Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why does it take so long to read for class?

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Sorry for taking so long to write in. I've been soo tempted, but I'm tring to be good this semester, whatever that means, and study harder and longer. I love love love my classes. What a difference from last semester! The procedures classes--civil and criminal-- are perfectly fine, since they are directly concerned with rules of justice; constitutional law is interesting, and my statutory interpretation class is the best class EVER. The name alone says it all: Statutory Interpretation. Sigh. I'm home.

Our topic is Fair Housing. I know--what's not to love, right? But the best part is that the professor is an intellectual. She's a woman, too, which is great, but she has exactly the teaching style that any academic enjoys or would love to have. When I mention to other people in my class how much I heart her, they hesitate, and say, "I don't know . . ." When I press them, they say that she wanders off the topic, or says too much. They say they can't tell what information they're supposed to write down. That they think she is too abstract. What she does, in fact, is raise issues and answer questions by exploring every angle of any comment you make. She paces back and forth and thinks out loud. Think Judy Butler lecturing.

I know, right? Yummy. So when she asks what the factors might be that contribute to the ongoing existence of segregated neighborhoods even after courts refuse to enforce racist housing covenants, and I say something like, "Who wants to live in a hostile environment?" she proceeds to explain how some recent academic work on this topic has addressed the instrumentality of "vibes" and the way they contribute to moving in--or not moving in--to certain areas.

Great, right? This is an intelligent, engaged person who knows a lot and is telling us what she knows. But it's not pure information, and that is bugging a lot of people. Me, I feel like I'm finally back in my own country.

Which maybe gives you a window into how shitty last semester was for me.

So anyway, things are looking up, at least as far as engaging material. I also figured out that the biggest reason for my bad grades last semester is . . .drumroll . . . that I don't type.

I know--how lame is that? We can write or type our exams, so of course idiot me thinks typing is easier to read, so I should type. The problem is, I think I actually type slower than I write, since I am a two-finger typist (three, actually--two on my right hand and one on my left). My contracts exam was six single-spaced, frantically-typed pages. My friend who got an A let me read his exam, and it was . . .13. He claims that two of those were canned answers he had already, but we're still talking twice as much as I wrote.

Do I still think like a professor? I wanted to make it easier on them. Students, on the other hand, think, "Who am I going to be measured against? Who do I have to compete with? How can I show a tired, skeptical grader that I know stuff?"

So to hell with it. I'm a student, and I'm writing my exams from now on. I suspect written exams are graded against each other in a way that is far more favorable than my typed exams will ever be. I'm also going to talk to my teachers from last semester, and I'm going to buy one of those exam writing courses. But seriously, what if it comes down to typing? Ye gods.

So I'm in a coffee house the other night, trying to read for Constitutional law, and I realize for the first time how fidgety I am. I want to go on line. I want to text message GF on my phone. I want to bother the guy next to me. The bench is hard. Con law is dry. I'm bored. I want to go home and drink a beer and watch the Daily Show.

And I am a wicked, wicked procrastinator. Procrastinator. Capitalize it. The solitary vice of OUR times. But instead of the palsied figure of the trembling Masturbator, with his thinning hair and scoliosis, picture a gal with white ipod headphones trickling from her ears, a mouse in one hand, a cell phone in the other, a Neverwinter Nights disk whirring away in her laptop, her eyes shifting around the room. reading the same paragraph over and over from the book in front of her.

I know--I blog, yes? Any of us knows that blogging IS the prima facie evidence of a Procrastinating temperament. But this is somehow news to me. What image of myself have I been carrying around all this time? Mrs. Concentration? Scholarly Lady? The Duchess of Deep Thinking?

I saw myself, and it wasn't pretty. A frenetic shadow on the wall of the cafe booth, looking for a way out of work.

So I am reformed, though as you can see by this post, not so very reformed. I have caught myself, and I will try to stop the urge to disengage before the reading gets done.

Which brings me to my real reason for posting. MySpace. Who the hell invented this thing? I have for so long adamantly refused to join, not from snobbery--ok, actually, yes, from snobbery. But today GF posted me a scary antigay video--the pathetic guy singing "God Hates Fags"--and I watched it in horror on MySpace. Because he's SERIOUS. And he's so, so gay. And his organization is called God'sLove or something like that. And his horrifying song is only about hate. Then I found some people who were commenting on the video, including a cool guy from the UK who was making fun of him. And I wanted to send this cool guy a message, just to say, you know, how cool it is that he's a decent person. But in order to send a comment, I had to join MySpace.

So I joined MySpace. OMG.

MySpace is scaaary! Not only do you get sucked into a profile, but people want to be your friends! Right away! Why? because they are nice, for one. And often interesting, for two. But also? because they are on line, looking for something to distract them. Because they are bored. Because they know they should be doing something serious, but they really just want to party, even if it is only on line. Because they are, when you get right down to it, wicked, wicked Procrastinators.

And I am too.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

professional writing

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

What Now asked me a great question about professional writing in a comment, and it got me thinking generally about how schools do--and don't--train people to write professionally. Law school seems better than most in offering legal writing, which teaches students legal reasoning and memo-writing. There is a system of analysis called IRAC or IREAC, where you identify the Issue, state the Rule, give an Explanation of the Rule, Analyze the situation, and Conclude. This is the method for briefing cases when you read them, and this is how you go about applying precedent cases to a new situation in order to fashion an argument.

In a legal memo, for example, you might have a situation you have to evaluate. Say, a woman has seen a family member gravely injured by a speeding automobile, and it has affected her life in profound ways. She can't sleep, is depressed, jumpy, irritable, freaked out, and unable to return to work. The driver is already liable to the injured party, but is he liable to her? You have to figure it out.

You realize that her charge resembles a tort called Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (usually abbreviated IIED), but in this case it is linked to a driver's negligence, so it may be Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress. You look for similar cases in your state that qualify as precedent cases (appellate decisions, circuit courts using your state's laws, etc. that haven't been overturned and thus are still "good law"). You do the IRAC or IREAC analysis to argue why these precedents apply to your case. You then do the IREAC analysis on your case and make an argument in the memo whether you think the woman has a case or not.

All this we learn, and this is the basis for good legal writing and reasoning.

What we DON'T learn is how to write for a test. Supposedly we apply some form of IRAC to test-taking, but as you can see, this rather lengthy process takes a lot of time to spell out, so it has to be different. Also, the point on a test is not to brief cases, but to analyze a situation and apply rules to it.

Let me explain. We spend the entire semester in any given class studying case law. Cases. We IRAC them in some form or other. So far, so good.

Then we get to the test. Even though the semester has been spent reading cases, they don't matter on the test. What matters is the rules that come from the cases. The rules are called "black letter law," as opposed to case law. You will have little practice applying and analyzing the rules at length before hand. Mostly, you will discuss them in their textual (case) context.

The closest comparison I can think of is studying Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway the way one would, then taking a test where you have to recognize metempsychosis or Time Passing in a completely different, silly made-up scenario. The professor has said he doesn't care about cases (novels), only the rules. And there are lots of rules from hundreds of novels (really, short stories). So what exactly do you say, once you have identified metempsychosis or stream-of-consciousness? DO you talk about the story(case)? How much? The new scenario? How much do you say? Time is so short on the exam--have you said too much? Not enough? Have you analyzed it enough? Too much? What did you leave out? You have to stop now and move on to the next question. And you already wasted a lot of time writing complete sentences.

I explained it to a friend as spending the entire semester building a Ferrari as a class project, then being tested on whether or not you could drive it really fast on a racetrack. You never learned how to drive it, and building it won't teach you that. You have to go out and get a Racecar Driving for Dummies book and figure it out.

You can see where this kind of abstraction would trip up an English type like me, even when she can logically see how the abstraction works. Methodical, careful, textual people have got to give it up and get faster, looser, more abstract, more information-managing. Dump it, splatter it, and move on. It's not about thinking, folks.

I've already decided to shell out for at least one of those day-long seminar courses in writing exams. I just have to make the transition and figure it out.

Now, this is a bit like sink-or-swim, but even though I am whiny and cross and depressed, I think it is a lot LESS sink-or-swim than horror stories I have heard about some elite grad school literature programs that cut their MA students after a year. A friend of mine went to one of those superfancy programs, and they kept telling her she needed to write better, but nobody could tell her how (because none of them could teach writing--they just knew good or bad writing when they saw it). She tried and tried and sweated and worked like a maniac and got cut anyway. After running up a year's worth of Elite University tuition debt.

So I know I will figure it out, and hopefully won't get cut after a year! Maybe professional writing can be about flexibility and growth rather than limitations and failure. Learning another kind of writing and thinking doesn't have to be about loss of the expertise one has already acquired. There's a Roz Chast cartoon I love where a woman is reading a tabloid and happily exclaiming: "Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow are on the outs!" Behind her, a fat suitcase labelled "Medieval Art History" is falling from the sky into a big trash can. But we don't have to erase what we've learned from our hard drives in order to make room for new stuff, do we? Can't we just grow the RAM to run it all at once? I love Lucyrain's story--also in a comment-- about her successful lawyer friend who had to overcome writing problems her first year. Thanks for that--and for giving me the chance to talk about all this, and think about professional writing more generally.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Friends rock

I'm getting lots of support from all over, and I love it. Thanks everyone! Yesterday was pretty rough, but GF took me to a basketball game and I yelled till I was hoarse. And I also cheered the game.

Had two conversations with friends who made me feel better. One was with a friend who just felt angry for me. Everyone needs a friend like that sometimes: no wrangling or reasoning; just pure loyalty.

The other conversation was with a friend who was a lawyer before she became an English professor. She said I was overtrained in reading and writing and I just needed to learn to take law school exams. I asked her if I was doing the wrong thing going to law schooland she said absolutely not, which since she is pretty pragmatic about the suckyness of most jobs, including lawyering and professorializing, I appreciated. Also she could care less about grades of any kind, which I also like.

GF has been amazing. After freaking out for less than ten whole minutes, she pulled an about face and kicked into super-support mode. Last night I tossed and turned with worry but tonight will be better.

And you friends reading out there are awesome. Thanks for writing nice things.

Time to regroup. I'm trying not to dread the semester, and you all cheered me up. Thanks!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

if grades equal identity, i'm a gentleman

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Grades came out today. I don't really know how to talk about my unbelievably mediocre performance, other than to say that I am clearly not the only person demanding answers from Google right now. The web is full of comforting voices trying to reassure the desperate and suicidal that indeed, plenty of people get Cs their first term and go on to get stellar grades and great jobs afterwards. I am trying to listen to them and refrain from what I really want to do right now, which is withdraw from next semester, cash in my entire TIAA-CREF retirement account, and try something else.

If I hadn't worked so hard last semester I wouldn't be so devastated--after all, you know when you didn't go that extra mile and you should have, and when you get your grades, you say, yeah, I really didn't work as hard as I should have in this one particular way. But the truth is, I did go that extra mile. My problem is efficiency. I worked hard, studied hard, outlined, read supplements, and sucked at taking the actual exams. Sucked hard, apparently.


I have no idea. I suspect some of it has to do with my inability to touch type and my slow, plodding insistence on full sentences. Maybe I should have hand-written the exams. I have talked to at least one 3L who tried this after her bad first semester grades, and subsequently did much better on exams.

I've already been on the phone to my school and made an appointment for the first day of classes to talk to a career counselor. The secretary and I joked about making an appointment for my "friend" who needed academic help. Ha ha.

"Law school," a fellow student in my section is fond of saying, "when your best just isn't good enough." She gets called on all the time and often appears to be asleep. I bet even she did better than I did.

Then I found Harry Blackmun's law school grades on "too much about nothing," and it comforted me. Granted, Blackmun still finished 120 out of 451 at Harvard, but still, these babies make a gentleman girl failure like me feel a teensie bit better.

Harry Blackmun's Law School grades, courtesy of Too Much About Nothing:

Year One:

Civil Procedure: B
Contracts: C
Criminal Law: C
Property I: D
Torts: C

Year Two:

Bills & Notes: C
Equity II: D
Evidence: C
Property II: A
Sales: C
Trusts: D

Year Three:

Conflict of Laws: C
Constitutional Law: C
Corporations: B
Property III: A
Public Utilities: B
Suretyship & Mortgage: B

So there you have it. It's a low bar and I'm certainly not at Harvard, but mostly, the only way to go is up. Cheers, Harry.