November 8, 2005
Caught in the Middle Again
This is the time of year when I get a lot of referrals for help with first-year legal writing assignments. These students have turned in two to three papers already, and their legal writing professors think they need some help beyond the grading process. I am happy to help, but I wonder if I am doing these students a disservice at times. What if my style of writing and “rules of citation” are different from their professors'? And my understanding of the law—since each legal writing professor has a different issue in a different jurisdiction—may be quite limited.
Frankly, I feel like an idiot if all my advice boils down to “Well, we’ve made a list of questions for your legal writing professor. Let’s check with him and then get back to this paper when we have some answers….”
I do have a copy of each professor’s assignment and a “confidential” outline that incorporates the case law, but I have not been to class, and the assignments inevitably evolve over time. Often I hear, “Oh, we’re not supposed to cover that anymore,” or “She said we don’t need to cite that way.” Because I am not grading the paper, I always say to do it the professor's way rather than mine.
I am in a situation where I basically must trust the students to be honest with me, and sometimes I find that I have been duped. And to what end? It is a lot like fabricating things to tell your therapist. Why would you tell me that your writing professor is okay with something when it is not true?
Granted, there are students who truly believe what they are telling me, and my cautious “That doesn’t sound right” will prompt them to double check. But often there are students who take advantage of my secondary position and tell me things that are not accurate. It makes me feel like Grandma. You know how it is: “Mommy always lets me eat candy for breakfast, and Daddy lets me use his chain saw all by myself.” Gee, that doesn’t sound right, but who am I to argue?
It gets frustrating after a while. I have had students come back to me angry (really, really angry!) after my advice turned out to be incorrect in the context of a particular professor's particular assignment. I have also had writing professors gently chide me for not catching things, when in fact I did catch them and did point them out to the student as suspicious only to be told by the student that they were allowed.
So where does all this leave me? On the way home to make some chicken soup. (ezs)
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