Monday, October 1, 2007

To Ask or Not to Ask

That is the perennial question law students ask ourselves as we ponder during class the legal discussion whirring around our heads. We think, am I getting this? Should I just hang in there and keep listening? Do I need to ask this question now so the principle of law at hand will all then become clear? Can I instead save this question for after class or office hours? Is this just a minor point I am curious about or take an unusual interest in?

I've noticed a shift from the 1L year to the 2L year, and wonder why we ask more questions this year than last. Are we more comfortable with our professors and not as intimidated? Is our thinking about the law more clear and, thus, lends itself to a free flow of questions? Perhaps we just have more questions this year than last. However, I can't help but remember a story I heard about students taking a cue from college basketball and "running the clock," so-to-speak, to stall the progression of the class. They would ask questions toward the end of class, just to keep the professor on the same topic in the last few minutes and avoid moving forward in the material. The merits of running the clock are seen on an occasional basis, at the very end of class. The merits of running the clock 5, 15, and 25 minutes into class are less clear though. It can contribute to an overall malaise as students check-out while inane questions are addressed. The class can lose its mental steam and stall out way too early in the game. Or, class may become a series of starts and stops as we mentally check in and check out based on the nature of the questions being asked.

Questions are an invaluable part of the learning process, it's the give and take between professor and his/her legal progeny. We learn from the curious nature of our colleagues and we feed off the collective brain trust of the group. That is why we continue to ponder and to wrestle with that perennial question, "to ask or not to ask?" That IS the question, and when we ask it, we help avoid the trap of running the clock too early in the game.


Marie T. Reilly said...

Sure, Dean Smith is credited with inventing the four corners offense. The master of the clock gobbler all its insidious glory was, of course, Bobby Knight, coach of Indiana while I was a law student at Illinois. We ran the four corners then. I was the "go to," the sure-handed point guard as the clock ticked down at the end of Constitutional Law. As the prof threatened to go past our preparation, a classmate would raise his or her hand, ever so slightly, point up and circle from the elbow. I'd catch the sign. How about the levels of scrutiny or what might have happened if this justice or that thought something else? The four corners is a cooperative skill play. You can't run it alone. A fellow underprepared classmate would chime in: What Ms. Reilly does not see is . . . ."

When I see a really good four corners play these days from the other side of the podium, I respect it.

Jim Chen said...

This is a brilliant response, Marie. Alas, it also exposes a certain generational gap. You and I are old enough to remember college basketball before they installed the shot clock. Most of our students today have no recollection of, say, Marquette's stirring victory in the NCAA finals. Dean Smith went early to a four corners offense. But Al Maguire and his team found a way around the blockade and pulled out an improbable championship.

Marie T. Reilly said...

I am old enough to remember Chief Illiniwek, and I saw Bobby throw the chair.

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

This may surprise everyone, but my husband taught me the merits of the four corners offense during the early days of dating when we had time to watch weeks of March Madness. I know the shot clock was around at that time, but somehow he knew the history. As for Bobby, I remember his chair throwing ways, but only in the background while my dad watched and I played with legos. As for running the clock in the classroom, thank you for passing these legal traditions down from generation to generation, we are enriched and amused by the history!