August 25, 2008

Is class participation obligatory for law students?

Eugene Volokh says:
[Law students] are not just customers of legal education, but are also in a sense a sort of employee: Law school classes rely on students' participating in the class, as a means of helping educate the other students. Learning, the theory goes, is a cooperative endeavor, in which students benefit from hearing each other's comments.
You can read the whole thing. What I have to offer is a thought experiment, based on years of work on admissions, which at my law school (Wisconsin), involves carefully considering a multitude of factors and not just making offers to the people with the best GPA and LSAT.

I have pored over hundreds of applications, looking at different life and work experiences and different educational backgrounds, trying to understand the character and frame of mind of the applicant. Much effort is put into assembling a student body, and it seems well worth it to produce a classroom full of interesting individuals, with diverse knowledge, goals, and points of view.

But if these individuals sit through class silently, why did any of those factors matter? We could have programmed the computers to admit students based on their numerical scores and saved a lot of time. You might argue the law school has an interest in the larger community that needs its supply of lawyers, but why does it matter who goes to which law school? And yes, the students (may) interact with each other outside of the class and (may) maintain ties with the school as alumni, but it is the interest is in the quality of the classroom experience that drives the complex admissions process.

So here's the thought experiment. What if the law school application required a short essay, asking the prospective students to describe how they planned to behave in the classroom? Now, imagine an applicant who writes:
I intend to sit quietly and never volunteer. It suits my learning style to listen and take notes and to think about things on my own. I hope not to be called upon to speak, but if that happens, I intend to pass or, if that is not permitted, to give a short simple answer that will get me off the hook as quickly and easily as possible.
Who would admit that student?

Do law school applicants tacitly represent that they will actively participate in classroom discussion? They answer the questions and write the personal essay that they should know we use to in our efforts to find students who will make a strong contribution. They should feel an ethical responsibility to the classroom community they asked to join and to the rejected applicants they are displacing.

They should know that we wouldn't have accepted them if we had thought they would sit passively and keep their thoughts to themselves.

34 comments:

Wurly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter V. Bella said...

If one of the skills of being an attorney is to verbally present things in a cogent and logical manner, then class participation should be required and students should be graded on their participation or lack thereof.

I also believe that communication skills are very important. The only way to develop these skills is to communicate. I have seen to many so called professionals who have very poor verbal and/or written communication skills. Maybe they just sat in class like potted plants or went to schools that required no writing or class participation.

If students did not have to participate than hey, just offer law degrees on line.

Stupe said...

"effort is put into assembling..... ---interesting individuals, with diverse knowledge, goals, and points of view."

Oh, is that the same way you cherry-pick ideal readers for this blog ?

Ann Althouse said...

Peter, there certainly is a strong argument that it is in the student's interest to take advantage of the opportunity to participate, but you can tell the students this all you want and many students will still opt not to participate. But self-interest should produce the same result as the sense of responsibility toward others that I am promoting in this post.

The Emperor said...

The ability of law professors to communicate effectively in the class room is at best a minor factor in their hiring. Why should the approach be any different when setting up criteria for accepting law students?

Ms. Cozette Mulch said...

"individuals, with diverse knowledge, goals, and points of view."

If you couldn't gather such an assemblege on your Blog, I can't imagine you'd be any more successful in Admissions.

P.S. You'd be shocked if you knew the percentage of students who bluff their way thru the hilarious admissions process at top schools !

P.P.S. Do you understand the difference between Admissions and Investigations ???

P. Rich said...

"...diverse...", Althouse? Do you look for LGBT/racial code words? Have you also considered that you might actually be rewarding personality types (extravert Type A's) in the classroom and penalizing the quiet intellect?

Peter is correct. If verbal participation is a class requirement, so state and have an appropriate grading scheme. But I doubt it has much relevance (not to mention that many legal activities do not hinge on glibness). How many students have anything of value to contribute on a regular basis? My guess is very few, and they might not be attending your school. The argument stinks of a 'Kumbaya mentality' - let's all sit around the classroom and talk together and feel warm and fuzzy and chastize the non-participants. Right.

ricpic said...

The problem with student participation in classroom learning is that so much of it unfocuses the whole procedure. Is the classroom a democracy? No. It's a dictatorship run by a firm, if benign, dictator: the teacher. His knowledge of what he wants to impart and where he wants to take the class is the only thing that gives the class legitimacy. Otherwise the class rapidly degenerates into a glorified bull session.

Student participation in the form of a question asking for clarification of a point the instructor has made is legitimate. Beyond that student input merely gums up the learning process.

Wurly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
XWL said...

Is there an extra "is" in this post's title?

(either strike the second one, or strike the first one and add an "it" between is and obligatory, and a comma after participation)

As far as the content of this post, seems like all classes at any sort of graduate school should be viewed by the administration, teachers, and students, as being primarily participatory.

Outside of the huge lecture hall type classes that most students have to take in their first two years, you'd think students would want to participate as fully as possible, if only to get their money's worth.

That enough students could get through their first 4 years, and still think it OK to just sit in the back and shut up even in graduate school, is kind of sad.

Seems like the first four years of college is just extended high school for a lot of people. You'd think those motivated enough to get their asses into law school wouldn't need to be prodded into participation.

Seems like more than a few students just want the credential they'll get at the end of the process (and the opportunities that come with it) and are only willing to do the minimum effort possible to 'earn' their shingle.

Ms. Cozette Mulch said...

I know a law professor who routinely disrupted the class by going on intermittent coughing spells, and then had the nerve to expect students to express forebearance and sympathy.

If a soprano interrupts an aria to get a drink of water, should the paying customers be rightfully annoyed?

If a live stage actor breaks character to tell the audience about his personal troubles, does the audience have a right to be irritated?

If a newscaster goes on a personal crying jag, shouldn't viewers be upset?

Some law professors have a problem leaving their personal troubles/ailments at the classroom/stage door.

Wurly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ms. Cozette Mulch said...

What do immature 21-year-olds know about life, the world, society....that the whole class needs to hear them bloviate on?

...and all because the overpaid, overblown law professor was too lazy to prepare a professional lecture.

If parents only knew that their tuition dollars were being thrown down a sinkhole....

ricpic said...

Maxine, a little rachmones.

David said...

Back in the day (UVA Law, 1970), the professors took care of this by calling on students frequently. You really had little choice. The brief, dismissive answer was, by and large, not tolerated. If the answer was incomplete or just dumb, the teacher would keep probing, or ask another student to react to the answer, before throwing it back to the original victim.

This professorial m.o. became clear quickly, and resulted in students generally being prepared for class. The school was small, the classes were small, and there was no place to hide.

For me law school was exciting, since you had to be at the top of your game all the time. The students were bright and worked, and the teachers ranged from good to outstanding. I recall only one class that was truly dreadful in the entire three years.

So, yes, the students have a responsibility to prepare and engage. But the teachers also have a responsibility to structure the classes to force participation. If you force it, participation soon becomes a habit.

Finally, I recall few instances where the professor--or other students--tried to humiliate the student. No Paper Chase gotcha moments, though occasionally the students did a pretty good job of humiliating themselves.

David said...

One more point.

Class participation was not a kumbaya round table, with everyone's social and political opinion getting tender respect. In fact our opinions on broader issues of social policy and judicial approach were solicited only where the course explicitly was designed to focus on those issues. We were expected to read the statutes, read the cases and explain the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the opinions. It was a rigorous process, a grand adventure in clarity of thought.

dmfoiemjsof said...

The top graduate in my law school graduating class never volunteered a single word in class.

Assumpsit said...

Law school admission essays...BAH! Do you actually read the essays and believe anything they say? Seems like there would be a fair amount of misrepresentation...not outright lies, but not outright truth either.

(Except for me, of course. I told nothing but the truth, "pure and simple."

vnjagvet said...

David's description of his experience at UVA rings true with my memory of law school from 1962-1965 at UPA. Woe to the student called on and unprepared. The professor would let the poor student go down in flames to the amusement or embarrassment of the rest of the class.

I remember one time driving 8 hours to make my first class (bankruptcy) on Monday morning at 1000. The Prof called on two straight students who were unprepared. He then announced he would try one more try but only one. Behold the third was equally unprepared, whereupon the Prof excused the whole class. Eight hours driving for nothing. This was about three weeks before finals, which left us with a real hole in our notes.

P. Rich said...

"a grand adventure in clarity of thought"

That would be the Kumbaya scenario after the first couple of reefers had made the rounds. 20-somethings thinking grand thoughts in law school...

Bwahahahahahahaha.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me note that Eugene's post was after a week of other posts and threads by other Volokh Conspirators discussing the pros and cons of the Socratic Method in teaching law school. Many of the rest were more conventional views of LS education.

Anonymous grading in non-seminar type LS classes really disconnects classroom discussions from grading. I used this to my advantage, but many, I suspect, do the opposite. I was one of those whom most of the other hated, as I was willing to jump in on most issues, knowing that no matter how much I counterdicted the prof, I would not be penalized. So, I figure I got my money's worth out of LS, while most sat quietly and did not.

I didn't see much correlation between class room participation and grades in LS. Some of those at the top of my class were as quiet as they possibly could be, and when they were called upon, often panicked and did poorly.

If you really want classroom participation, I would suggest admitting older students in preference to the standard 22 year olds. The more that people have done in their lives, the more they seem willing to engage in classroom discussions, esp. when they involve the sort of Socratic Method practiced in LS. You will also get far more diversity that way, as compared to giving preferences to otherwise identical applicants only differing by the color of their skin.

I was a bit older when I went to law school, having gotten bored with my first career as a software engineer. And, I had just taken Dale Carnegie a couple of times (which I recommend to any entering law students). So, I figured on getting my money's worth, and did. One of the unexpected benefits was that by the middle of the first year, I only had to brief half the cases, since I essentially controlled when I got to speak in class, as opposed to most others who were at the whim of the professor.

Edward said...

The Langdell fallacy will apparently never die.

In law school (Michigan, but most people only go to one law school and pretty much assume that with the possible exception of Yale, it's the same everywhere) I sat bemused through hundreds of class hours in which professors smart enough to have been SCOTUS clerks struggled pitifully to impart knowledge via the Socratic or dialectic method, only to have their efforts swamped by a tidal wave made up equally of student indifference/resentment and their own inadequacy. After all, people who can actually conduct that type of dialectic exchange are generally out there cross-examining people for a living, while the super-nerds who sat in the library churning out the grades and articles that win clerkships don't have a clue.

Ninety percent of all the law professors I have ever seen (including some of the ones with the most glorious academic resumes) should be banned for life from even attempting to teach using the case method; their names should be stored in a central database, like a sex-offender registry, to prevent them from inflicting their faux-Socratic torture on hapless new student-victims as they slink peripatetically from school to school.

Show me 100 law professors in a room who each claim ever to have conducted at least one effective Socratic dialogue and I will show you a minimum of 95 delusional liars.

And now you cavalierly admit that you compound the felony by actually taking this nonsense into account in the admissions process. In real life (to the extent that phrase can apply to law school at all) student learning from classroom discussion depends one hundred percent on the quality of what is said (by students, teachers, whoever) and zero percent on the color of their interlocutors' skin, their social background or other irrelevancies.

Law professors should just teach the material (like professors in every other area of study) and give up the class-participation hogwash. I never met a law student who wouldn't vastly have preferred that to sitting through those stunningly inept dialectics.

But hey, I'm just messing with you; after all, what do you care about the students?

Langdell is dead (102 years, I believe); Long live Langdell!

former law student said...

The top graduate in my law school graduating class never volunteered a single word in class.

Typical. Introverts did far better on the essay exams than extroverts, by and large. People who never volunteered wondered about those who did: "Why did he raise his hand? We all know this."

Some people made us all cringe. We wondered why they didn't bore the prof in office hours rather than waste 80 people's time.

Regarding cold calling: By buying used books, I had a big advantage in 1L -- all the key points from the cases were highlighted in rainbow colors; everything revealed in class was written in the margins. So I was always prepared.

T Migratorious said...

I teach at an elite law school with a lot of Hispanic students. I perceive a widespread reluctance on their part to be confrontational and opinionated in class discussions. This trend is such that I must attribute it to a cultural emphasis on collegiality. (Admittedly, I am of one mind with these students on this point. I was pretty silent in law school classes unless called upon.)

I don't think, however, that this reluctance to argue in class forecasts in any way their future ability (or inability) as lawyers. A lot of people--including me--spent law school soaking in ways to meet confrontation more effectively.

Thus, I don't think requiring potential lawyers to manifest verbal aggressiveness would be a helpful factor in law school admissions.

Edward said...

"The top graduate in my law school graduating class never volunteered a single word in class."

True in my case as well. Also, during a mind-numbing discussion of U.S. v. Nixon (back when that was hot recent stuff), in a constitutional law class presided over by a future Michigan dean and one-time Potter Stewart clerk, the woman who was editor-in-chief of the Law Review my year slumbered peacefully down the row from me, worn out no doubt by her MLR labors. She certainly had her priorities straight.

Superdad said...

If you want classroom participation, require it and make it part of the grade. But please keep the idealistic obligation to the classroom community to yourself. Many of us went to law school, not because we wanted to save the world or fix the state of justice but because we need a JD to gain access to lucrative jobs. We did it for the security that the money can provide to our families. So you can wish that we had some sort of an obligation to the classroom community but really the only obligation we had was to pay our tuition in full and on time. The rest of our actions were ours to determine. We owed the school nothing more. It is a simple transaction. I pay to gain access and you promise to give me a degree if I meet certain requirements. If you want to make classroom participation a requirement that's great (heck I enjoyed it while at law school including the two class I took that were taught by our host. She is a very good professor.) but don't expect that we all have grandiose ideas about law school.

Andrew said...

I went to law school (UW-Madison) late, age 39. I had obtained a graduate degree earlier in the usual time frame, but it had been over a dozen years since then and meanwhile I had spent about eight years as a long haul trucker.

I had no idea until the first weeks of class anything about the Socratic method. Much of the game plan seemed to be shake everyone as hard as possible to sort out a hierarchy of achievers. It was a lost opportunity to really learn the law or how courts work.

I gather that I was admitted to law school on the strength of a decent but not stellar academic record, high but not stellar LSAT score, and having an unusual background at the point I applied.

And I kept getting letters from black organizations at the law school, like somehow I had been categorized as black. Maybe the school checked my DNA and there's something I don't know.

I have learned so much about the law and about practicing law since then, especially in the past five years when I've settled into practicing just criminal defense.

These days there are incredible books on law, practicing law, trial advocacy, and related subjects (persuasion, speaking, negotiation, conflict resolution, investigation, psychology, legal and social history, you name it).

One book for instance I highly recommend is The Legal Analyst, by Ward Farnsworth.

http://www.amazon.com/Legal-Analyst-Toolkit-Thinking-about/dp/0226238350

It seems strange that law schools would place a high value on diversity and then expect everyone to learn the same way. The goal is that everyone learns, isn't it?

It would be different if a professor called on you, assessed in a couple questions where you were at in your understanding, and challenged you to go a little deeper from there.

That would make participation valuable to each student, wherever he or she will shake out in class rank.

As it is, the professors too often just brutalize you, playing hide the ball with everyone.

And as for those sorts who cheat to get ahead, watch out. In the real world the good guys have more tools and flexibility for making you pay for that. We learn quick how to make you pay, and you will pay.

Overall I'm very thankful to have had the opportunity to attend the UW-Madison law school. It was just the right law school for me. It's a real asset to Wisconsin.

Stupe said...

Conflict of interest: Why is the Madison Law School using classroom Professors to staff its Admissions Department ?

Mrs. Harriett Canfield said...

Has the Christopher made application yet?

Can't wait to see Mom's evaluations.

Ann Althouse said...

Stupe, what is your point? There is no "Madison Law School." I teach at the University of Wisconsin Law School. And faculty members serve on the Admissions Committee. So what are you asking?

TexasPatrick said...

Don't law students speak up a great deal . . . first semester? Then they stop after second semester? Participation is for the instructor. The students want the grade. Class participation is extra work that is unrewarded. It may be the short sighted view, but it is probably the dominant one.

Daryl said...

Profs who fetishize class participation are egomaniacs who want egomaniacs for students.

If you want real, deep class participation, pick 1 person at random and put him on call for the next session. Then make him stand up, close his laptop (so he can't get help from classmates), and recite the facts/posture/holding of the case, and then deal with your hypotheticals. Ratchet up the difficulty to match the level of competence and don't let go (which is not to say: berate them, and insist on showing the class how much smarter you are than they are).

If 20% of your students can't hack it, then they learn a valuable lesson that will suit them well in their future career. Everyone will appreciate the chance to shine--or fail--in a safe environment, and you will get to see some of the potential from the quieter students.

Stupe said...

Have you come across my application yet?

And, can you please not throw it in the trash before, at least, giving it a cursory glance ????

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