Category: Law School (Teaching)


Grading redux: Spelling and grammar

Another question from my friend “Jim”:

How much weight should I place on spelling and grammar? I myself place a very high value on perfect spelling and grammar, and I personally used to spend hours and hours combing through my documents to guarantee that my documents were free of absolutely any spelling or grammatical errors before I submitted them to a professor or a client. So, it’s frustrating me to no end to read a paper that was apparently thrown together without, as I admonished the students plenty of times in class, the student paying meticulous attention to eradicate any spelling errors or incorrect grammar in their final papers. How have you handled this?

It’s my sense that every professor handles it differently, but that everyone gives some weight to spelling, grammar, and so on. Personally, I allocate about a quarter of the points in my exams and papers to a category I call “writing and organization.” Students lose points from this pool if they have misspellings, bad grammar, bad organization, and so on. I think that this more or less mimics life on the outside. A brief or memo full of bad grammar and misspellings will not be viewed particularly kindly by a judge or a law firm partner. Because of this reality, I think it’s important to keep students focused on the importance of good grammar, spelling, and organization. On the other hand, perfect spelling of bad law won’t help either.

For me, the number of points at stake depends on the context. A few misspellings in a final exam will typically cost a student one or two points out of the total pool. Students are hastily putting together answers in a two or three hour period, and I’m not expecting polished perfection. The same few misspellings on a final paper, however, will cost a student significantly more points. A student who has months to put together a paper has more than enough time to ferret out any spelling, grammar, or organization problems in her paper.


Subjective Personal Factors in Grading

A friend is a professor (at a different school than mine, and no, it’s none of the Co-Op bloggers). Recently, he asked me this question:

“When is it permissible to incorporate personal information about a student into the grading calculus, to give that student’s grade a ‘nudge'”?

His situation is this. He’s got a batch of student papers for his class. There are some clear A papers, and some clear B’s, and so on. And one student’s paper is borderline-A. Maybe an A-minus, but maybe not. Slightly better than other A-minus papers; not quite as good as the A papers. It’s right on the borderline.

However, through a series of personal conversations with this student, my friend is privy to the fact that this student is going through some very challenging family circumstances right now. My friend is impressed that this student was able to put together a borderline-A paper under the circumstances, and is thinking of giving the student an A. (At present, he’s undecided). As we discussed the matter, we hit on the broader issue: When is it permissible to allow subjective factors to weigh on a student’s grade?

First, let me note that I don’t really have to deal with that at Thomas Jefferson. We use blind grading here; even if I wanted to give higher grades to students based on some subjective criteria, I wouldn’t be able to do so.

But even if subjective grading were allowed, I don’t know that I would engage in it. It’s not clear to me which subjective factors ought to be brought into the calculus. Should I give a higher grade to students who are overcoming some personal struggle, as in my friend’s example? This path seems problematic. I’m the students’ professor, not their therapist. I don’t know what struggles any particular student might be going through. This would make it easy to misjudge any nudge. For example, I might give student A a nudge over student B because student A just had a death in the family. However, I might not know that student B is also going through a family challenge — perhaps his wife just had a baby. Both are being subjected to family challenges; however, one tells me and the other does not, and so I nudge one but not the other. That seems like a major potential problem.

There are also structrual questions. It is easy to sympathize with the student who suffers family challenges. Who wouldn’t want to go easy on such a student? But aren’t there other subjective factors that could be brought into play? For example, one could also conceive of giving nudges based on race, class, or gender. If blacks or women typically perform more poorly in law school, why not bump them all up a notch?

The possibilities get even murkier. Some students are chattier in class than others. Some are friendlier. Some are more punctual. Some are better-dressed. Some are better-looking. There are a thousand subjective differences. If I’m willing to deviate for the student who has a family crisis, where do I draw the line? Do I also deviate for students who are nicer to me? Students who smile and greet me in the hallway? Students who dress well? Students who attended my alma mater?

Perhaps at some future date, I’ll be sufficiently comfortable in my professorial role to start experimenting with subjective factor grading. But right now, I find even objective grading to be difficult enough — I don’t need to add more factors to the equation. Subjective grading is a can of worms that I’d rather avoid for now. I’ll respect my friend’s decision on the matter, whichever way he goes. But my own grades are going to be strictly based on the factors laid out in my syllabus.


Why You Should Teach Information Privacy Law

privacy2b.jpgSince now is the time that many new law professors are being hired, I thought I’d re-post an earlier post about teaching information privacy law. When new law professors are hired, there is often a lot of flexibility in what courses they can teach. While the law school will typically want a newly-hired professor to teach one or two “core” courses (first year courses or required courses), other courses are often highly negotiable. So if you want to teach a particular course, sometimes all you have to do is ask for it.

My goal is to get more new professors to think about teaching information privacy law. (I have a casebook in the field, so this is really a thinly-disguised self-plug.)

Information privacy law remains a fairly young field, and it has yet to take hold as a course taught consistently in most law schools. I’m hoping to change all that. So if you’re interested in exploring issues involving information technology, criminal procedure, or free speech, here are a few reasons why you should consider adding information privacy law to your course mix:

1. It’s new and fresh. Lots of media attention on privacy law issues these days. Students are very interested in the topic.

2. Lively cases and fascinating issues abound. There’s barely a dull moment in the course. Every topic is interesting; there is no rule against perpetuities to cover!

3. It’s a way to teach fascinating First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and other constitutional law issues. Often, those wanting to teach in these areas have to wait in line until the course is “released” by professors who already teach it. Getting the First Amendment course, for example, is about as easy as unseating an incumbent in Congress. Information privacy law lets you teach really interesting First Amendment issues and there’s usually not a long succession line to teaching an information privacy law course. Moreover, many law schools already have somebody teaching cyberlaw, and information privacy law covers some incredibly interesting law and information technology issues.

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Teaching disturbing law

A friend of mine who is a relatively new professor is teaching some material that includes cases relating to sexual harrassment law. She is mulling over how best to present the material, and she asked me:

I was just reading again over some of the cases assigned to the students. One of the cases in particular reports graphic and disturbing acts (gang rapes, etc.) and language (repeated use of the word “fuck”) as part of the factual summary and the discussion of the issues. It occurred to me that I might warn the students about the potentially offensive language and graphic description of sexual acts. What do you think? Should I say anything?

My own reaction is mixed. On the one hand, part of me says that it’s fine to just assign the material as is. I can see various reasons for a hard-line approach. Law students are grownups, and I’m not sure that professors should treat them in an overly paternalistic manner. Also, it is hard to teach a class on a subject like sexual harrassment (or criminal law, perhaps) without discussing some disturbing things. Finally, I don’t think that a law graduate is prepared to act as an attorney in the field unless she can deal with disturbing fact patterns. This assignment is not gratuitous; these are the reported facts in reported cases.

On the other hand, there are also very good reasons not to be a hard-liner, and I think it’s necessary to be sensitive to potential concerns. Some of the students in any class may be victims of rape or abuse; they may have loved ones who have suffered through these ordeals; or they may simply be sensitive to the topic. I think the professor has to be sensitive to those concerns, and handle the material with care. (I’ve seen professors who did not handle such material with care, and the result was often disastrous).

As far as whether of not she should highlight the issue (my friend’s specific concern), I am again of two minds. On the one hand, perhaps the sensitive students would appreciate a warning. On the other hand, for many students, highlighting the issue could have the opposite effect, drawing more attention to lurid details than they deserve. I told her that in my opinion, I would lean towards a short warning myself (given the potential concerns of the more sensitive students), but that I thought she would also be fine if she didn’t warn, as long as she treated the material carefully.

However, I have absolutely zero experience in this area — there are not too many lurid details in Wills and Securities Regulation — and I feel a bit worried that my response to my friend left out important considerations. I’d like to hear what our readers think, if any wish to weigh in in the comments.

UPDATE: Paul Secunda posted on the same question, and has received a number of great suggestions and comments from his readers. Anyone interested in the topic should check out the thread over at Workplace Prof Blog.


Three Cheers for Law Reviews

book18a.jpgLaw reviews get little respect both within and outside the legal academy. For those unfamiliar with the system, legal academics publish their articles in law reviews, which are edited and run by law students. Law students select the articles, not professors. In contrast, journals in most other fields are peer reviewed and edited.

The conventional wisdom is that it is immensely silly and problematic to have students selecting and editing our articles. But while I have many gripes about the current system, there are actually many virtues to the law review approach that are not being stated. So I aim to be contrarian and (ironically) defend the status quo.

1. Article Selection. One argument is that a peer-edited system would be better in article selection. On the surface, it does seem quite odd and almost absurd for professors to have students do the article selection. Critics of the law review system say that students often don’t have sufficient knowledge about a field to appropriately assess the quality of articles.

But with student-selected articles, it is not as though peer assessment is vanquished. It just occurs after publication. To the extent that we use law review placement as a proxy for article quality, we’ve got ourselves to blame. I do think that there is a rough correlation in article quality and placement — the system isn’t perfect, and many mistakes are made, but I wonder whether perfection is possible or efficient. To the extent that we doubt law review placement as a proxy for quality, then we can discount it and assess articles on their own merits. In the end, I think that the objection is really about the fact that other professors (not ourselves and our friends, of course) will not appropriately assess the correlation between law review placement and article quality. In a sense, this is an argument that we don’t trust the judgment of our peers. But that shouldn’t mean we blame the law reviews — we should blame ourselves.

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Grading Exams and Other Fun Activities

I started grading exams today. As most Profs. will tell you, grading is the least pleasant aspect of law teaching. Fortunately, at my current rapid pace of 2.5 hours per exam, I will be finished at the latest by mid-March.

On the plus side, I’ve almost finished writing my syllabus for next semester’s new seminar in Law and Economics. In preparing the course, I was reminded again of McCloskey’s fantastic little essay on The Rhetoric of Law and Economics, 86 Mich. L. Rev. 752 (1988). Well worth reading if you have a WL or Hein account.


Unusual Law School Classes: Quiz Answer Key

lawgavel.jpgIf you attempted to take the quiz I set out in my post earlier this week about unusual law school classes, I just posted the answer key in the comments to the post. Please continue to submit comments about your unusual law school courses and course descriptions. I may collect some of my favorite entries from the comments and emails I received and post them sometime soon.


Unusual Law School Classes

lawgavel.jpgI recently posted about a law school course about wine, only to discover that it’s not all that unusual. That got me thinking fondly of my days in law school, where there were many unusual courses – probably due to the fact I went to Yale. I located my old course bulletins, and here are 10 of my favorite unusual courses from those bulletins.

I also thought I’d invite readers who went to law school, are now in law school, or who are teaching in law school, to post in the comments their favorite unusual law school classes. And I thought I’d make a quiz out of this too.

· Favorite Unusual Courses: Please post in the comments some of the unusual courses from where you teach or where you went to school. Please be sure to indicate the law school where the course is taught. Any links to online course listings, if available, would be helpful to verify that the courses are indeed real. In the alternative, feel free to email the courses and descriptions to me.

· Quiz: A bit of puzzleblogging (inspired by the Volokh Conspiracy): Can you guess who taught these courses? Below the courses, I provide a list of instructors to select from. Extra credit: I took two of the ten courses below — guess which ones. Winner’s Prize: A whole lot of nothing.

Courses from the Yale Law School Bulletin


If morality is defined as recognition of the limits imposed upon one, then good law is an effective moral force. This seminar will explicate such a view and apply it to U.S. society.


In many law school courses, the primary focus is on law itself. In others, one or more of the law’s dramatis personae take center stage—the judge, the jury, the lawyer, the legislature, and occasionally even the litigant. This seminar will focus on an oft overlooked player – the witness – and on the very idea of witnessing.

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Psst! Can I copy from your exam?

Or rather, can Ben Barros copy from your exam? He writes:

Perhaps I could set up a list of e-mail addresses of property professors willing to share exams, and we could get in touch with each other directly. Please leave a note in the comments if you (a) would be interested in participating and (b) have any ideas on how to set things up.

I haven’t yet given any exams in property — it’s on the list of courses I will probably teach someday, but not this semester. If you have given such exams, and would like to participate in Ben’s project, let him know.

But don’t let the proctor catch you copying from each other’s exams.