Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Answering my Mail

So much for my recent holiday (blogiday). As always, there's a lot going on in the law career world, so where to start? Perhaps the best place to begin is by responding to some recent comments on this blog. Much of the purpose behind this blog, after all, is to address gaps--between law school and law practice, between profs and students, between law school education and law school academic success, and so on. And critical to that mission is two-way communication. So here goes.

Comment #1: Why I (Don't) Like Law Profs

This is a great comment, posted recently in response to my Blogiday post:

Law school professors really overrate themselves. At the end of the day, they are nothing more than liberal arts professors who just spend their lives writing law review articles that nobody reads and who develop "theories" that are rarely if ever, used in real world practice. Do you honestly feel like your teaching leads to any PRACTICAL outcome?

Ouch. Somebody is clearly goading me, so let me rise to the bait and respond in two different ways.

My first response is "Yes, I honestly do feel that my teaching leads to practical outcomes." Otherwise I would not do it. If I wanted a career path that was a scam, it would be a scam that made a lot more money.

Second, one of my favorite sayings is, "All generalizations are bad." (Think about it.) To suggest that all law profs are "liberal arts professors" engaged in useless pursuits lumps the good with the bad, both at law schools and in the liberal arts. The implication that some academicians don't impart value, and therefore all of them are useless, is a fallacy of logic. It also smacks of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, whether intentional or not. That sounds harsh, perhaps, but don't forget that I practiced law for 9 years and served as a judicial clerk too. I have enjoyed both law practice and teaching, and from my first-hand experience I see significant value in both. I am in academia by choice, not by default.

My point is not that you should love all law profs and hold them in awe. Rather, my point is that some do impart value. How many, and how often, is the more appropriate point to debate.

Comment #2: Toxic Torts (and Contracts, and Crim Law, and . . .)

One reader pointed to a panel at the 2007 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) titled aptly, if not succintly, "High risk/high stakes student problems: New approaches inside and outside the classroom for addressing substance abuse, gambling and other self-destructive student behaviors." That session (discussed in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed) addressed how law school's "mixture of lofty expectations and a high-stress environment" can lead to mental stress and substance abuse. It's an article worth reading, especially now that fall 2006 grades have been turned in at many schools.

Much of the problem is that students are officially or unofficially ranked against one another in law school. Most of them have been at the top of the curve their entire lives, from kindergarten on. Inevitably, however, there is a further shaking out in law school, and some people used to being at the top of the class no longer are. That is hard to deal with.

This is a topic I will return to later, but in the meantime, thanks to this reader for the link to this article.

Comment #3: Moral and Practical Law Schools

Another (or perhaps the same?) anonymous commenter points to another article in Inside Higher Ed on the subject of "moral and practical law schools." That's an interesting topic, since many people believe law schools are neither. It's a subject of interest to me, and I agree with this commenter that this is recommended reading for anyone interested in the subject.

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So now that I am caught up on my mail, in my next post I will provide some observations on exam-taking, since I just finished grading hundreds of essay exam questions. This won't be a gripe session. It will be an opportunity for me to set forth some thoughts on what works and does not work on law school essay exams.


Anonymous said...

By all means please educate us on the exam grading system. There is a theory circulating that professors throw darts or pull grades out of a hat since often there seems to be no correlation between how well we feel we grasp the material, how hard we studied the material, or how well we feel we have done on any given exam and the grades that we receive.
The course that I had the most interest in and studied the hardest in, I received a C+. The course that I studied the least for and felt like I knew practically nothing about, B+. The more I talk to my fellow students, the more they seem to echo this concern. On at least one occasion I have helped a student study for a class where it was apparent they had less understanding of the material than myself and yet they manage to pull a full letter grade higher on the exam. Can you put some method to this madness so that students don’t apathetically assume that regardless of their efforts or understanding that they are going to make Cs anyway?

Anonymous said...

The only strong correlation that I could find between my grades and my study habits is this. The classes for which I composed my own outline from scratch yielded good results. Thankfully this was the case for the majority of my classes. The two courses for in which I tailored and modified an outline from a previous year for the same exact class and professor, I was disappointed with the results. Honestly, I read through the outlines and decided that I could never make one as good as these. So I foolishly used someone elses work (which probably helped its author a great deal) and just used the extra time study the outline itelf. I spent a great deal of time composing my own outlines and sometimes felt like a fool for doing so. "Why am I I wasting my time doing what someone else has already done?" I asked myself. Even some 2L's and 3L's advised me to use someone else's if they were available and they of course know everything. But perhaps, the act of composition is what helps some students make sense of the material. I think it works for me and I'm sticking with it. As much of the weekend as it devours, I'm going to make all of my own outlines from now on.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

That's a very good point about the value of preparing your own outlines. Much of the benefit is that you learn the material better by preparing the outline yourself. It forces you to actively think about how the material fits together, instead of passively following someone else's line of thought. For me, it was much like calculus: you can follow it when the teacher does a problem, but only by doing it yourself can you really comprehend and understand it well.

So prepare your own outlines. As I tell my students, preparing an outline actually helps you "pretake" parts of the final exam. You can prepare your summaries of the law and how the cases/authorities work, and then use those to craft the parts of your exam answers where you explain and summarize the state of the law. (Note: I give open book exams.)