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Sunday, June 03, 2007

On Shadow Curricula

Every school has two curricula. There is the official curriculum in the course catalog. But there is also the shadow curriculum, written nowhere, pervading everything.

One school has great advising, to the point of coddling. Discordant opinions are never punished, but no one is ever praised for them, either. Professors are discouraged from pressing students too hard; it’s bad form. Everything is well-maintained and orderly. The gentleman’s B+ reigns supreme. The official curriculum is serious enough, but the shadow curriculum reads: Be nice, be intelligent without depth, and don’t ever rock the boat.

Another school has every resource under the sun: famous faculty, specialized centers, money by the fistful, and a million activities and programs. Too bad that you have to do everything but kidnap a professor to get some attention. The students who never take “no” for an answer graduate with incredible resumes and profound self-confidence; the rest quickly learn to think of themselves as also-rans. This school says: There are leaders and there are followers, and you know which you are from an early age.

A third school is a bureaucratic nightmare. There are forms for every conceivable contingency, many of which need to be filed, in hard copy, with three different offices. Woe betide the student who forgets to file the add-drop form with the Dean of Students as well as with the Registrar. But woe betide also the student whose form the Registrar mislays. This school’s most enduring lesson: You are unimportant, and the world is a hard, uncaring place.

Yet another school is more forgiving of the occasional broken rule. Even, say, those ever-so-bothersome rules against plagiarism. If you know somebody who knows somebody who knows some donors, you have the academic equivalent of diplomatic immunity. This school’s most enduring lesson: You can bribe, bully, or butter your way into getting anything you want.

What does your school’s shadow curriculum teach?

Posted by James Grimmelmann on June 3, 2007 at 02:01 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Of course there are many people that one can blame. My only offering was that students can also make substantial contributions to these problems.

I don't know the specifics of the egregious case you are mentioning.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 4, 2007 4:56:13 PM

I beg to differ. Schools prattle on and on about how they are trying to select a certain body of students with certain attributes. Most of the time their claims are simply not credible, because we all know that schools that are lower in the rankings are trying to attract students with higher GPAs that could go elsewhere. But, whatever the case, schools claim to have molded their classes based on a specific desire to create a certain mix of students. So, if year after year, a 2d tier school generates cheating scandals (that need to be covered up for children of donors) the professors and deans have themselves to blame.

Likewise, when the number of students publishing journal articles drops below 80% a school needs to ask itself why? Is it because only students on journals are being encouraged to publish? (And then, only certain ones are “really” encouraged to publish.)
And, schools know how much bureaucracy they have. I don't know if students can do anything about it.

Posted by: S.cotus | Jun 4, 2007 1:22:47 PM

It should be noted, I think, that it isn't always the professors and the administration that are responsible for the culture. At Hastings, for example, the students are as culpable as anyone for creating the competitive atmosphere -- and perpetuate the culture in many ways. Of course, it is easy to blame the mandatory curve. But the curve, mandated or not, is a reality everywhere: not everyone can get an A; most people get Bs; and some people have to get Cs.

My evidence is anecdotal at best, since I've taught only at two different schools, both in the second tier. But student culture and student self-confidence is also a factor in these shadow curricula -- and students also need to take responsibility for what they do to a place.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 4, 2007 12:06:04 PM

4tier: Chin up there. Of all the possible shadow curricula, none is ever completely true. So, as much as your faculty hates you, the world is always a bit more nuanced than their prejudices.

The next step, I think, is to start naming which schools have which curricula. Only recently have I seen people start admitting that yes, deans do tell each other (and sometimes students) that they think that their students are “stupid” or wasting their time. But somehow these same deans say the opposite in their glossy brochures.

Posted by: S.cotus | Jun 4, 2007 4:33:45 AM

I'm a student at a fourth-tier school and the constant refrain to the great majority is "Law school is a waste of your time." I'm at a fourth-tier law school because I couldn't get in somewhere better, and even if I pass the bar, which the Dean of Academic Affairs flat out told me I wouldn't, who wants to hire a lawyer from a fourth-tier law school? And the professors follow through on that message. They discourage coming to office hours and don't like answering questions in class. So the lesson is that the students will never be lawyers.

Posted by: TTT | Jun 4, 2007 12:43:28 AM

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