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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Tycho Brahe

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Tycho Brahe is the name of the guy I was trying to think of last night during my Contracts final. I couldn’t think of his name because he was a 16th century Danish astronomer and I’m not normally in the habit of thinking of 16th century Danish astronomers. I thought of this one though. My high school physics teacher once told me a story, pretty much the only thing I still remember about high school physics, about Tycho Brahe. He said Tycho Brahe attended a banquet with the King. It was considered such bad manners to leave the table before the King that Tycho Brahe refused to leave to go to the bathroom even though he really, really, really needed to go. Shorty thereafter Tycho Brahe DIED of a bladder infection.

What sparked this delightful mental interlude during my contracts final was that I also really needed to go to the bathroom. I thought of Tycho Brahe because the only thing that I remember about him was that he died because he didn’t go to the bathroom. I have higher aspirations for my eulogy.

Lo, the final bearer cometh…

Contracts Prof came staggering into the classroom last night under the weight of two full copy paper boxes. If you ever see your professor come staggering into your final with two full copy paper boxes, take the opportunity to go to the bathroom. Afterwards, send me a check for the appropriate value you place on your life and a legacy free of people snickering about the bladder infection that would otherwise obscure all your glowing accomplishments. The two full copy paper boxes, of course, contained our final. It was a three-hour exam, 178 multiple-choice questions, each with their own fact pattern, at an average of 2-3 questions per page. You might correctly deduce that we had a smidgen over one minute to answer each question. Welcome to speed contracts. I held it, incidentally. I will never bring a venti Latte in with me to a final again.

Real politick of law school exams

You might suppose that a law school exam is an opportunity to demonstrate to the professor your knowledge and skill in analyzing the material. How quaint. Let us take this opportunity examine the real politick of law school exams by asking the age-old question WWMD? – what would Machiavelli do? I submit, that cynically, rather than an opportunity to show what you know, a law school exam is an opportunity for the professor to place you on a grading curve. The distinction is sometimes slight, but always real. There are several ways of doing this, some of which have something to do with the material you learned over the semester and some of which don’t. He or she can separate you by (1) subjectively analyzing your essays on the subject (and then endure the next semesters parade of malcontents rehashing their old exams in his office i.e. high transaction costs) (2) counting the number of ‘points’ you score by spotting and analyzing issues in his hypos (better, but see ‘parade of malcontents’ above) or (3) making the exam so long that students are separated by how many questions they can get to in the given time period. Add multiple choice and your professor will dutifully bring his burnt offering to the temple of Scantron (4) following the exam, the prof might ‘accidentally’ drop the box of finals down a flight of stairs. The ones at the top are ‘A’s; the ones near the bottom are not.

There are other opportunities some times. In one of my other classes, several of us missed a class to participate in a mock trial competition. The subject matter of that class seemed to be featured inordinately on the final in relation to its importance. Coincidence perhaps, but WWMD?

I don’t actually think Professors are so Machiavellian in their approach to finals. They will do everything in their power to make the exam a true reflection of what we know and don’t know about the subject. There are pressures at work, however, pressures that force compromise. Pressures that we too will one day experience in practice when we have to decide how much of our time to give a certain client’s matter and we too will have to decide how much we’re willing to compromise. While exams are important and the grades that result do matter, the knowledge we acquired can’t be taken away.

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Category: advice to law students, law school


3 Responses

  1. Expressing Damages says:

    WWMD…seems a bit misplaced as Machiavelli proposed not attaining an end by any means necessary but rather balancing benevolence and malevolence as tools for reaching a morally prudent outcome for the state. AC (you know, he went to Harvard!) was using the exam to mitigate the investment of actual work to achieve personal gain rather than that of the state, i.e. the students. Some solace may be taken as we were all hosed en masse…however, I wish that we were all hosed based on our knowledge of contracts not on how feverishly we can read and fill in bubbles. I would rather AC have a breath-holding competition, skeet shoot, Pass-the-Pigs tournament, or hell…we could have had a decathlon if grades will be determined so capriciously.

    Oh and next time, strap on the diaper á la Lisa Nowak and drink cranberry juice to salvage your kidneys.

  2. lukegilman says:

    Distinction well-taken, though I still think a Machiavellian approach is still the best explanation, even accepting your definition, which I think is a good one. I wouldn’t be so quick to attribute the choice of test to laziness or “mitigate the investment of actual work” – it is, after all, a more objective (though not totally objective) way to differentiate, and one could argue that it actually was in our interest

    My main complaint is only that a multiple-choice exam deprives students of the opportunity to feel like we had an opportunity to demonstrate what we really knew about the subject.

    Brilliant! Am now adding astronaut diaper to my checklist of exam-taking paraphenalia.

  3. Expressing Damages says:

    I would be as quick…one should at least have the sack to proofread the exam post cut-n-paste. The typos were beyond estimation, the bulleting format was discombobulated in places and one question um, had NO question! Tell me that wasn’t sloth. I just thought we deserved…oh, what am I looking for…deserved more consideration. Or you could be right…the amount of scotch consumed in all that Ctrl-Cing and Ctrl-Ving may be equivalent to the amount that would have been consumed in grading our essays (~70 scantrons are only about two shots worth…there’s your mitigation.)

    Technically, you are correct in that it is a very objective measure (albeit not of contract law). Our blue bubbled sheets will slither their way through the scanner (some beeping more than others) only to burst forth with a very discreet numeral in the corner (some smaller than others) and that these numbers may be normalized to fit nicely into a bell shaped curve (some more outlying than others) situated at ~3.0; from which our respecitve locations will be discerned and placed in the proper (grit your teeth) letter bin. Correct, yes…this is indeed objective. In our best interest?…c’mon…no really…c’mon! I suppose if you wish to get all existential and creat your own reality…count me in (well, only if we get our own set of magic underwear like the Mormons)!

    Your main complaint is mine as well…law is nuanced; and we were not able to demonstrate it as such.

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