Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reflections on the Semi-Annual Receipt of Grades

Law school grades are the immediate return on a student's investment in his classes. They are a very large part indeed of a typical student's emotional return for that investment. Each year at this time and again in the spring law professors receive emails and visits from aggrieved students, who feel they merited a better grade. Many of these complaints are based on the grade itself being unsatisfactory, as distinguished from the grade being inconsonant with the effort made. Many high functioning students will receive the first unwanted grade of their entire academic careers in law school. And whatever its merits, the zeitgeist that built self-esteem divorced from accomplishment does not well-prepare those students for the affront of a grade less than some species of A. So the professors brace themselves in their offices and entertain the complaints; in my experience, with the detachment of a doctor giving an unhappy patient the news. The grade, that is, is unchangeable as a dire prognosis, and the professor is there to help the student accept that reality. This steadfastness, it must be acknowledged, is adopted more in contemplation of the slippery slope than for its inherent justice.

The students are not always there for vanity. Employers value high grades. That will not change, nor can there be a convincing argument put forward as to why it should. If an employer selects someone at the top of her class, that employer gets a highly competent and intelligent person. Because grades are to some extent irreducibly arbitrary (and perhaps not even the best way to gauge ability) employers will overlook some comparably endowed students further down in the class. But so what? The employers will get what they need. And these others may come to them as proven professionals somewhere down the line, without employers assuming the risk associated with an unlettered hire.

There are some employers who look almost exclusively at first semester 1L grades, because they believe that is the semester where the students are all starting from the same point, and are all in direct competition with each other. Such employers either do not know or do not care about the impact of the cottage industry that has sprung up to teach entering students (with the money to pay the fee) how to game law school exams. In any case, the fiction that all students start from the same place is pointed up by those students who show up to the first day of law school carrying campaign posters for their election to some office or another (it doesn't seem to matter much which office), while the rest of the student body is dedicated to finding out where to pick up their I.D.'s and locker keys.

When I was in undergrad, I studied a concept called the fundamental attribution error. It refers, as I recall, to the tendency we all have to ascribe a failing of our own to ephemeral and external conditions and to ascribe the failings of others to their own indelible defects. For example, if I do not do well in an oral argument exercise, it was because I didn't sleep well the night before or because I did not have sufficient time to prepare. But if Nancy or Bobby does not do well in the exercise, it is because they just don't have it in them, etc.

Another aspect of the concept is to accept good fortune as an exchange for merit and to regard bad fortune as a failing of another. So, for example, if I get an A, the professor got it right because I did A work. But if the professor gives me a C, the professor (and it can even be the same one) did me an injustice.

We all have a certain amount of self-regard. And law students especially. I remember at orientation viewing a Power Point presentation about the personality traits of law students. Having just read a book by John Douglass (the FBI profiler guy), I recognized the list. I said to the guy next to me, "Those are personality traits of serial killers." Add to this inflated self regard the fact that grades are to some extent arbitrary, and invariably highly ramified for a student's career, and you could script out the scenes, sight unseen, that occur when grades come in.

Rather like someone in an opposing trench in the Great War, I respect and sympathize with the position of law professors in their lonely redoubt come grade time. But yet I am on the other side.

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