Law in Contemporary Society


-- By MarcLegrand - 16 May 2012


“Professor Moglen, I’d like to keep working on this based on your comments.” This sentiment ends many of my classmates’ papers. It begins mine, since the issue of feedback is at the front of my thoughts after two weeks of cramming for exams.

The Way Things Are

In my experience (which has been echoed by classmates in other sections and at other law "schools"), first-year courses typically include two rather unhelpful kinds of evaluation: the "Socratic method" and final exams.

During the semester, we’re occasionally called on to answer questions about a case from the day's assigned reading. The amount of feedback here varies from professor to professor. At the lowest end of the spectrum, we're just asked to summarize the facts. At a slightly higher point, we're asked about the holding or its implications. In either case, the feedback only relates to a few minutes (or seconds) of on-the-spot student commentary about a single case. It doesn’t strike me as a very useful tool for students to use in determining how successfully they’ve been engaging the material on a broader, or deeper, level.

At the end of the semester, we dutifully take our exams. Here again, the feedback varies depending on the professor. I, for one, have never received a copy of my exam with comments. If that was an option, it wasn’t advertised. In most of my classes, the feedback from my professors consisted of a single letter on lawnet. It’s as if a novice pilot was sent on a mission to bomb a munitions factory and upon return his commanders told him he hit “pretty close to the target.” This information doesn’t tell him what went wrong, comes too late to affect the mission, and doesn’t even help him prepare for the next assignment. There's the possibility of visiting the professor to discuss your exam, but this is clearly unhelpful in terms of evaluating your understand of the material as you are learning it.

In one of my classes in the fall, the professor sent out some strong student answers as examples. This is slightly more helpful than a single character-long evaluation, but as far as feedback goes it would still need some air quotes. Not only did it fail to address what I wrote, but simply publicizing a “strong” answer doesn’t address which points in that answer were more compelling and which might have been flat-out wrong. One of my classes actually received an e-mail today with the professor's comments on how students handled his exam. The intervening passage of time largely dulls any substantive benefits such commentary may offer.

I borrow obscene sums to attend Columbia Law School. The name implies the money is paying for instruction, but too often it feels like I’m paying $55,000 a year for the privilege of being judged against my classmates based on four hours of writing. What can we do to get more out of our time in the classroom here?

What Can We Do?

Each of my professors, whether by choice or not, has held regular office hours. Taking advantage of these can certainly help clear up confusion, but I’m not sure the opportunity to have specific questions answered constitutes feedback in a meaningful sense of the word. Still, in hindsight I think I should have made (or start making) more of an effort to engage my professors in this context. Chatting with classmates actually does tend to produce real feedback, but it comes with a few complications. It’s hard to know whether someone more or less in the same position as you are really knows what they’re talking about on any particular legal point. On the other hand, working through tough questions together is a good way to see the answer (or your proposed answer) from a different perspective. While collaborating with classmates is helpful, it’s not clear why I’m paying Columbia tens of thousands of dollars to get feedback from my friends.

Neither of these possibilities (attending office hours and working in groups) addresses the basic problem: most professors don’t structure their classes in a way that prioritizes feedback. In this class, dialogues (and here I mean actual dialogues, not two-person monologues as in the “Socratic” method) were rarely cut off before their time; the priority was on engagement, rather than on strict adherence to a daily syllabus. Exorcising the exam and adding several writing assignments meant that we received direct feedback on work that we had a chance to plan out, write, and revisit over a course of days, not hours. Unfortunately, the default scheme of first-year law classes does not follow these lines.

I’m not sure what we, as students, can do to change the system. As consumers of what is ultimately a $170,000 good, one would think we’d have some sway with the producers. At the same time, it often seems in law school that things are the way they are simply because that’s the way they were. In an institution that appears so resistant to change, it’s hard to see how the fundamental structure (3.5 months of lecture + 4 hours of exam) can be changed.

There's an ongoing discussion at TimelySubmissionOfGrades that relates to some of these points as well. Even if the traditional final exam model of "evaluation" isn't going anywhere in the near future, it's valuable to consider alternatives. It can inspire suggestions for moderate reforms to nudge the system in the right direction, and it can help keep us grounded in the pre-EIP (and ongoing) torrents of grade-centrism.

Hopefully it’s clear from my writing that I’d like to continue engaging on this topic, as well as on writing in general.


Webs Webs

r7 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:04 - IanSullivan
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