Tuesday, July 2, 2019
In Michael Crichton's book The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park, the scientist Ian Malcolm observes that the velociraptors -- pack-oriented hunting dinosaurs that have been brought back from extinction through genetic engineering -- behave unexpectedly viciously towards each other. Ordinarily, pack animals would work under some kind of social structure, as, for example, when wolves are led by a single alpha male, disadvantaging other males but minimizing conflict and maximizing cooperation among the pack as a whole. But in the book, the velociraptors are depicted as combative and treacherous, attacking each other at the slightest provocation or opportunity.
Malcolm realizes that even though the DNA used to recreate these creatures captured perfectly the information needed to duplicate the originals physically, there had been no means by which the scientists could have reproduced the social structure that the original animals had developed and passed along over uncounted millennia. Without that information inherited from previous generations, the cloned velociraptors could only work out their own "culture" by trial and error -- mostly maladaptive, destructive error. They might well destroy themselves as a species all over again, just because they had had no chance to observe and learn from those who had come before them.
Every year, we are midwives to a new brood of legal hatchlings, law school graduates who must face the professional equivalent of nature red in tooth and claw: the bar examination. In the majority of cases, this is not an iterative, developmental experience. Most attorneys take the bar exam once and never have to apply its lessons again. But the lessons are real and valuable.
Some of those lessons are relatively easily compiled and organized, so that they can be provided/sold to future graduates through various forms of mass marketing: bar review courses that offer exhaustive compendia of necessary legal rules and concepts, or books that provide tips about studying, memorizing, essay writing, or time management. These can be quite helpful, and they provide a very large portion of the information that determines most applicant's behavior as they prepare for, and then take, the bar examination.
Still, for the most part, this information goes only to the development of the individual's fitness for the exam. Each individual applicant acquires certain needed components -- some knowledge, some judgment, some skills -- in the same way that an individual velociraptor can develop pointed teeth, sharp claws, and a muscular tail. And these components may serve that applicant well on the exam.
What about the social aspect? I see my students this summer gathering to watch lectures together. I hear about them supporting each other when they are confused or frustrated. I know they are pushing each other to stay on track in their study progress. They tell me about meeting up off campus or trading thoughts by phone or online. I know that, for my school at least, something is different this summer: the students are more communicative with me, they are completing more of their assigned work on time, and they are sharing more notes and resources with each other. This isn't something they've read in a book or took down in a lecture. It is the social structure of this class of legal hatchlings, developing in a healthy way.
It may only be an incremental change, increasing engagement or completion or quality by a few percentage points. But such changes, over time, is the definition of evolution. But it can only happen if we have some way of passing it along, some analogue of DNA that transmits the essence of this slightly modified social structure along to the next generation of hatchlings.
In a way, one aspect of our existence as Academic Success vectors is to carry this information, as best we can, from class to class, like plasmids shuttling genetic material from one bacterium to another. We can tell next year's graduates what this year's graduates did, ask them to trust us and to try the same strategies. To the extent they do trust us, and to the extent that we know and can articulate the changes to the social structure, this can be helpful.
We can also ask our alumni to transmit directly, inviting them to return to the classroom next year and to share their experiences with the following class. I did this twice this past spring semester, and my students seemed very responsive, asking lots of questions to help them suss out what to expect in the summer. Later this month, I plan to record some video of students engaged in studying, or willing to open up after a lecture or an exercise, so that my future students can get a better idea of how these students worked alongside each other.
It is great to seem some improvement in outcomes for our students, and often we can point to better development of individual skills as a contributor to this improvement. But just because changes to the social component of performance might be more difficult to isolate and package doesn't mean we should let them slip away from year to year, with just the hope that they might be recreated from scratch each time. Some information is transmitted via nucleotides; some information, via letters and numbers; but some can only be passed along, by explanation and example, from one society to its successor.