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Petty Tyranny

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Via Pandagon, I recently learned that a school in upstate New York has banned all student from carrying bags. This has led, naturally, to school officials inquiring about the state of their teenage students's menstrual cycles:

The girl was called out of class by a security guard during a school sweep last week to make sure no kids had backpacks or other banned bags.

Samantha Martin had a small purse with her that day.

That's why the security guard, ex-Monticello cop Mike Bunce, asked her The Question.

She says he told her she couldn't have a purse unless she had her period. Then he asked, "Do you have your period?"

The school has offered two justifications for the policy. One is clearly nonsensical: Students are developing back problems from carrying around heavy backpacks laden with books. The answer, naturally, is to ban the backpacks and make them carry their books in their arms. Problem solved! The other justification is also clearly nonsensical, but is far more likely to be the impetus for the policy. School officials are worried that students will conceal weapons in their bags, bring them to school, and start shooting up the place. Banning bags probably won't stop a shooting, but it does demonstrate to parents that the school cares deeply about the issue of school safety and is willing to force students to make any sacrifice and bear any burden to create the appearance of security.

The reasoning behind the no bags policy is pretty poor. But of course, no school official has ever met a stupid policy that they couldn't implement in an utterly asinine way. Once you implement any sort of rule you run into all sorts of inconvenient edge questions. Exactly how large can a bag be before it fits under the ambit of the ban? As anyone who's gone to an American public school in the last 20 years knows, the answer is to remove all discretion or thought from the hands of the enforcers and implement a zero tolerance policy. All bags, of any size or form, are banned, from luggage to back packs to clutches.

This is problematic for female students, who kind of need to carry bags to hold tampons, pads, and other devices to control menstruation. This has led to a slight policy modification that allows female students to carry small bags if they're having their period. Which led to the scene above.

Parents are outraged. Students have begun protesting by taping tampon boxes and pads to their clothes, which led to this fascinating exchange:

After hearing that someone might have been suspended for the protest, freshman Hannah Lindquist, 14, went to talk to [Principal Robert] Worden. She wore her protest necklace, an OB tampon box on a piece of yarn. She said Worden confiscated it, talked to her about the code of conduct and the backpack rule — and told her she was now “part of the problem.”

There's no resolution to the issue yet. The school and district administration have dug in and aren't talking to reports. My guess is that they'll ritually fire the guards who asked the question, blame the whole controversy on rogue enforcers, declare that they, of course, were right all along and that the policy is sound, then quietly stop enforcing the rule. Anything to avoid admitting that they may have been overzealous and open a dialog on the proper balance between security and freedom for students at the school; to do so would violate the canon of Administrator Infallibility.

I wonder if schools aren't having a greater effect than they realize on the political ideologies of then younger generations in America. I've read (and I can't remember where, so please feel free to dispute me if there is contradictory evidene out there) that most people's political opinions are largely set by the time they graduate high school. That is, for all the conservative hand-wringing about the liberal academy, very few students actually change their politics in college. But high school is different, because students are only then beginning to become politically aware and to develop the frameworks of belief through which they will interpret political events throughout their lives.

In that context, I wonder what effect zero tolerance policies have had the generations that went to high school in the 80s, 90s, and the present decase? A generation of students has grown up subject to a totalitarian and petty-minded bureaucracy, in which they essentialy have no rights and no voice. The Supreme Court has granted schools essentially unlimited power over the administration of the details of students's lives without regards to their freedom, based on the doctrine of in loco parentis, which holds that, because the schools are performing functions largely similar to those of parents, they should be granted nearly the full rights and powers that parents have over their children. Because the courts are loathe to interfere with family relations, they are therefore loathe to interfere with schools's exercise of power over their students. Student rights are of secondary concern.

Because the Supreme Court has eliminated most rights-based constraints on school policies, schools have reacted by enacting policies that are entirely unconcerned with the rights of students. Hence, the bag regulation. The school didn't weigh the slight increase in security against the constant inconvenience that banning bags would cause to all students and decide that the bag ban was worth it. It weighed the slight increase in security against . . . nothing at all, because the concerns of students are so insignificant that the don't matter. Of course they banned bags. The ban marginally increases security, and it does so at absolutely no cost to anyone of significance.

I wonder if zero tolerance and the idiocy it enables isn't teaching kids that authority is to be distrusted and despised. Students learn that if you grant anyone authority over someone else without placing any meaningful outside limits on it, it leads to ill-conceived policies and petty dictatorship.

Stupid Law Professor Tricks


I'm currently sitting in evidence. The professor, probably the scariest I've had since coming here, just got done giving one of the on-call students a thorough tongue-lashing for getting an answer wrong.

The question concerned Federal Rule of Evidence 407, which excludes evidence of subsequent remedial measures for purpose of proving liability. For instance, suppose I own an apartment building. The lightbulb goes out in the stairwell. One of the tenants slips, falls, and sues. I have my building manager change the lightbulb. The Federal Rules of Evidence prevent the tenant from introducing evidence of the lightbulb change. The Rules are this way for policy reasons; if I knew that changing the lightbulb would be taken as proof of my guilt, I'd be tempted not to change the lightbulb and leave the dangerous condition. You can make all sorts of arguments about whether things work out this way in real life, but there it is.

As usual with rules, there are all sorts of exceptions (only applies to proving liability, not to impeaching testimony, only applies to subsequent remedial action, doesn't apply to third party actions, etc.) The professor gave a hypothetical from the book. The hypo turned around whether Rule 407 applied for a strict liability action. The student confidently stated that it does not. The professor spent several minutes brow-beating the student. "You come to me with your fancy Columbia law degree and you give me a bullshit answer like that?!" etc.

Turns out, the student's answer was right... 6 months ago. Between when the book was published and today's class, Congress amended the Rules of Evidence to make Rule 407 apply to strict liability crimes. After embarrasing the student for a while, the professor lectured the class on the importance of always checking the latest version of the rules on-line before coming to class, because you can't trust the materials he assigned to be entirely up-to-date.

I could say this isn't fair, but that isn't a very interesting point. We're in the wrong universe for fair. It's just to comment that I've never seen a professor go so far out of his way to embarrass a student before; usually they can fulfill their need for schadenfreude in the normal course of interrogating students about cases.

Also, this particular session is terrible for my nerves. One of the on-call students is named Molten Boron. The professor keeps calling on him, which makes my head snap up and my stomach knot instantly even though I know it's not me. This is why I hate other people who have my name. Stupid other Molten Borons.

Dianna's post on credit worries inspired some thoughts of my own about my current courseload quandary. As you will recall, I'm signed up for 15 points right now. At Columbia Law, 12 points is the minimum you can take in a semester and 15 is the maximum. To graduate, I need 53 points. Generally, students do this by taking three 13-point semesters and one 14-point semester.

Right now, I'm signed up for Criminal Investigations (3 points), Anthropology and the Law (2 points), Corporations (4 points), Evidence (3 points), and Professional Responsibility (3 points). I should theoretically be shooting for 13 or 14 points, the standard courseload. I can't drop Corporations or Evidence; they're both major foundational courses that I'll need to take more interesting, job-related courses later on. I really don't want to drop Criminal Investigations, because it's taught by a professor whom I've heard is great and who will almost certainly be leaving the school after this semester. Moreover, it's a course that looks fun and it's a recommended prerequisite for a lot of other criminal law-related courses, which I'm interested in despite their irrelevance to my short-term career goals.

This leaves Anthropology and the Law and Professional Responsibility. Anthropology would fit my needs best, point-wise, since dropping it would put me in the 13-point comfort zone. And yet flipping through the reader makes me really not want to drop it. The material looks like genuinely engaging, and it'll be nice to do some reading produced outside of the world of legal scholarship. So: Professional Responsibility. Nobody likes it, and Columbia lets us get out of the requirement easily by taking an accelerated one-week course at the end of summer, which I could theoretically sign up for next year.

And yet... For one, it doesn't fit the points neatly. Dropping it would mean either adding another course or taking a light 12-point load. 12 points now would mean either two 14-point semesters or one 15-point semester. Adding another course would be tricky; I'm on a bunch of wait lists, but their all either for 3-credit lectures or for seminars I have no hope of getting into. The list of open courses is no help; everything that's available is for too many credits, requires prerequisites I don't have, or is on a subject I have no interest in. And taking PR now would get it out of the way... Plus, to be honest, Professional Responsibility sort of intrigues me. If nothing else, ethical questions about the hypothetical situations a lawyer could find herself in would make more interesting blog-fodder than such subjects as the Minority and Majority Rules for Piercing the Corporate Veil or the Hearsay Exception. And I've heard it isn't particularly hard. There's no casebook, instead we'll be working with an Examples and Explanations volume (E&E being a series of "hornbooks," books for law students that provide a clear explanation of the material in various standard courses. Most students buy some sort of hornbook to help them with classes that they have difficulty with, but they're generally used as an outside-of-class supplement, not as an actual textbook).

This leads me to consider staying where I am and taking 15 points. I've actually had good luck in the past with taking more credits than a sane person would. At Berkeley, I had one 14-credit semester (my first at school), two 20-credit semesters, and five 16-credit semesters (the average is ostensibly 15 credits, but 3-credit classes are relatively hard to come by, so most students either take 16 credits or 12 credits plus a 1-credit student-taught class). My best semesters, my only straight-A semesters, were my 20-credit ones. I found myself much better able to manage my time to do all my work, get the necessary studying in, go to all my classes, and put in 15 hours a week at the library. Somehow I could never get things together nearly as well when I was less busy. My theory is that increasing the amount of stuff I had to do greatly increased the marginal utility of organizing my life. In general I dislike organizing my time, so it doesn't get done unless the demands on my reach a crisis level. When I took 20 credits, life was a constant crisis that demanded a carefully-planned structure.

So I seem to get things together and do my best work when I'm under a lot of pressure. Of course, while those were my most successful terms, academically, they were not much fun to actually live through. Still, if I'm to be an attorney I should get used to budgeting my time to accomodate long hours of work. And I like learning things. Maybe this will be fun!

Since it's in the midst of finals and I'm in a very brief inter-final period (Crim's in-class final was yesterday from 10AM to 2PM, tomorrow morning I'm picking up a 24-hour take-home final for Constitutional Law) I thought I'd take a moment to post about grades and their peculiar impact on the mental and emotional state of law students.

Let me start by explaining the material elements that form grades in law school classes. This is actually really easy, particularly for my classes this semester. Final grades are computed by taking into account your individual grades in a number of assignments and tests, as well as your overall in-class performance throughout the semester. Each element is weighted according to how important the professor thinks it is. The following, then, are the possible elements that could go into computing a law school grade:
1. The Final.
2. There is no 2.

This is all a fancy way of saying that, generally, your entire grade in a law school class comes from the final. In most classes, the only feedback on how you're doing that you'll ever receive from your professor is in the form of a single letter, with a plus or minus distinction, on your report card three weeks after the class is over. Most classes have no TAs or discussion sections, most classes have no practice assignments or other ways to get feedback on your understanding of the material. Nobody has any idea of how they're doing until they're already done.

Now, I used some qualifiers above, but they're not significant. Some classes do have discussion sections, always optional, taught by upper-division students with a dubious understanding of the material and an even more questionable prowess for pedagogy. Some classes give written assignments, inevitably graded by the same upper-division TAs who will provide feedback that may or may not be useful. If classes do give written assignments, they either will not count toward your grade at all or they will provide a push-factor in the unlikely event that your final leaves you on the cusp between two grades. Since roughly 3 or 4 students out of 100 will find themselves on said cusp, and since it is unlikely that any of them will have done notably well on their assignments, the chances of your assignment actually altering your grade are virtually nill. Occasionally professors will use class participation as a similar push-factor for borderline grades; if you contributed during the semester in a way that was insightful enough for the professor to take note, you might get pushed to a higher grade level if you're on the edge. The same problems with assignments-as-push-factor applies, except that it's even less likely that a professor will remember your verbal contributions to the class. Finally, some classes assign papers or use class participation as an actual percentage of your grade; in all of these cases the weighting will be 90% Final, 10% participation or 95% final, 5% two written assignments. In other words, the final is so dominant in the weighting that the papers/participation are de facto borderline push-factors. (Also, in the interest of making sure I've left noone out, some crazy Marxist professors who hate America will grade you entirely on the basis of papers. If this occurs in a first year course, the course will be an elective in which the entire organizing theme of the course will be "Everything that's wrong with the law and why all you students are evil for failing to be part of the solution, and therefore are part of the problem." Any advantages gained by not having a final will be more than lost by having to put up with the professor for the entire semester. Moreover, the professor's paper-grading will be just as random and arbitrary as your other professors' final-grading.)

So your whole grade comes from the final and generally you have no idea how well you're doing until courses are done and you've gotten your grades. The other major reason law students are basket cases is how exam performance is translated into final grades. Law School classes are graded on a strict curve. Everyone takes a final and the professor grades it in her own idiosyncratic way, assigning a number score for the total exam. All the students' grades are entered into a spreadsheet, they're sorted from highest grade to lowest, and from there grades are determined. At Columbia, assuming a class of 100 students, the top 8 students will get As. The next 12 students will get A-s. The next 35 students will get B+s. The next 35 students will bet Bs. The remaining 10 students will get B-s. It is possible to get a C, a D, or an F, but they're not built into the curve. You have to have done something notably and outlandishly wrong, or betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the material, to get below a B-. (Inevitably, now that I've said this, someone who has gotten less than a B- will read this and get very angry. I apologize in advance. I do not, however, apologize to those who might read this and say "I haven't actually GOTTEN a C, D, or F, but I'm so incredibly behind in studying for _____ Law that I just know that I WILL get a C, D, or F." This is symptomatic of the basket-caseism that is the plague of all first-year law students.)

So you not only have no idea how well you're doing in understanding the material, your entire grade is based, not on some objective measure of how well you know the material, but on a more subjective comparison of how well you know the material to how well all of your fellow students know the material. This leads some (that is, all) law students to eventually make a fairly simple deduction: I can't tell how well I'm doing in understanding the material, but I can maybe get a sense of how I compare to other students in understanding the material. Down this road lies madness. This sort of thinking leads to studying arms-races, where students produce larger and larger outlines and spend 36 hours straight in the library, because if the guy in the study carrol next to me goes home later than I do, he'll have done more studying than I did and will do better on the exam than I do, which will make my grade lower. And of course the guy next door is thinking the exact same thing about me.

There is another factor. It is well known that, at Columbia Law, everyone gets a job when they leave school. Everyone. Not only that, everyone gets a good job, defined as a job that pays six digits as a starting salary, or a job that's notably prestigious (a judicial clerkship that will likely lead to a six-digit salary), or a low-paying job at a non-profit or politically activist organization that is highly competitive and thus hard to get (working at the ACLU, for instance). Everyone gets a good job, regardless of grades. Once you've gotten to Columbia, the difference in life outcome based on your law school grades will be negligible at best. Moreover, you'll note that the curve is designed to give lots and lots of people Bs and higher, and almost noone anything so low as a B-. In theory, everyone should be pretty much indifferent about grades.

But they aren't, and they aren't because of iron-clad laws of mathematics: Only 10% of a given student body can be in the top 10% of the class. This is unfortunate because, at a school like Columbia, 100% of the students are accustomed to being in the top 10% of their class. This leads to a general feeling that if you don't get at least an A-, that is, if you aren't in the top 20% of an exceptionally bright and hard-working group of students, you're an incompetent moron.

And so we have finals, when everyone goes batshit crazy studying in the hopes that their batshit studying is more batshitty than at least four out of five of their fellow students.

And here I am, biding time until my take-home Con Law final tomorrow. I should probably be going batshit studying at this point, but... eh. Maybe posting on blogs is the key to great law school grades. It seems as reasonable a theory as anything else I've heard.

(Lawyerly Disclaimer: In the above, any mention of "law school classes" or discussion of how law school classes work should be taken to apply only to first year law school classes. My understanding is that things generally work much differently in upper division classes.)

Sage Advice

A thought from the Constitutional Law Review I'm sitting in:

Even though your test is a take-home test, and even though you're free to use any source you like, your books, your notes, third-party outlines, outside research, even fellow students, professors generally frown upon citing to Wikipedia as authority for a doctrine.

Question relating to Education Ethics


When engaged in the task of studying for an exam, if one ceases studies directly related to the material being examined and embarks instead upon answering a question requiring lengthy research, and that question is not, directly or indirectly, related to the material being examined, but is related to the general subject matter of the exam, may one, within the bounds of student mental ethics, account the time spent answering said question as study time, or must one account it as time spent goofing off?

For example: When studying for an exam on Federal Civil Procedure, may one, prompted by a chapter on civil discovery under the Federal Rules, stop what one is doing and research rules regarding California Criminal subpoenas, in order to answer a question you've been wondering about for months regarding a predicament your friend was in, and consider the time spent answering that question studying?

A further question: How should one account time spent making posts to blogs asking questions about the educational ethics of tertiary research?

Lazy Professors

I'm taking three classes currently, and, as such, have three course syllabi. Of these, one has assignments attached to specific dates. This is quite useful, as it's annoying to have to scan through the actual contents of each assignment to figure out where we are in the class and what the next lecture's reading assignment will be. Since these are all electronic syllabi in PDF format, I can't just mark off assignments as they're completed.

The other two do not have dates attached to them, merely "Lecture #" or "Assignment #." Charitably, this could be an attempt by the professors to acknowledge that they're likely to fall behind their lesson plan. They thus omit dates to avoid embarrassment and to prevent confusion. This would be plausible were it not for the remarkable fidelity that all of my professors have shown toward their schedule. The most any class has been behind all semester is perhaps a half a lecture. That is, they will always at least partially cover the day's topic, and will usually speed up the next day in order to catch up. Nothing is skipped, and we're seldom behind. This contrasts favorably with my undergraduate experience, when we were lucky to cover two-thirds of the material on the syllabus.

The less charitable, and more likely, explanation is that my professors are lazy. They're recycling their syllabi from previous semesters, and if they don't include dates for reading assignments they don't have to update them each semester. That's pretty sad. This suspicion was confirmed when I noted that the file information for my Civil Procedure syllabus indicated that it was the property of Fordham Law (My Civ. Pro. professor is visiting from Fordham). So my Civil Procedure professor couldn't even be bothered to change the organization heading when he moved from Fordham to Columbia.

On the plus side, at least they're teaching. One thing I'll say for law school; the professors put in a lot more effort than they did in undergrad (note again their tendancy to stay on schedule) and the students are a lot more engaged. Now, part of this engagement arises out of the constant mortal fear of being called upon and verbally flayed alive in front of the class over the details of some obscure case from the Iowa Appellate Court, but not all of it. After all, if getting called on in class were the only motivation to study and pay attention, a good portion would just not show up at all. With the exception of a few frequent absentees, I would estimate that 90-95% of the seats in my classes are filled every day. That's pretty darn good attendance compared to undergrad.

So: Law professors are lazy, but not as lazy and uninvolved as undergraduate professors tend to be.

Mission Roll Call


Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly blog posts about homework. That's well and good. What I'm interested in is a tangent in the post:

As it happens, my parents didn't help me much with my homework when I was a kid, possibly on the "builds character" theory and possibly because it didn't occur to me to ask. In fact, I remember — as do all California children — having to build a model of a mission in fourth grade and receiving no help at all — none! — solely because I had left the job until the day before it was due. The result was predictable: a hodgepodge of margarine boxes wrapped in brown paper and set in a pattern vaguely resembling the grounds of Mission Santa Barbara. My brother, on the other hand, got help aplenty when he entered fourth grade, and as a result he turned in a magnificent styrofoam model of Mission Somethingorother, complete with miniature orange trees and a little blue reflecting pool. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

I made a mission in 4th Grade! And since Kevin's in his 40s, that means building missions has been part of the universal 4th Grade California curriculum for at least 30 years. Wow. With all the changes that have gone on in education in the last few decades, all the twiddles and tweaks and new textbooks and new teaching methodologies, it's astounding that, of all things, the 4th Grade Build-a-Mission project is sacrosanct. I like to imagine there's a hard-core vanguard of Missionistas in the California Department of Education who would die before they give up the Mission requirement. They'd rather have no education at all than an education that abandon something as bedrock, as wholesome, as quintessentially educational as the Build-a-Mission project to the godless new-age hippy-dippy types who think constructing a model of a mission out of toothpicks and styrofoam is a waste of time. New Math? Sure, but I'll be deep in the cold, cold ground before you take away the Mission Project!

I made Mission San Buena Vista, on account of I associated Buena Vista with Disney cartoons. And when I say "I made" I pretty much mean "My mom made." I imagine it would have been quite the horror to see what resulted if you gave me a bunch of styrofoam and glue.

So what mission did all you California Primary School graduates out there build?

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