Monday, October 09, 2006

Is Compulsory Participation A Good Idea?

Although I've missed it, there has been a raging debate between law students and professors about the justness of "cold calling" students. For the uninitiated, cold calling is when the professor randomly calls on students (yes, like everything else in law we just made up a fancy name for an obvious concept).

The debate started when a professor recounted the previous day's events, when a student was not only unprepared for class, but wasn't paying attention (gasp!). The professor decided to penalize the student by decreasing his grade and calling on him every day for the rest of the semester. However, he realized that this tactic was unfair to the rest of the students and was "not nearly severe enough" so he decided to ask around for ideas on how other professors penalize their students when they dare enter class without knowing the intricacies of Pennoyer v. Neff (yes, I realize I'm exaggerating here).

But let's ask the obvious question: should professors call on students at all? Should they even take questions and comments or allow students to volunteer?

Amazingly most the thread and subsequent posts focused on the second question. They made arguments supporting the proposition that interaction is beneficial to understanding and learning, or that "[s]tudy after study after study indicates that just listening to lectures is NOT the most effective way to learn pretty much anything" or even that class participation could be used as a measuring rod for prospective performance on the final exam.

Of course the answer would be to make attendance and participation optional and allow students to participate. I agree that professors who lecture and won't allow questions or students the chance to be faced with responding under pressure are doing their student's a grave disservice.

That said, I don't see how the argument that education is better served when students can participate leads to the conclusion that students should be forced to participate. Sure it might be a benefit to the student, but since when are paying customers (and that's what we are) obligated to take benefits?

The few response to the "students are customers" argument either center on the idea that students aren't customers, or that we just don't know enough and the professors know better.

One professor argues that teachers would be derelict if they allowed students to slack off. Here's his argument:

I agree that someone who takes swimming lessons is a "consumer" of that educational lesson, but that doesn't mean a swimming teacher is fulfilling her responsibility if she allows a putative student to say, "I paid for you to tell me how to swim, and I'll do it on dry land, thank you very much." The teacher is fully entitled to say, "I know how to swim and you don't. I know how to teach someone to swim, and you don't. My job is to teach you how not to drown, and I believe it requires you to get in the water. If you don't like it, go elsewhere."
Assuming the customer is a competent adult, I just don't understand why the teacher isn't completely morally within her rights to say just allow the student to jump around on dry land. The teacher should of course inform the student that swimming is done in the water and that she cannot teach the student properly if he refuses to jump in. But why must the teacher "force" student to learn?

Moreover, as numerous commentators pointed out, many law students simply come to school to pass the tests and get that degree. They aren't interested in learning to "think like a lawyer" (if such a thing even exists). They are paying tens of thousands of dollars to receive a degree that will be a gateway to a high-paying job. In that case it's the teacher's job (at least using the above argument) to facilitate their ability to receive that job, not to teach them a "special" mode of thinking.

Another argument is that students are subsidized by the government, through loan breaks on the state and federal level. Even if that argument is true, and therefore students are not consumers in the usual sense of the term because law schools have a responsibility to other actors, I fail to see the connection to how professors should force students to read the material and respond to questions. In fact it's not that the law schools have diverse responsibilities; the students are responsible to become good lawyers. Even if someone could prove the utterly implausible link between reading for class and participating and becoming a good lawyer, I fail to see under what moral theory the professors are allowed to impose on students their obligations.

In a follow up Dimino explicitly makes the argument that professors know better and should be allowed to do what's best for the students (he also makes a minor argument about how forcing students to participate weeds out the poor students, which is a legitimate aim, but one that could be fulfilled through a variety of means with far less cost). Students need to learn to be professional, and being forced to prepare for class will do that.

Right, students with at least one college level degree have no idea how to be professional. Only through forced preparation can they learn to be good, professional, on the ball lawyers. It's not like the punitive measure of, say, being fired might convince them later in life to actually read the briefs and cases on point. Nah, they need a "superior" professor (who I'm sure has numerous degrees in education and has mastered all the penological methodologies out there) to teach them work ethic. Apparently, Dimino thinks none of us has graduated 5th grade.

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