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February 21, 2008

Seeking clarity and suggesting certainty on assignments

In the hope of creating some clarity and certainty, here's my latest view about our graded class assignments and the final:

1.  The "mid-term paper": Because there seems to be, despite some (minor?) confusion, significant support for this proposed first assignment, I am now declaring that this assignment is officially part of the class requirements.  I am now going to label this assignment the "mid-term paper."

2.  Established parts of the mid-term paper: Every student will be required to submit a word-limited short paper due sometime before the end of March which explores, from a "who" perspective, either a structural legislative process reform OR some aspect of Congress's investigation of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.  In addition, any student may schedule an optional oral experience to discuss her or his paper, and this discussion can slightly help (or hurt) a student's grade on this particular assignment.

3.  Grading:  I have now decided, because I do NOT want to grade this paper assignment blind, that this assignment will be (a large) part of the 25% of the total grade for the class that is considered "class participation."  In other words, this assignment will not impact the 75% of the grade that will be based on the "traditional" final (which will be graded blind).

4.  Still (slightly) open to debate:  I am not sure that 1000 words is an ideal word limit, or that March 24 is the ideal final due date, for the mid-term paper.  But, absent strong support for an alternative word limit or due date, I plan to make these features of the assignment official very soon.

5.  Still to be determined:  The exact nature of the "traditional" final will depend upon our collective assessment of the virtues and vices of this mid-term paper assignment.  As of this moment I am thinking that the "traditional" final may end up having a small take-home component and a small in-class component (all of which will be graded blind and will comprise 75% of everyone's final grade).

Thoughts?  Reactions?  Concerns?  Complaints?  Remaining uncertainty?  Remaining desires?

February 21, 2008 in Debating the final | Permalink

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Comments

As I posted before I think the word limit should be 1500 instead. Does anyone agree?

Posted by: Amanda McNeil | Feb 21, 2008 1:30:26 PM

I am partially in agreement with Amanda. While I tend to write concisely, I am not sure that I would be able to intelligently propose a structural legislative process reform in just four double-spaced paces (approximately what 1000 words boils down to). However, on flip side, I also haven't TRIED. It's hard to know until you actually start writing.

Posted by: Robin Dunn | Feb 21, 2008 3:41:30 PM

May we do our paper on the sex offender statute? I know it is certainly more germane to my "who."

Posted by: Hyatt Shirkey | Feb 21, 2008 8:31:07 PM

I think moving the due date back a week, to March 31st, would be ideal. I'm sure that many of us, me included, will be doing some traveling or have other plans during break, and it may be difficult to put in the necessary time to write an effective paper by the 24th. If everyone else is set on the 24th as our due date, however, my spring break will be completely and totally ruined...but I'll deal with it.

Posted by: Drew LaFramboise | Feb 21, 2008 9:15:30 PM

I would be okay with either 1000 or 1500 words, though I think it would be tough, but good practice, to have a shorter word limit. One of my best classes for my graduate policy degree had strict 500 word limits for every paper--and I mean strict! 501 words, and we lost points. It was very, very tough, but do-able. You just had to learn to let go.

As to Drew's suggestion, I personally don't mind if the paper is due March 24th or the following week, but I think it's a good idea for the due date to be March 31, given the late notice we have on the assignment. Prof. Berman, I imagine many of us who are sticking around for Spring Break would hand them in on the 24th if you wanted to get a head start on some papers, but it seems that a March 24th deadline is a bit unfair for those people who already made plans to go out of town--and who may not have made plans if they had known about the paper at the beginning of the semester. And with the Contracts final fast approaching, I imagine many of us will be devoting the next few weekends to preparing for that.

Posted by: stephanie | Feb 21, 2008 11:02:24 PM

To clarify--I don't think the word limit should be 500 words, but I do favor 1000 over 1500.

Posted by: stephanie | Feb 21, 2008 11:05:57 PM

Can I ask for a clarification of who exactly this paper should be addressed to? I feel that there's a significant difference between a 1,000 word paper written with the general public in mind, and a 1,000 word paper that's intended as a detailed legislative proposal intended for policy consideration by, say, a think tank. In the latter case you'd want more details, far deeper research and greater analysis on the impact and influence of the legislation you are proposing. On the other hand, a 1,000 word paper addressed for general consumption as a means of advocacy for your issue is probably sufficient, and potentially a little long to keep someone's interest.

For what it's worth, the lead story in The Economist on Castro's death was 1,037 words in length. Long enough to inform and influence while keeping your attention.
By comparison, the RAND Institute's written statement on public health preparedness for Congress came in just under 3,000 words. Good for Congress where they're paid to sit there, but doubtful to influence the general public to the same degree.

Posted by: Sam | Feb 21, 2008 11:35:18 PM

A few quick replies:

1. I do not expect --- nor even really want --- there to be research done for this paper. This is a reflection/analysis piece in which class readings and class discussion are to be chief building blocks for the analysis.

2. I'm giving a month's notice for a paper that can (and probably should) be effectively done in 2-3 days. For a host of reasons --- especially because I want to get these graded a returned in time for exams --- I want an earlier due date. Perhaps March 26 works for folks.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 22, 2008 1:35:23 AM

I support a later due date, even if it is a couple of days later. Here's why:

1) Some of us have a legal writing paper due right after spring break already

2) The 23rd is Easter, which will kill the productivity of that weekend for some

3) Some of us have plans for spring break that were formalized before this paper was suggested the sixth week of the semester - which as Drew stated - will make it even harder to find the time to work on this paper

Posted by: christina | Feb 22, 2008 12:14:11 PM

My problem is with the idea that this paper will count as an internal part of our 25% participation grade. For one, I'd like to know exactly how much it will count for. If this paper is 20% of our total grade as was mentioned before, that means really only 5% is left for "participation".

With the amount of activity here on the blog, it should be much more than that. If the paper is meant to be relatively short and only take a few days, with no research, yet counts as 20% of our total grade and a semesters worth of commenting in class, making posts on the blog and otherwise actively participating only gets you 5%, that seems unfair. Last semester in Dresslers class we spent an inordinate amount of time commenting on TWEN, polling, etc. to finally discover that all the extra work was for very, very little benefit, if any. Honestly I wish I'd done much less TWEN discussion in Dressler's class last semester - because in terms of time, it just wasn't worth it. I feel like that is what is being proposed now. It comes down to the time value of grades, making all that work only count for 5% will diminish the quality and quantity of discussion on the blog - especially when you consider all the time constraints from our other classes that 5% will have to compete with.

A class with 25% participation grade gives a lot better reason for students to actively participate than a class with a 5% participation grade. One reason I've been excited about this class is that with a quarter of the grade as participation, it might actually give an incentive to think, discuss and debate issues rather than merely memorize, apply and spit it all out on a final. Students have little reason to get passionate about the class itself when 95% of the grade will be a short paper and a final.

Bottom line, I don't think the paper should eat into the participation grade, since that will detract from the effort we put into going hmm about interesting things in this class. I'm fine with the paper counting as 20% (or whatever%) of our final, but the paper and participation should not be zero sum 25%.

Posted by: Scott Rowley | Feb 22, 2008 12:52:30 PM

I agree 100% with what Scott said. I think at least a portion, if not all of the 20% should come out of the final exam instead of class participation. Otherwise we just swapped participation for a paper.

Posted by: Adam | Feb 22, 2008 1:07:24 PM

I know it is sometimes hard to believe, Scott and Adam, but there are often lots of reasons to be "passionate" and engaged other than for a specific outcome like a grade (or $$$). Indeed, since practicing lawyers never actually get grades, you should start getting comfortable with doing a lot in ways that cannot always be quantified in a grade.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 23, 2008 5:10:20 PM

I agree there are plenty of reasons to be involved and passionate about causes and ideas outside of grades, or as you suggest, money. I'm involved with several of them in my life right now. I expect the best parts of my law career to be non-monetary. I also hope that my fondest memories of law school are not capital letters with a plus next to them.

Unfortunately, and I'm sure you appreciate this, demands of time mean that all of us have to focus our energy; making choices about what not to spend time on. If the participation grade becomes 5%, rather than 25%, the blog discussion will greatly suffer, along with the outside work and learning it generates. That would be unfortunate.

I don't mean to be argumentative, I'm just giving my 2 cents. Whatever you decide to do, I hope we'll have this all buttoned up soon so we know what is ahead of us.

Posted by: Scott Rowley | Feb 24, 2008 12:01:35 PM

I agree with Scott and Adam that the paper grade should be part of the remaining 75%. I think that the paper was approved (to the extent that it was) because it would take some of the burden off the final exam grade. We have spent so much time with the legislative process material that it wouldn't seem right to say that it is only worth part of our participation grade. Just because it won't be graded blind doesn't mean it can't count as part of the 75%, but if it weren't for the oral component it could easily be graded blind. See Professor Merritt's legal writing class.

Posted by: Amanda McNeil | Feb 24, 2008 3:10:43 PM

FWIW: I still expect structure issues to end up in the 75% final exam --- this paper will not be the only way this part of the class is assessed.

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