Law in Contemporary Society
Revised version of ScottThurmanFirstPaper.

Teaching, coercion, examination

-- By ScottThurman - 15 Apr 2009 -- Revised by GavinSnyder - 17 Apr 2009

Teaching and coercion

School is normative. We attend school because we're ignorant; we expect teachers to help us. Teachers mold students to their visions.

School is also actively coercive – it disciplines us, it shapes us. Teachers see something incorrect, wrong, ignorant, or less than optimal in us. They attempt to correct it.

Coercion is not problematic by itself. We submit to the coercion and discipline because we want to learn. We want to be forcefully changed by our teachers, even if it's painful. But we also want to know how we're going to be changed before submitting.

Evaluation is the core of coercion

Evaluation happens when a teacher reviews our performance and gives feedback. Evaluation is the greatest coercive element in school; it's more direct than lectures or assignments.

Law school classes

1L professors teach poorly, with little evaluation or normative direction. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be learning in class. Professors think we should know cases’ facts and judges’ reasoning. I think that I should memorize Restatements and codes. I have only vague ideas of how that connects to what lawyers do: changing society with words.

Law school doesn't have to be so wishy-washy about everything. They say it's because law practice is complex and ever-changing. But that's not how I want to be taught. I understand that legal arguments are rarely absolutely right or wrong. I understand that our professors cannot give us easy answers about when the facts meet a standard or pass a test. I understand that cases may not have a stable holding. But I don't want to know if I'm right or wrong; I want feedback that lets me see how I can change and, perhaps more importantly, if I agree enough with the professor to want to change.

To get feedback, we need opportunities to perform. Usually students are called on two or three times before the final. But instead of showing legal reasoning, we recite some facts from a case, or sniff out whatever ball the professor is hiding. Since we don't get real, meaningful evaluations before the final, studying becomes exhausting and futile. We don't know how we're going to be evaluated, what content is on the final exam, or what skills we're supposed to be developing. Maybe it's like working at a large law firm: vague directives, little oversight, and idiosyncratic standards. But that seems like a bad way to run a law firm, and a worse way to run a school.

Evaluations as resistance

Discussing grades and exams is important. Evaluations are the heart of teaching. By allowing teachers to give no substantive feedback, we've let teachers avoid teaching. Right now most teaching happens on exam day – this can be the first time a student realizes he hasn't learned the material.

Frequent evaluations would help students more. Teachers would have to set their goals earlier. They'd be able to see if their methods archieved those goals.

It's not just the teachers' fault. Learning is a collaborative effort between students and teachers. Changing the evaluation process would let students find out if they wanted to learn (that is, if they wanted to be changed in the way the teacher offered) and if they actually were learning.

  • Yes, if the goal of editing is solely to simplify the writing enough to give the author a chance to see his ideas presented shorn of all decoration so that they can be more immediately evaluated, you have accomplished it. Such a draft can be useful, particularly along with challenges to the ideas as represented, so that the rethinking process is not only facilitated by brush-clearing, but also advanced by the opening of a dialog of ideas.

  • I think you cleared the brush well, as I've said. You didn't make the primary underlying issues clearer because they were clear enough in Scott's draft: the idea that teaching consists primarily of coercing a student's change from worse to better is not self-evident, at best, and fails entirely to correspond to teaching as I understand it in practice, or in theory. Yet that proposition so dominates the thinking of the original draft that you could hardly have made it more prominent by expressing it clearly. What would have been most useful to accompany your reduction of the existing draft was some suggestion about how it might be reshaped to take advantage of a conception of teaching more familiar to those who do it.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:39:44 - IanSullivan
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