Tuesday, August 1, 2017
I have read multiple articles (including Goldie Pritchard’s 2016 blog post) that the best way to remind yourself what it is like to be a first-year law student it to try something totally new. That sounded like a good suggestion, so earlier this year I intentionally set out to be a novice at a difficult task and mindfully soak in the experience. I decided to grow a giant pumpkin. I have never grown anything myself, let alone something “giant.” My husband, however, has been growing everything and anything—including big pumpkins—competitively for several years. He is an expert. Over the last few months, I’ve learned a lot about what it is like to be a novice. Here is lesson number one.
Novices are blissfully unaware of the extensive criteria an expert takes into consideration when making an important decision in their field, and if confronted with all of the available options the novice may become overwhelmed.
Step one in giant pumpkin growing is seed selection. As a newbie, my plan was to simply use something from my husband’s seed collection. He has hundreds in a large bin, after all. I looked at a couple of packages, spotted an attractive looking specimen, and made my decision. The whole process took less than 5 minutes. My husband sat there stunned, horrified. “You’re done already?” he wondered aloud. You see, there are dozens of factors an expert grower takes into consideration in seed selection: parent plants, color versus size, history of known genetic defects, and the prestige associated with the original grower, just to name a few. As my husband began to explain all of my options, I quickly did not care for the seed selection process anymore. It was too much information and too many decisions at a time when I still was not convinced that there was any real difference between a 1912 Carter and a 2106 Schmit. I went from happy and confident in my ability to quickly select a seed to second-guessing everything about my choice. I changed my mind several times and shut down emotionally. I wanted to quit. I eventually took the easy choice: I would grow a seed from my husband’s own pumpkin. There was absolutely no sophistication to my analysis, but that was the best I could do under the weight of the endless choices.
This got me thinking about hierarchy of authority in legal writing. Students must look at the vast array of cases and statutes on Westlaw (or, dare I say, Google) the same way I looked at my husband’s bin of seeds—as a collection of seemingly equal options from which to choose, with little regard for the finer distinctions. Our students are likely overwhelmed by basic case information that to us experts seems straightforward. First semester students likely see little difference between the judicial opinion of a court of last resort in a neighboring jurisdiction and the intermediate appellate court decision of the controlling jurisdiction. In fact, the former might prove to be a more attractive option to the student than the latter.
This novice’s recommendation: Provide less information initially, and then dole out additional information in small strategic chunks over a period of time, even if it means the novice might risk making a poor initial choice. Let the novice make a small, perhaps less sophisticated choice confidently and then learn from their mistakes. The novice would appreciate less information, not more. Rather than being overwhelmed with all the options, let the novice decide a few basic decisions. Once they understand the fundamental decision making process, layer on the additional choices. Repeat the process until all the expert factors are imported into the decision making process.