Professorial Paternalism and Langdellian Oracles

April 13th, 2011

I dislike professorial paternalism–professors acting like they know what’s best for a law student, and imposing such a policy on them without any concern for the student’s individualized needs.

I don’t like attendance requirements (ABA regulations notwithstanding). If a student can miss class, and still learn and do well on an exam, more power to them. In the real world, accomplishing a client’s task well with fewer meetings in less billable hours is a plus. Students who come unprepared for class and cannot participate should be punished, as this hurts the classroom discussion. But if a student wants to stay home, that isn’t the professor’s problem.

You may ask, is it better for the slacker student to stay home rather than come to class unprepared? That only holds true if you view classtime as an environment where the only benefit can be derived by the professor. In fact, the student is the one who should benefit from class. If the lecture is engaging enough, a student should want to attend on his own initiative. If he is not, that is his loss.

I do not like when professors tell students not to rely on commercial aids–especially when certain professors explain things worse than study aids. Many first year professors said this, and it drove me crazy (and probably caused my first semester grades to be lower than they should have been). If a student wants to learn from a source outside of class, why should a professor discourage him? If he picks a bad book, that is his fault, and he will suffer. Anyway, does anyone think lawyers pass the bar by reading case law from the state reporters?

I don’t like closed-book exams. If a professor is giving students an exam where an answer could be easily retrieved from a source, or more likely, rote memory, the exam is a failure. Further, if any attorney ever attempts to answer a question based solely on their memory, they are in trouble.

You may say, what about in court? Attorneys can’t look stuff up in court?

If an attorney walks into court, he should be prepared to answer all of the questions that come up. He knows what the court date is about, and what topics may come up (in fact there are very few, if any surprises in trial). If an attorney needs to think about something as a mater of first instance in court, he is screwed. That being said, any lengthy trial has numerous exhibits and notes, which attorneys can reference. A closed-book exam, unlike a court date, is unpredictable. You have a huge corpus of material to memorize, and no strategy ahead of time. In this sense, take-home exams have a certain appeal.

I don’t like when professors refuse to post materials before class–namely power point slides, but that applies to any handout. I have blogged about this topic here and here. The reasoning goes, if I post it before class they will read it before, and not go to class. Or, they will simply pay attention to the handout, and not pay attention in class. People learn differently. Some people learn better by reading. Perhaps reading a handout in class helps students who learn better from reading, as opposed to listening. Also, are professors so smug to discourage enterprising students from reading ahead? Don’t hide the ball. Students should know what is expected of them, and should be able to do things on their own time.

At my law school, law students were not allowed to talk to one another about legal writing assignments. The policy was draconian. In what other area of law would a young attorney not be able to ask any of their colleagues questions?I am not advocating plagiarism, but creating a ban on students even discussing a legal issue is absurd.  It is so counterproducitve. All law students sign an honor code policy. That should be a sufficient guard against cheating. But then again, this additional policy shows that the professors do not take that honor policy seriously.

Perhaps more than anything else, I dislike laptop bans. They represent the epitome of paternalism. That is a professor’s way of saying “I know how you should learn better than you do, so put away your computer.” The approach is not nuanced and fails to reflect our students today learn. I have blogged at great length about this topic, and won’t repeat my arguments here.

All of these paternalistic practices represent what I think is a deeper symptom that pervades the professoriate–a deep seated concern that students will learn the law in a way and manner the professor disagrees with. If they learn in this manner, they will not learn as well. So it is my job as the Professor to “nudge” them in the right direction.

I think this view is misguided. Professors are not oracles, the sole source of knowledge who know how students learn. Professors are mere facilitators, agreggators if you will. Professors source and select the information relevant to their class (something students cannot do well). Professors distill it down to its essence, and present it in a way that it makes sense. Professors are one of many sources for their education and they should not forget that. If a student can learn better by skipping class and reading the text, or studying from a commercial outline, or referring to notes during an exam, or by reading a handout before class, or by talking with a friend about a writing assignment, or by using a laptop, or any other way in which students learn, more power to them. Professors should not stand in their way. Professors should engage students on their level, and help them learn the way they are programmed to learn, rather than imposing our paternalistic preconceptions of how they want them to learn.

Professors should stop acting as Langdellian Oracles and start acting like the information aggregators they are.