Friday, December 28, 2007

Making the Grade(s)

Time sure flies. It's hard to believe it has been over two weeks since my last post, which is unusual. The reason, as anyone who is in or has been to law school might suspect, is that I have been neck-deep in final exams to grade. 278 essay questions from two classes, to be exact. But who's counting? Not me, since I just finished them.

At the end of every semester, I remember the adage that we professors teach for free, but get paid to grade. Grading is not fun. But it is, of course, very important. And it is, of course, my job. People's grades--and to some extent their professional futures--depend on my grading. So I take the task extremely seriously.

Yet I would be lying if I said that reading answers to the same essay questions over and over and over again is scintillating, because it's not. Still, the exercise holds its own sort of twisted appeal. For one thing, no two answers are exactly alike. The organization is different, the discussion is different, and the conclusions reached are different. That's no surprise, perhaps--and yet I am always struck by it. I tell my classes that often in the law the answer to a question is "It depends"--which gets a few chuckles and, I am afraid, a little eye-rolling too. People prefer clarity, and the study of law often does not provide that. There is rarely a clear-cut, unequivocal answer in the law, and there are always arguments to the contrary that can be made. Lawyers are advocates, after all.

What really strikes me during grading season, though, is that once in a while a student comes up with something unexpected in answering an essay question, and it works really well. The majority of the time, this sort of reaching is just that: reaching. It doesn't get a lot of points, since it typically veers the answer off target. (In economic terms, it's an opportunity cost.) Yet sometimes, an insight is made that is truly clever, and it demonstrates that the student understands the material at a deeper level. Reading answers like that are some of my favorite moments in teaching.

I should put a caveat here. I am NOT encouraging students to be wildly inventive in their exam answers. No, no, and no. The professor is not always trying to trick you. Identify the issues, summarize and apply the law, and reach your conclusion. You will always get more points for this than for answers that stray into wild flights of fancy. (Unless the class is a "Law and Creative Fiction" seminar, I suppose. It depends, right?) But if something strikes you as a point worth making that is not an obvious one, and you have time, then make it. It may be the nuanced observation that makes the difference between an A and a B. I had several such episodes during my exams in law school, and I got an A every time. If only it had happened on every exam . . . .

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