Con Law Disaster
Now that the grades have been posted, I think I can feel free to vent my frustration at the worst thing that has happened to me academically last term.
Kind reader, you may remember the level of terror I had of the Con Law exam? Entries like this? I'd not had such gut-shaking trepidation since my undergraduate finals. But now, I don't feel anything but a numb anger.
When I and my colleagues opened up our exam packets, we found that Professor Con Law had almost exactly copied, word for word, over a third of the exam from questions on his past papers. Moreover, he'd copied them from exams that were available on the university share drive, with model answers, in an open note exam. Needless to say, a lot of people had the model answers with them.
Indeed, I had the answers to one of the questions in my satchel, and considered taking it out. Then I remembered that before each exam we sign a sheet of paper saying that we swear to abide by some code of conduct that I doubt many of us have ever read. Certainly I hadn't. So I kept the answer far away, fearing that little hidden clause that would fail any of us who admitted to having used the model answer.
In the event, it didn't matter that much. One third of the exam was a question that my study group had used as a mock examination three days previously. As such, I had quite a lot to say about the topic. And as such, it probably doomed me.
By the time I got out of the exam, I was nearly livid. Forget the fact that after reading over 1,200 pages of bloody Gunther and bloody Sullivan, Prof. Con Law couldn't find it in him to get up off his duff and come up with some new questions. (Those that hadn't been lifted directly from past exams were for the most part thinly-veiled paraphrases.) Forget the fact that this was going to skew the curve unfairly in favor of those who practiced a certain style of study--review of past exams. No, simply put, I was enraged by the fact that a professor of Constitutional Law at a major university, who is old enough to know better and should appreciate his responsibility, put many of us in an ethical dilemma in the middle of the exam. After all, if we had the mock exams with us, would it be unethical to look at them? Whatever side you come down on as to the question, it does exist, and it was needlessly distracting.
I didn't think I could be so upset: after all, this was the exam I'd poured my heart into, the one that I felt real physical concern about. To a great degree, this was my semester. And then it got worse.
We'd all wondered what would be done about this situation. A few ideas were floated, ranging from the extreme (re-sit the exam) to the nuanced (give no points for anything that was on the model answer) to this resigned (do nothing, everyone had the same chance). I'll admit at this point that I doubt there was a good answer, just a choice of evils: whatever was done would hurt someone.
A few days later, we got a letter from the academic registrar, explaining that Prof. Con Law had heard that we were concerned. He apologized, but explained that he hadn't realized that we had more than two years of mock exams on our share drive, or that the answers to those questions had been published.
Let's take a look at just how weak that explanation is. First of all, if you're a professor, you have access to the same share drive we all do. And this particular professor had three very competent TA's--and please, none of this should reflect upon them, they were paragons of diligence--any of whom could have told him what was and was not on the share. But even if he were working alone, isolated, and techno-illiterate this would be no excuse. Anyone who has the responsibility for a law school class, particularly a bundle of hyper-competitive first years, should bloody well realize that its their responsibility to know what's been released to the public, and what's available.
(Indeed, given the persistence of online storage space, the fact that various societies keep their own archives, and the competitiveness of 1Ls, an argument can be made that it's unwise to reuse any question that's been on a released examination or had a model answer posted. But this wasn't a case of prior answers being posted on the Journal Of Bohemian Esoterica Law Review's internal academic archive: these were documents on the university's official server, documents that had Prof. Con Law's name in the filename.)
His solution to this wholly avoidable boondoggle? He was going to remove the offending sections completely from the examination.
Now, to those who haven't taken a law school examination, some explanation may be in order. This one was a three-hour exam, with multiple essays divided into three parts. Needless to say, it was unlikely that any but the very best would do perfectly on all of them. But in order to maximize your chances, you put more time into the areas you feel you'll do best at, and give your weak points a cursory examination. Or at least, that's my strategy, and it's typically successful.
In this case, it was a disaster. I almost certainly put more time into the sections that were dropped than the ones that remained. And statistically speaking, I can't be the only one who did so, even amongst those who didn't use the model answer, or hadn't been exposed to it. (Some students didn't even recognize that this was a past exam question.) Far from being a good strategy, every extra second I took from a 'valid' section of the exam was simply a waste: it amounted to nothing.
As solutions go, in no way could this be considered nuanced. Then again, it didn't take much work to fix it this way.
Please don't feel that this is a grade complaint. In the end, my Con Law result will be only a very fractional drag on my average, and perhaps not even that. What annoys me is that every grade that was given in that class is de facto illegitimate. No one was graded on the exam that they actually took. Instead, we earned our results based not on our knowledge or our skill measured by a test that we approached strategically, but how lucky we were to choose certain questions on which to concentrate. (After all, each question's weighting was labelled on the exam, and most of us wrote with those expectations.) Even if you did well on all the sections, the grade is curved: you can't know that someone who did very well on a deleted section shouldn't have done better than you.
Of all the ideas bounced around after the exam, the best one I heard was just simply to mark everyone pass/fail, and to zero the grade out of the average for those who were in my Con Law class. The response was that this simply wouldn't be fair to those who did well. But in the end, no one did well on that exam, because no one can say that they actually took the exam that was graded. Any result there, good or bad, is a fiction.
I now actually resent my Con Law class, and every second I spent in it. I resent the fact that I wasted my time on a game of roulette when I could have had four more days to work on Crim Law, Reg State, or Perspectives. And I deeply, deeply loathe the fact that a person who had the responsibility for writing an exam that might determine whether his students get onto Law Review, whether they get that summer job they were hoping for, whether they achieve the dreams that they may have had for decades couldn't give a damn enough to trawl through hundreds of pages of the book he assigned to come up with something new. It's not like he was short on material.