Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reading for Class

Usually I do not post about specific events that happen in my classes, but today I'll make an exception. My point today is this: when the professor calls on a student to brief a case, the range of acceptable responses does not include "Oh, I read the case, but it was a few days ago and I don't remember it very well, but let's see . . . ."

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard this. I've heard it several times this semester. On the one hand, sure, fine. Everyone in law school is busy, right? And I think usually students are telling the truth--typically after a few minutes, memory kicks in and the student does fine. And to be even fairer, often one reason this response pops out of students' mouths is that they are worried about looking bad in front of the class and the professor. Having read but not remembered allows one to say (a) I read, so I am putting forth the effort, but (b) I'm not dense, just rusty about this case.

Yet my question is this: would this response cut it in practice? What if you are in court during oral argument? How might a judge react? What if you are giving a presentation to a client? How good will you look?

And my other question is this: could the professor get away with this statement in class?

I have said it before, and I will say it again: when you are a law student, think of law school as your career, because right now it is.

So here's what to do. First, isn't this one of the reasons to brief a case? Yes! So brief the cases, however you might do that. Second, just keep the excuses or apologies to a minimum, and do your best. That's what you would do in court, so that's what you should do in class. The silence may seem deafening as you race to come up to speed and answer the professor's question, but it's not. And again, it's good training.

I have to say in closing that I am really not upset when this happens in my classes. But I do wish students wouldn't do it.


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. I have this law professor who sent out an e-mail the night before class. He changed our reading assignment and specifically said that, because of the change, he would not call on anyone who did not volunteer. Normally, my classmates, with some exceptions, are usually very prepared for the day's discussion. Because of the reading change, several students who had prepared the previous assignment were not quite as fluent with the new readings as they might normally have been.

Much to our shock and dismay, the professor began calling on students who did not volunteer, after he said he would not! Can you believe it? On this subject, this is a road that goes both ways. When a professor wants the students to be proficient in a set of cases, they should be. But when the professor changes the assignment the night before and says he will not call on non-volunteers (but does), the students might find themselves bewildered when called upon. This may not be due to a lack of their diligence and class preparation, but perhaps is the result of miscommunication.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment.

Here's a tip: if that ever happens again, why don't you remind the professor of the promise? Do it deferentially of course. ("I'm sorry, professor, I'm confused perhaps, but didn't you say that. . . ?)

You see, this very thing happened to me in class once last year. It was certainly not intentional, and I suspect the same is true in your case. Professors are people, after all, right? In fact, when it happened to me last year, a student reminded me of my promise. And guess what? I was glad he did. Class went on, and that was that. (He ended up doing well in the class too, by the way.)

So I would suggest a bit of proactivity on your part--or, dare I say, advocacy? Law students are in training to be lawyers, after all. Be politely assertive. Of course, if you think your professor is a jerk, maybe you just suffer through it. But that's a call only you can make. Personally, though, as a professor I would like to be reminded.

Anonymous said...

A second Anonymous here. #2, if you will -

If you post about specific class events (as you did here), wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that you opened the door to a dialogue on the event? Would you be disturbed if your own students posted comments regarding that same event in response?

Do you encourage your students to post on your blog? Ever discourage? Would them posting about specific class events be crossing a line of sorts? Maybe akin to 'airing the laundry in public'?

Could you allow such commentary without feeling like your own students were coming after you in public, and what could your students do to assure you that, indeed, they thought you were 'DA BOMB' even if they posted in disagreement with you on a point?

Finally, could you give a word of advice - is it ever a good idea to disagree with your professor, even in the context of enlightened debate?

Anonymous said...

Before anything goes too far, isn't this is what law school is supposed to be??? This is a professional degree and if it were easy to obtain, then you would have 4,000 people starting law school just like undergrad. People know that you get called on in class and people know that you have to be prepared!! Who cares if the professor calls on you and you don't know the answer!! That is part of life, there are going to be times that you are unprepared and times that you will be wrong. So everyone needs to "suck it up" do the work and if you don't know...oh well make up for it on the exam. Maybe the professor is right, he doesnt wan't to hear that you dont know, you haven't read the case in a couple of days. Do like I do when you get called on, just bullshit your way through it. Thats what life is about anyway, and it doesn't hurt that we have a blind grading system. I think it was invented for the people "who haven't read in a couple days."

Learned Hand

Wha? said...

Drunken Hand -

Of course that's the case if the the assignment is static. However, if it gets changed the night before, with assurances that the new material would be reviewed by volunteers-only, then can you expect the full class to be prepared on the new assignment? What if the night-before notice was insufficient, and the person called on had no idea that the material was even assigned? How do you prepare for that contingency? Read the entire book? What if it happens in the first week of classes - I suppose the students are to read the entire book before the beginning of the semester?

I don't understand your comment re: blind grading. It's supposed to remove the possibility of instructor bias; I don't see how it enters into the prepared/not prepared analysis at all. Are you saying that somehow the lazy benefit from blind grading? How do you figure that?

Anonymous said...

Well, Wha?

First of all it enters into this situation so the person who is not prepared will not be discriminated against....think about it before you type something back. That helps you people that can't adapt to your surroundings.
Just because you don't think that you are going to be called on, doesn't mean you don't have to read. So what he changed the assignment, grow up and live with it. Maybe if you read and quit waiting for someone to tell you everything to do you would be prepared too.

He isn't talking about the class period that he changed the assignment anyway. The fact pattern said that "I hadn't read it in a few days" means that it was read originally. There has been more than one person give this excuse, and NO IT DIDNT HAPPEN ON THE DAY AFTER THE ASSIGNMENT CHANGED.

So yall are ripping on a professor that says 53 of you will get a "B" or better and this is probably over generous of him

Justice Scalia with J. Brennan concurring

Wha? said...

Ummm...dude. You're getting a little excited. It's getting in the way of your better judgment. For your own good:
Settle down, Beavis! (smack!)

You seem to be conflating the facts between Prof. Bowman's post, and an anonymous student. Let me help you out:

1) Prof. Bowman noted that sometimes students aren't properly prepared.

2) An anonymous poster - from an unknown school, with an unknown professor - related that one of his/her professors once changed an assignment at the last minute, promised not to call on anyone, then called on people - so of course they were unprepared, or at least dismayed (I assume b/c they may have been unprepared).

3) You started railing about how everyone needs to buck up an grow a pair.

4) I simply pointed out that in the face of short-to-no-notice shifting of assignments, preparation isn't really possible without reading the entire book ahead of time. I still think I'm right on that, and you haven't really presented any arguments addressing the point. Perhaps you might ponder that before YOU post (or not, up to you, which option do you think would serve you better?).

RE: Blind Grading - No need to get testy, my inebriated friend. I see where you're coming from, but I think the instructor bias that it guards against is a much larger phenom than just bias against students caught unprepared in class. There are far more scenarios which would produce far more bias than that one, which is pretty common. So, yes, blind grading would guard you against a professor that wanted to penalize you for not being prepared for class, but NO, I don't think that's what "it was invented for". You've allowed your booze-addled brain to take what would have been a rational statement and turn it into an almost non-sensical overstatement. At least I hope it's the booze - otherwise you really don't have an excuse, do you?
Cheers and bottoms up!

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Interesting discussion, everyone. The post by “Anonymous #2” deserves to be replied to directly, since it’s aimed at me. The comments/questions are in all caps, and my responses are listed after each comment/question.


Dialogue is the whole point of a blog.

Also, let’s be clear about this. My post was about “specific events,” but not about ONE PARTICULAR specific event. The sort of response I described in my post has been given numerous times since I have been teaching, and each time I have thought, “Oh, don’t say that. You’re undercutting yourself.” So that’s the point—-not that I am upset, but that it’s not the best self-advocacy. And since it’s happened again this semester, more than once, I decided (at the risk of people thinking I might be picking on specific students) to use this as a teaching moment. So, for those who think I am trying to pick on students-—stop thinking it.

Plus, bear in mind (as I said in the post) that almost every time a student gives this sort of response, the student ends up doing fine in his/her class response that day. Often better than fine. That’s certainly been true this semester when it’s happened. So again, no picking on anybody.


I don’t encourage it, and I don’t discourage it. Law Career Blog is not “Bowman’s Class Blog,” but then again, some students in my classes read it and post comments. As for airing dirty laundry, I suppose the only thing to say is that I would expect people to exercise good judgment. We are all adults, after all. My litmus test is this: is there a teaching moment for readers of Law Career Blog (and not just students in my classes)? That’s why I posted on this subject—-it happens regularly, and there is something constructive everyone can learn from it.


See the above: blog = dialogue. (Or is it diablog?) As for assurances, I don’t need any, really, but it’s a nice question to ask. Or perhaps a better answer is that comments made in a thoughtful fashion are all appreciated. Which is not to say comments shouldn’t be passionate or forceful, or adhere to my view of the world. Again, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—from anyone who reads and has a good point to make. Check out some of the earlier posts on this blog about law school being a "waste of time"-—some of the commenters were really forceful, and they strongly disagreed with me. And they were great.


Again, see the above. Ideally, the answer is "yes." I think enlightened debate is great, and that usually involves some measure of disagreement. Having said that, last year I had a long discussion of this very point in one of my classes, and it was enlightening to me, to say the least, to hear what some students thought about speaking out in class. (Not my just class—-ANY class.) The fact is, though, that the law school experience is diminished without debate or discussion, since that is much of what lawyering is.

Of course, you have to gauge the professors in question. Do they openly discourage discussion? Or perhaps worse, do they ask for discussion and then tell you why you are wrong? It’s been known to happen. Or do they allow themselves to be challenged, and enjoy the debate, both for its own sake and for the sake of helping students develop their critical thinking and speaking skills? Ultimately, only you can answer those questions.

Wha? said...

"Which is not to say comments shouldn’t be passionate or forceful, or ADHERE TO MY VIEW OF THE WORLD..."

PBow - was that a typo or a warning?

Old Man said...

And now it would seem the students are actually learning something about the real world.

It is all debate, discussion and compromise within the rules. And that young ones, is the manner one achieves his/her specific ideals (grades, the bar, and success).

Anonymous said...

Here's a comment about the other end of the spectrum...

Sometimes I wish professors would ask questions that aren't about the facts of the case or that require "yes or no" answers. If a student takes the time to be more than adequately prepared, then that student might want to hear how other well-prepared students
responded to the material.

Instead, in most of my classes it seems as though the students serve as little more than a ventriloquist's dummy, saying what the professor wants to hear--because that is the way the professor asked the question. There is never any opportunity to respond otherwise. ("If you weren't going to say no,Mr. So and So, you would say...")

Open-ended "what did you guys think about this"-type questions addressed to a class as a whole rarely get a response because of the herd mentality in law school...but if a professor were to ask that same question of a student in particular, a quality answer might arise. Indeed, if students knew that the possibility of a professor consistently asking challenging, thought-provoking questions was present, perhaps students would be encouraged to prepare in a way that would make them more able to answer those types of questions.

On the other hand, occurrences such as the one written about in this post would not, I imagine, inspire a professor with much confidence in his or her students' ability to answer such questions.

Anonymous said...

Wha? you are an idiot!!

The student might not be known but the school is....I mean where the initial post is coming from...sounds a lot like a contracts class to me??

So beavis before you start thinking that you know soooooo much and that this isn't something that really happened, keep you fingers off your computer

If you read and quit waiting for someone to tell you what to do then you wouldnt have this problem....i mean there is a syllabus for a reason, so you have to cover it sometime right??

as for your #3 comment maybe if you had a pair then you wouldnt have to grow some??

by the way I have never sipped alcohol in my life...

Anonymous said...

I am as guilty as anyone for reading an assignment and not remembering the case as well as the professor might like, but I would NEVER use the previously discussed comment as an excuse. Some advice to those who do: bluff for a bit, glance quickly down at your book which should be highlighted with the important information, and if you can't find the exact answer you still might be able to salvage some sort of valid response.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Interesting comments, everyone. I would suggest, though, that comments like "grow a pair" and the like are not really in the spirit of professionalism. Spirited debate is great. Creative retorts are a form of advocacy. Suggestions of enebriation or anatomical shortcomings are not.

Clarification on a error in grammatical parallelism or symmetry: I meant to say in my previous comment that "comments made in a thoughtful fashion are all appreciated. Which is not to say comments shouldn’t be passionate or forceful, or THAT THEY NEED TO adhere to my view of the world." I think the intended meaning was pretty obvious from the context, but here's the clarification in case anyone is in doubt.

Additional comments are encouraged--please let me know what you think!

Wha? said...

PBow - It was clear from the context; that was a quip.

Al Anonymous - You aren't being rational anymore. I hope that I didn't hurt your brain. I'll try to ease up on you. But really, you aren't making any sense - look at your last post:

Paragraph 1 - Personal Insult

Paragraph 2 - Conjecture [as to where the initial poster came from (I don't see a school or a class mentioned in his post, although you claim that you know his school because you can tell he was talking about a contracts class...or something)].

Paragraph 3 - Insult/Bully-order

Paragraph 4 - Suggestion that you should be prepared at all times throughout the semester to answer questions about anything on the syllabus (yes, you have the syllabus to tell you what you're professor is aiming to cover...but if the assignment changes "goes off-syllabus" or changes what he/she is covering from the syllabus at the last minute with little-to-no notice how does that help?)

Paragraph 5 - Personal Insult

Paragraph 6 - Denial

At least you dropped the goofy legal pseudonyms.

From the 'hints' you keep dropping, it appears that maybe you're one of PBow's students, and that you were there at the time of the event that he posted about (which, remember, wasn't one specific event). Are you trying to say that it was one specific event? That the first anonymous poster's scenario was somehow linked to that specific event? C'mon - spill the beans; these fragments don't make any sense on their own. Either Anon #1's scenario is linked to PBow's, or it's not, and if it's not then what the hell are you talking about? You can't prepare for a reading that you don't know is coming! How do you know Anon #1's reading was on his syllabus? From the facts given, you can't, so let us all in on your secret.

Finally, if a professor tells me he/she is only taking volunteers, then dammit, that's what I expect. I have way, way too much to do to not take advantage of any break thrown my way, and the professors know that. They say they're only taking volunteers, I might very well use my time for preparing for a class where the prof is calling on people, or working on an outline, or preparing for finals. And guess what - that's my perogative. My time is precious, I divvy it up in the way that provides me the most advantage. If a prof. tells me that they're not going to call on me, then I'll take advantage of that if I feel I need to - w/o any guilt whatsoever.

IF this was a real event tied to Anonymous #1's real event, then let me ask - did you volunteer (since you were so read up)? I'll bet real money that you didn't.

And cut your tough-guy stuff - nobody's scared, and it makes you look kind of desparate. You need to chill out. Have a drink - I promise it will help.

shell said...

Prof. Bowman: I am curious as to whether you use "on-call" notification for this particular class. Most students I have talked to find "on-call" to be a fair system. It alerts specific students that they must read for a particular date, and assigns them the responsibility to be the "expert" on that day's class discussion.

From my experience, I find "on-call" notification helpful for the upper level courses as students try to balance work and five classes. For the 1L classes, it is a good system to start with in the very beginning of the class in order to ease the nerves of the inexperienced.

However, I am not unopposed to the Socratic Method either (as previously explained in prior comments). But as the professor, you hold the discretion as to how you want to run the classroom. It is clear that your goal is to chose the most effective teaching method.

It is a really hard issue to decide. On one hand I have my bias as a law student who struggles to keep up with assignments for the remainder of the semester. On the other hand, when I put myself in the professor's shoes, I can see why it's frustrating to hear the same kind of excuses over and over again from different people. It is difficult to gauge the learning progress of a class if most people (or at least many) aren't keeping up with the assigned reading (or makes excuses about not being able to have a prepared brief on-hand).

My next question is whether this problem occurs in an 1L class or an upper level class? It could be that the 1L's are drowning in the R&W assignments (I am assuming your school requires R&W class for the first year students) and they are too tired to keep up with briefs all the time. I would give some benefit of the doubt that many 1L's have not grasped the purpose of briefing a case (meaning, keeping it BRIEF and highlighting the KEY FACTS and RULES, HOLDING) until well into the Spring Semester.

From my own personal experience, I did not learn how to brief effectively until Spring Semester of my 1L year. By that time, I learned not to write my notes on a seperate page, but instead wrote my notes directly on the textbook (highliting and BOLDING the HOLDING, RULES, and KEY RELEVANT FACTS).

That's just my thoughts on this matter.

Wha? said...

I used to have a civ pro professor who went thru the class in alphabetical order, giving the exact names of who would be called on during the next class, and what cases the next class would cover - there was absolutely no excuse for not being prepared, and everyone in the class ended up briefing 2-4 cases at least twice a semester. It got us in the habit.

Anonymous said...

To clarify from Shell's post, what is "on-call" notification? Is it similar to what Wha? discusses in his last post?

Anonymous said...

You raise a good point Prof. Bowman, in one of my 1L classes a student had the nerve to tell the Prof. "I'm don't, I didn't read that case." I think the student had a bit of an attitude because he was disrupted from playing his game. It seems that we are in professional school and one would be inclined to actually prepare for class. I understand there may be some mitigating circumstances, but fortunately, some professors have been kind enough to grant us three passes from being called on. It makes me wonder which classmates I would trust to represent mama.

Anonymous said...

If the "on call" notice is used wouldn't it deter someone from reading unless they knew they would be called on?? (They would only read when told to...right)

As for the ABC order wouldn't that do the same thing??

What about when some people get called on more than once? And some people never get called on?

What's the right approach?

Wha? said...

Anon -

Well, like everything else, I guess a balance has to be struck. As I pointed out, if I know I'm not being called on, I might very well NOT read if I feel like I'm in a hole in another class, or in exam prep, or something like that.

The problem is, of couse, that the larger the class size, the more chance you have to 'slide by' when it's just random folks called on. If you get away with it a few times, it's really, really easy to get into the habit - after all, in a class of 150, with 5 people called on per class, you only have a one-in-thirty shot at being called on during any given class period (actually, one-in-30 falling to 1-in-25 by the end of the class); I know professors like to mix-it-up with the folks they call on, but inevitably it seems like there are some they go back to again and again. If you're not one of them, it's very easy to "roll the dice" every day. At least with "on call" or "on call ABC" you don't get denied the experience of actual deep study at least a few times a semester, and if you do it once or twice, you (or at least I) start to get a more interested in the course, more confident in your ability to master the material, etc. Still, you're right, the temptation to do something else besides reading is strong when you know there won't be an immediate price to pay.

Sadly, the classes that I've taken where the most people prepare the most thoughoughly and consistently are those where if caught unprepared, the professor calls you to the carpet, rips you to shreds, humiliates and berates you, and leaves you a quivering heap, crying for your mommy.

Control thru fear - a low motivator on Maslow's Hierarchy, but effective. Genuine and strong interest in the course material is obviously the preferred motivator, but that's asking a MIRACLE from the profs. with some courses - I'm thinking property. To quote the wise man "You can't polish a turd."

Wait! Can I say that?

Wha? said...

CORRECTION: In a 150-person class w/5 people called on per period, you have a one-in-thirty, falling to a one-in-25 shot at being called on every time the professor CALLS ON A NEW PERSON, not every class period as I said earlier.

Obviously, since these chances aren't cumulative, you have 5 chances of being called on, each bearing the one-in-whatever shot. Or something.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Shell, that's a long question! I posted today on the subject of getting called on in class, to see what other people think about the subject. So check out my 11/15/06 post called "Getting Called on in Class."

But as to your question(s), no, I do not currently use the "on-call" method for class participation. I prefer to have everyone on their toes. But I am not opposed to the on-call method in principle. In fact, in seminars, when I have students give class presentations, typically the results are really, really good. They are in essence on call, and they typically deliver.

As for 1Ls versus 2Ls, I am not sure how much real difference there is. At least early on, 1Ls tend to be "eager learners." But they are also more overwhelmed, on average, than 2Ls or 3Ls. How can you know what to expect on a law school final exam if you've never been through the process? That adds a lot of stress. So they prepare but feel unsure of their efforts at times. As for the 2Ls and 3Ls, they are less uncertain, but not less busy. So I roughly see it as a wash.

Part of what law school teaches, I think, is effective prioritization, time management, and development of efficient learning skills. Those who do that tend to do better in law school, and they often are better lawyers too. As busy as you are in law school, just wait until you are out! Most jobs in law are really, really busy, including many of them in the public sector. Those who have figured out how to handle the pressure of 5 classes, research papers, and student organization activities each semester have learned something very valuable. If you are good at what you do in law practice, you will have more on your plate than 5 classes. And if you are not good, you won't be as busy, but you also will be in far less control of your destiny.

I hope this is responsive--a long question gets a long answer! (For that matter, with law profs, typically a short question gets a long answer too.)