Wednesday, January 09, 2008
The Creative Writing Behind Law School Exams
As exam season comes to a close, I was thinking about the time and effort professors put into their exams. Yes, grading takes a lot of time, and it can be tedious for big classes. But I was thinking more about the exams themselves -- specifically, writing the exam questions.
I've heard it told that multiple choice questions are a trade-off: they take longer to write, but are much quicker to grade. In my mind, this gives short shrift to the time, care, and thought that go into the writing of an essay question. An essay question is a means of testing students on their knowledge of the law and their ability to apply that knowledge. But they are also stories. A good essay question not only raises relevant legal issues; it also presents a tale that seems realistic and at least somewhat compelling. In a field that blends reason and emotion, the law school exam essay needs to speak to the students' issue-spotting abilities as well as their notions of right and wrong.
So it's a shame, really, that these stories are prepared for a one-time use and then forgotten. At best, exam questions may be read again by future students as practice. But they never are appreciated on their own terms. Does the story seem like it could happen? Is it gripping? Does it leave you feeling angry, or sad, or conflicted? Could it stand on its own as creative fiction?
Thus, I am asking folks in the PrawfsBlawg readership to submit examples of essay questions that they believe are particularly good examples of storytelling. I'd like to collect them and post them here at Prawfs, highlighting particularly compelling excerpts. Please send your examples to this email address. It would probably be easiest to attach them to your email as Word or WP documents; .pdfs are also fine. And you can nominate your own questions, a colleague's, or even your professor's. (You can feel free to request anonymity; I won't publish anyone's exam question without their permission.)
The essay question has gone unrecognized as an art form. Let's try to give these examples of creative fiction the recognition they deserve.
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Charles Donahue has some real corkers. His fall 2003 Property exam begins:
Matthew Arnold’s poem, Sohrah and Rustum is a translation/adaptation of a portion of the Iranian national epic that tells the tragic story of how a father kills his son in a three-day, single combat, the father fighting for the Persians and the son for the Tartars.
His fall 1998 Property exam is explicitly meta:
Yes, this is a story about a farm. All property exams contain stories about farms, because it allows one to work out a genuinely mucked up title over a long period of time, and also--there’s always another reason--because most Americans have an ambiguous relationship to farms. We imagine that we have left the farm (even if the farm was in another country) and in leaving the farm, we left a simpler, and, in some ways, a better life. But, as I said, the relationship is ambiguous; there were reasons why we left the farm. So this is a story about a farm that tries to capture our nostalgia for rural life but also our horror of it. Whether, and how, this might affect the results in the following case is for you to decide.
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jan 9, 2008 7:32:33 PM
Maybe it's because I've never been too much of the creative writing type, but excessively creative exams bugged me as a student and don't interest me now that I write them for students. Especially in the normal time sensitive exam context, writing a long exam question just to get in a good story and show off creativity seems like excessive punishment for a student who needs the time for other things, like analytical thinking and writing. I don't think fact patterns should be just a list of bulleted facts, but I also think there should be a limit so the students can get down to the task at hand - thinking and then conveying that to us on paper.
Posted by: David S. Cohen | Jan 9, 2008 10:12:46 PM
I would agree that a Hemingway-esque style is to be preferred over florid prose. An exam that is too self-conscious of its style is distracting. But I do think there is merit to having an essay question that hangs together as a narrative and tells a compelling story. An exam where things just "happen" is too atomized, in my view.
Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jan 10, 2008 10:18:38 AM
I recently had the strange experience of reading this news story
Which was near-identical to a criminal law fact pattern I encountered four years ago. An interesting twist on the ripped from the headlines fact pattern.
Posted by: keitht | Jan 10, 2008 12:11:27 PM
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