Thursday, November 8, 2007

Core: Six or Four

There is a growing trend among law schools to reduce core courses such as Civil Procedure, Contracts, and Torts from 6 credits (3 fall, 3 spring) to 4 credits in one semester. Some say it's to conserve faculty resourses, others say it's to free up those credits for an elective. As someone who took four credit core courses and an elective, one I actually enjoyed (Criminal Procedure with a former SCOTUS clerk), I'm not so sure I prefer that option. It has nothing to do with the quality of the elective, mine was actually fantastic. It has everything to do with what I didn't get a chance to learn in the core courses, or had to blow through in the blink of an eye (e.g. Erie Doctrine). It has everything to do with the fact that I had only one semester to develop rapport and an intellectual connection with core course faculty.

It was so disheartening to overhear professors stand at the podium and mutter under their breath, "I used to teach this as a six credit course, I really want to teach this material, but I have to cut something . . ." Usually the statement was accompanied by a perplexed look and a hand to the head in frustration as the professor stared at the material on the chopping block. You could almost see the wheels in their heads spinning as they flipped through the pages they knew they had to eliminate. They were hoping against hope to fit it in and still stay on track to cover the rest of the material. Then came the sigh, the final look of exasperation, and the conclusion that no, it would just have to be cut. And so the material in question found itself on the cutting room floor. It was equally disheartening to sit in other classes and hear professors say to us incredulously, "You didn't learn THAT in x, y, or z course?!" followed by more looks of perplexity.

If we are distraught by the current trend, if we realize how important it is for students to learn as much as possible in their core courses, I can't help but wonder why the tide keeps turning in favor of four credit courses. Perhaps we lack a group of consumers who will push back. 1Ls entering law school don't know how to brief a case, let alone question the credit hours of their core courses. By the time they realize that six might be better than four they no longer have a dog in that fight, it's a moot issue. Future students who will have a dog in that fight down the road have a ripeness problem. They don't have a "claim" until they are students and by then it is too late.

This leads me to faculty. Professors confront this issue year after year. They are the ones who stand at the podium and scratch their heads in frustration because they can't teach all that they know their students need to learn. For all the faculty out there who yearn for six instead of four, I encourage you to push back. Just because this is the way it is doesn't mean it's the way it has to be.


Kelly J. Bozanic said...

I would add that the reduction from six to four is in part due to the emphasis on faculty research and publishing demands. At a research institution (from my side of the equation), it seems that there is greater pressure on the faculty to produce scholarship as opposed to scholars. I believe this is university-wide, and my hunch is that it is not unique to Penn State. This is not a reflection on the faculty, but indicative of the fissure between the ivory tower and the rest of the world. Universities are rankings-oriented, and rankings are determined (among other things) by reputation. One way to boost reputation is through scholarship. While scholarship can translate into enhanced classroom experiences, it doesn't always. This methodology (as Alison points out) is not always consonant with practical needs.

Marie T. Reilly said...

Faculties revisit the first year curricula every few years. Two semesters of a faculty member's time for a five or six hour course requires a larger investment in the first year than a one semester course. If the size of the faculty doesn't get larger, the relative increase in investment in the first year plays out in reduced course offerings in the upper level. I like 6 -- not so much for all the reasons you note. I miss the chance to really get to know students -- to see them evolve. One semester will never give me that. I like to thing that in a six hour course students get to learn a professor's whole philosophy and approach to lawyering. What inevitably gets cut from a 6 hour course are the indirect lessons about how to be a lawyer and the luxury of time spent just working on something together.

Steve Ross said...

Based on my experience at Illinois, the 6/4 question had nothing to do with faculty research and everything to do with the inclusion of public law classes or electives in the first year, which requires something has to give from the Langdell/Harvard traditional model of year-long 6 hour courses in Contracts, Property, Torts, Civil Procedure, and Criminal Law-Procedure.

Each professor used to a 6 hour course obviously feels that her materials are all essential. I suspect you would get 25 different answers on this faculty to the question "what courses are essential for any graduate to take." The best we can do, then, is to try to get a consensus on "what courses are essential for any 1-L to take in order to succeed in the rest of law school."

For example, property profs all think that coverage of real estate and public land use is essential, but in fact real estate is really the application of contract law principles to real property and public land use's foundational principles come from con law. Many hip and in-the-know contracts profs think the UCC is essential, but the conceptual foundations are fairly similar, and one could easily incorporate a few examples of UCC analysis into a 4 hour course.

So as a public law type, I appreciate your concerns but am not willing to sacrifice Con Law or at least the opportunity for students to take public law electives (of course my personal 1 in 25 vote would require statutory interpretation!).