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February 6, 2008

A few working paper/exam/final proposals

To focus discussion on the paper/exam/final issue, let me set forth three working proposals:

Proposal 1 (aka the Berman (starter? optional?) initial paper proposal): This is my own proposal floated in class on Wednesday that would involve the submission of a short word-limited paper (to be due sometime before the end of Spring Break) that reflects on "who" selection and structural issues discussed in class.

Proposal 2 (aka the student multi-paper final proposal): This is the student-created proposal read in class on Wednesday that basically suggests requiring "3 to 4 short papers spread over the rest of the semester" with "all the papers related to the same piece of federal legislation."

Proposal 3 (aka the student multi-format final proposal): This is the student-created proposal suggested in a blog comment that suggests a written/oral combination: there is "a topic (fact pattern) that [requires] some sort of written document ... worth 50-75% of our grade," followed by a "30(?) minute session with Professor Berman to debate the points of the fact pattern and our written argument."

I like all three proposals, although I think #2 and #3 might be mutually exclusive AND I think proposals #1 and #3 might go together especially well.  One reason I am pushing proposal #1 is because I think I could/would work real hard to grade/return one short paper during the semester, but I'd have a difficult time providing effective mid-semester feedback on a series of short papers.

In the comments to this post, please focus on these specific proposals.  I am particularly interested in comments that either strongly oppose or strongly support one or more of these proposals.

February 6, 2008 in Class requirements | Permalink


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While I see merit in all three proposals, I feel that the oral component of #3 would be very hard to administer, and subjective in a way that I'm uncomfortable with.

Proposal #1's strength lies in the uniformity of its format. The limitation on words will require some depth of thought and succinct discussion of issues, which has merit in that it levels the playing field somewhat. The downside of this, of course, is that same leveling...it does not allow for much differentiation in a course that, despite my strong feelings, is rooted in a forced adverse curve.

For that reason, then, proposal #2 is the strongest one. This suggestion allows the class to tackle each of the subject areas we'll cover in some depth, while at the same time providing a consistent basis for judgment (the single piece of legislation). I think of all the options presented, this one provides the truest test of how much we've learned in the course, allows some forgiveness for a "bad day" or week on any single paper, and comes as close to being objective as we can reasonably expect for a paper-based format.

I vote for #2.

Posted by: Brad Cromes | Feb 6, 2008 6:42:18 PM

I personally am strongly, strongly opposed to proposal 2. We already have, at least, two major "papers" in the form of memos due this semester. I do NOT want to be writing 3 or 4 more papers throughout this semester. I am fine with writing a paper, as proposal 1 suggests. But the idea of writing multiple papers throughout the next 2 months is asking far too much. Especially the idea of relating it to the same federal legislation, is like scratching nails on a chalkboard in terms of how boring it would be.

I also feel that there needs to be a final exam component to the grade which is blindly graded, and focuses on policy. I don't care if it is take home or inclass. Moreover, proposal 3 is not a great option in my opinion given the "oral" component. This is not Spanish class nor am I interested in my Ph.D. dissertation defense.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 6, 2008 6:53:54 PM

I am strongly opposed to proposal 3. While we all had to take finals last semester w/o having gone through it before, at least we had some practice mid terms to get us ready. I really have no idea how to prep for an oral defense right now. And unless Prof Berman plans to get use some voice disguising technology and set up some kind of confessional booth type thing to protect anonymity...I don't see how the oral exam will be administered.

I do like proposals 1 and 2. I like Proposal 1 a bit more because I want to get into character and be a "who." But I would like to suggest that in addition to all Prof. Berman said today about that paper, I think such a paper should also have us identify the "who" that will most give our own who a hard time getting our idea across, present the arguments that “who” will make, and refute them. Or maybe this could be something we do in class after handing the papers in (not for a grade).

Posted by: Stephanie | Feb 6, 2008 7:13:56 PM

That's a pretty cool idea, Stephanie.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 6, 2008 10:55:17 PM

I agree with Mr. Wilt, I'm strongly opposed to #2 (for the same reason, we already have too many writing assignments, at least my section of legal writing does) and I think #3 is not feasible and wouldn't go with the overall focus of the class particularly well.

I don't care so much if the final is blindly graded, since so much of this class is participation I don't know that will matter anyway. But I do agree that the final, whatever form it comes in, has to focus on policy. We've learned a lot of very important policy stuff so far, but I don't know that I could put together a lists of black letter rules and apply them to a hypothetical based on what we have learned in this class - which might be a good thing.

So my vote is for #1 with a policy-based final at the end of the semester, preferably take home with a strict word limit. That would give feedback, be administrable and fit with the way this course is taught (policy focus) while achieving the goal of not being a typical law school exam.

Posted by: Scott Rowley | Feb 7, 2008 7:42:30 AM

I agree with what has been said on proposal 2. What makes it less appealing is that we have different deadlines for our legal writing papers and that could really burden some of us who might have multiple papers due the same week. I am confused with proposal one, would the paper be the only grade? I think that proposal 3 is an interesting idea. I would want to know more about the oral aspect before making a definitive decision

Posted by: Alexandra Dattilo | Feb 7, 2008 4:24:52 PM

I vote Proposal 1 or 2. I'll be unpopular: the more papers, the merrier. However, I do want to avoid a paper during finals week if at all possible, in part because I've heard rumors that Foley's take home exam will take the entire 24-hours he gives us to write it. I don't know how many nights without sleep I can go...

Posted by: Erin Butcher | Feb 7, 2008 4:27:29 PM

I think #3 is the best because it incorporates the main focus of in-class activity which is discussion of the issues.
This is not Spanish class or a dissertation, but words, whether spoken or written, are a lawyer's tools.
The oral component would not be anonymous. However, neither is legal writing and Crim Law with Dressler had +/- 3% of our final grade that could have been based solely on if our class participation was satisfactory.
Given all of our discussion about the debate over the Civil Rights Act and McCain and Huckabee's "back room" agreement, I think an oral component is direcly related to Legislation and what we have learned so far in class.

Posted by: Adam | Feb 7, 2008 5:11:08 PM

I am strongly opposed to option 3. This proposal sounds very similar to the dreaded app. ad awaiting us next year. As much as I am looking forward to being a 2L, I don't need the stress of app. ad a semester early. Furthermore, I feel that grading us on our oral argument skills before we take a class that teaches us the techniques of oral argument is like making us write a legal paper before taking legal writing (think civ pro last semester).

Posted by: Christina | Feb 7, 2008 5:17:48 PM

Adam, I think there's a difference between gaining or losing 3% on the final grade and having a significant portion of your grade depend on an oral examination, whatever that means. I understand the argument regarding a lawyers tools being words, but the fact is tha at least in law school the grading is supposed to be done as "objectively" as is possible and I fear that some people might have trouble with an oral component giving others an unfair advantage when we haven't been taught how to do it. Christina's point, I think, is quite salient.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 7, 2008 7:11:12 PM

The arguments made against Option (Issue?) 2 to this point are all good ones, save one: what I perceive to be the fallacy of "too many papers."

While I understand the criticism, the writing we'd be doing for these papers (at least to my mind) differs greatly from the writing we'll be doing in Legal Writing and for our take home final in Con Law.

There would be some initial research investment required, yes; but, that research would be applicable to all of the other papers. So, I'm positing that the increase in work load would be negligible over the research required for either Option 1 or 3.

Plainly, Option 1 is easier. That said, though, I think the requirement in Option 2 that we delve deeply into a piece of LEGISLATION cuts more directly to the heart of what this course is about. (Michael, we can use a state law if you want...maybe something pertaining to Vandy.)

To my mind, the ideal grading scenario minimizes the potential negative effect of the curve on good work while rewarding class participation and outside preparation. We'll obviously need more debate on this (brokered final?), but at the moment Option 2 makes the strongest case for meeting those goals.

Posted by: Brad Cromes | Feb 7, 2008 7:36:16 PM

So if we all meet with Prof. Berman to do this oral thing for about 1/2 hour each, then Berman will be giving up 35 hours of his life to hear some not-yet-trained-in-oral-argument-skills law students make arguments...just wanted to point that out to Prof. Berman…

Adam, with all due respect, I think you need to get some more people in favor of Prop 3 on your side!

Now I would like to look over Proposal 1 again. I listened carefully but did not take notes. Professor Berman, could you post it?

I am thinking there might be a good way of combining some ideas of Prop. 1 and 2. Maybe we could have 3 papers that follow the structure of Prop. 2 (looking at fed legislation) through the view of various "who's" that change up with each paper.

And maybe (and I know almost everyone is going to HATE this) we could combine some of the elements of Prop. 3 through the addition of group work. After doing a legislation-focused paper from the perspective of some who's, we could divide up into groups of three or four and discuss/debate in a session with Berman, or in a 10 minute presentation-type thing to the whole class. After all, if you want to make the argument that oral arguing is a skill we need to develop here, so is working together...and I think that knowing how to work with others to get your ideas across is more important in the legislative process than either writing well or speaking well.

Posted by: stephanie | Feb 7, 2008 7:57:18 PM

I can totally tell Stephanie has been a teacher --- great ideas! As far as the proposals, I like #1 as long as it doesn't mean a traditional in-class or take home final at the end of the semester. #2 is OK as well, though I agree with Alex (the female one) that it's not really fair to do that when all of us have different legal writing classes and our memos are all due at different times. #3 seems very cool; however, does the oral part of it have to be worth 25% and last 30 minutes? If that is the only part people are worried about, why not make it worth less. Last semester, wasn't our Civ Pro brief worth 25%? Maybe I'm wrong on that point and it's only 10%...so how about that amount? Also, while Steph's idea about group work is a little discomfiting, I think it would be (dare I say it?) FUN! Each group would have the same topic to write about, but the writings would be done separately. Then, a small part of the grade would be a presentation using the combined efforts of the whole group.

In sum, I would like to do the paper before spring break, then have a "final" paper/presentation nearer the end.

Posted by: Allison | Feb 7, 2008 9:27:26 PM

Brad, I think my biggest problem with option 2 is the idea of focusing on the SAME topic throughout. Frankly, I would find that to be rather boring. I need some variety in life! Seriously though, I think focusing on the same thing isn't the best idea.

Here is what I propose, a sort of merger between proposals 1 and 2:

There be two papers, focusing on whatever topics Professor Berman chooses, but ideally they would be different topics and also could incorporate his "who's." The first of these would be "optional" but highly encouraged, and the second would be required. Both would be blindly graded of course, as we'd use the Alpha and Beta "midterm" exam numbers given to us.

Both of these papers would have a strict word or page limit, no more than 4-5 pages each.

They would constitute 25% of the grade each, but if the first is not done, then the second would constitute 50% of your grade.

The final exam would constitute 50% of the grade, would be based on policy and given either in-class or take-home.

I think this proposal incorporates the best aspects of proposals 1 and 2 along with the desire by many including Professor Berman to have some sort of final examination. It would have a proper mix of both types of grading so that people can demonstrate their skills and abilities.

Posted by: Michael Wilt | Feb 7, 2008 9:34:12 PM

I must take issue with both Proposition 1 and 2. As for Prop 2 several people have already brought up my chief concern, namely time. By my count we have around 11 weeks left in the semester and roughly 5 weeks until the contracts exam. Assuming that we decide and implement the multiple paper idea in a week or two, we would have a paper due every couple of weeks. This is on top of the already large amount of reading for this class as well as the legal writing assignments (and as I mentioned the contracts exam). To me, multiple papers may have been a decent idea if implemented at the start of the semester but at this point the added haste of assignments will off-set any probative value of reduced grade weight (especially when taken against the reduced time available for Contracts and legal writing.

I have two issues with Prop 1. First, how would an essay of this nature be graded on any type of curve? This seems like a prototypical undergad essay that is not easily curved, as our grades must be in the end. If this particular assignment is not curved and we all do relatively well on it there is no real benefit because our final grade will be curved based almost solely on our final. Secondly (and I mean this with no offense just as an honest observation), I must seriously question whether or not we have really covered enough material to write an essay on these “structural issues.” I know I’m not alone when I say that even though I’ve read every assignment, paid attention and participated in class I feel that we have learned very little that would be applicable to any type of essay. We’ve learned a lot of great life lessons and have had some great discussions about politics, but we have talked very little about the actual material and even less about how to apply the “who” idea. I don’t see how to translate any of that into an essay. Both of these issues make me seriously question the value of a short paper to our overall learning at this time.

With that being said I would advocate that we base the grading not on these structural issues of the first unit, which are important to understand but difficult to apply objectively, but on the later sections about the tools of statutory interpretation. To use the sports analogies, it seems that we are still stretching and warming up and that we haven’t even started any drills (be they free-throws or lay ups), no one would judge talent based on how well a person warmed up.

Posted by: Jordan Carr | Feb 8, 2008 8:45:38 AM

Proposal 1 I like but it is a bit vague as stated- I mean we would need to first have experience with being a "who" before we can effectively being writing about structural issues associated with it.

Proposal 2 I've always been an advocate of for the reasons I've mentioned before. The sheer breadth and depth that option 2 would enable us to engage in is quite appealing. I think also too, that it would more closely mirror the legislative process in that you are working toward understanding an overall piece of legislation but individual parts of it need to be addressed first.

Posted by: Paige | Feb 8, 2008 1:02:13 PM

Just to get my preference on the record, I like option one the best. I don't think the materials so far lend themselves to a traditional exam, and I will trust our Professor that future materials will work better with a traditional exam.

Posted by: Alexios | Feb 9, 2008 8:39:52 PM

I think Christina is 100% correct, we don't need to deal with app. ad. early. It's great that people like to debate their opinions (because that will be important for some careers), and class is an excellent outlet for that, but it's not something I would want to be graded on, as an individual or group.

Posted by: Amanda McNeil | Feb 9, 2008 9:00:46 PM

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