Monday, August 19, 2013
First Day of the First Minimester
When I started graduate school in 1986, people were saying that the early 90s were going to be a great time for newly minted history Ph.D.s. Universities had exploded in the 60s, and a lot of tenured faculty members were due to retire. There were going to be a lot of openings in a lot of fields. And of course, none of us graduate students were worried in any case because we were young and indestructable -- all brilliant and all certain to continue to be at the top of our fields.
But the people who were hired in the 60s didn't retire, and many of those who did retire were not replaced or were replaced in non-traditional fields. The year I got my Ph.D. (1993) ended up being pretty dismal for newly minted Ph.D.s, and I never found a tenure-track job in history. I never came close. I was on the market for five years and never even got an on-campus interview for a tenure track job at any of the hundreds of universities, colleges, technical colleges and private high schools to which I applied.
When I tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly to get a job teaching history, there were structural problems with gradaute programs in history. Lots of programs were admitting far too many students. They were doing so because gradaute students were a cheap labor supply for teaching (or T.A.ing) undergraduate courses and because faculty members wanted to have graduate students to work with. History departments wanted to develop their Ph.D. programs because that enhanced the reputation of the program and of the university. But there weren't enough jobs, and history programs were not really training people to get jobs, since graduate students were either taking obscure upper-level courses or were working on their far more obscure dissertations that they were hoping to publish as scholarly monographs that only libraries would buy and only other professional historians in their narrow sub-field would read. That remains the model for doctoral programs in history, and the model remains broken. I have no idea why the typical history doctoral student in this country spends at least five years working on a book that almost nobody will read when they could just as easily devote their time to writing 3-5 historical essays of publishable quality which, when published, will eventually be in a database where they will be full-text searchable and actually of use to other scholars and laypeople alike. Harumph!
Contrast that with the feverish if not frenzied innovation that is currently underway in the legal academy. Schools are experimenting in every imaginable way -- reducing faculty and administrative staff, decreasing class size, and most importantly, adjusting the curriculum to better prepare today's students so that they can pass the bar and also be ready to start practice in a legal environment where more seasoned lawyers have very little time to train new attorneys. Those who criticize law schools for being slow to react to the new market for attorneys need some context. The legal academy has been incredibly responsive, and the only questions are whether they have resopnded in the right ways and whether they have correctly identified as either long-term or merely cyclical the problems in the market for attorneys.
My Law School (Valparaiso) is no different, but it is unique. That is, we have been scrambling to figure out better ways to serve our students (just like everyone else), but we have come up with a new curriculum that is unlike any other that I have heard about. On the blog, I just want to talk about how we are transforming the contracts course, but there is a lot more to our new curriculum.
I have already blogged about our LibGuide, which is being curated by our librarian, Jesse Bowman (pictured). I will have a great deal more to say about the LibGuide as it continues to develop, but today I want to talk about our new seven-week minimesters.
Today is the first day of our first minimester. We will be teaching a two-credit Contracts I course for seven weeks. We will then have a break for exams, to be followed by another two-credit, seven-week course, Contracts II. One purpose of the minimester system is to enable us to assess our students and give them meaningful feedback as early as possible in the course of their legal education. So, rather than having a huge exam at the end of the semester, with very little sense of their chances of success on the exam, our students will have frequent assessment throughout the minimester and an exam at the end. The final exam will still be important, but it will only account for part of their grade in a two-credit course, and they should have some notice, based on assessment throughout the semester of where they likely will fall relative to their peers. Since no minimester course counts for more than two-credits, we will not have the phenomenon that sometimes occurs at schools where Property or Civ. Pro are five-credit, one-semester courses, and students neglect other courses in favor of hunting the semester's big game.
At the same time, my doctrinal colleagues and I are working closely with our skills faculty (and there is a great deal of overlap) to coordinate exercises and assessments in doctrinal courses with the subject-matter of our skills courses. Those too have been re-conceived and re-configured from the ground up based on our assessment of where our students are in terms of their preparation for law school and what they need to get them ready for practice.
I will be blogging throughout the semester about the LibGuide and the minimester system. I am really excited about this experiment and eager to see how it works for our students.