrible body odor and they can't concentrate? He or she is screwed and functionally penalized more than the student who opted for a pass/fail on the first day of class and didn't come the whole semester.

Make pass/fails a true safety net, not a safety net up to two weeks out.

There is more to tease out of this narrow aspect of change, but I think you get the drift.
 
With luck you'll find the time to check my resource for information about upcoming seminars and find an article or two or three you'd like to read. I hope you, too, consider comments however short and sweet fun to get and read :)
 
Ever hear of this... a get motivated seminar
 
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