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Revamping the Curriculum

a conversation with judy mcmorrow

At the end of February, BC Law’s faculty will meet to consider a number of important decisions regarding the direction of the school’s academic philosophy and curriculum.  The meeting marks a turning point for BC Law, some two years after Dean John Garvey outlined three new initiatives in his Spring 2006 letter to the community. 

The first of these initiatives was a new LL.M. program.  Gail Hupper was hired to build the program, and it is currently in the middle of a successful first year. The second was course compression (the restructuring of smaller upper-level electives to run in a two-year cycle), allowing students a greater opportunity to take classes they are interested in, while creating a more stable teaching structure, giving faculty more time for research and publication efforts. 

The final initiative was a change in the 1L course of study.  For the past twenty or so years, the 1L curriculum was more like a hybrid trimester, with Torts, Contracts, and Property running until February and counting as five credits.  One of the new changes included reducing those courses to traditional four-credit classes that ended in December.  The other major change was the addition of Criminal Law in the second semester. 

“Institutions should be constantly thinking about what meets their needs," says Professor Judy McMorrow. The Educational Policy Committee, which McMorrow chairs, is preparing recommendations for further changes in the first-year curriculum.   In advance of next month’s faculty meeting, Professor McMorrow answered a few questions about how BC Law reached this stage and where things might be going from here.

Regarding the 1L course of study, a change like that doesn’t happen overnight.  How did this decision finally come to pass?

When you are in academics long enough, you discover that there’s almost always some low-grade discussion about changing first year curriculum.  It’s the one year when we have more control over what the students take.  It's also a place where the law school makes a statement about the ideas we feel students must have before they graduate.  Our last first-year curriculum change was in 1985-1987, so it had been twenty years. In the life of any academic institution, that’s a natural time to look at what we’re doing and see if it needs updating.

The issue of rethinking 1st year curriculum is like a snowball.  It’s gotten larger and larger over the last several years.  There were increasing practical needs that caused us to go back to the table and say ‘is this the optimum way for us to frame our first year curriculum?’  John Garvey put together a committee of the EPC two years ago under Catherine Wells to complete the first step.  In a sense, we’re on to Phase II: refining the process.

Of all the courses you might have added in, why did BC Law opt for Criminal Law?

There are so many subjects that have legitimate claim to being essential for a well-rounded legal education that if I listed them, it would take far more than the first year of law school. For example, administrative law, legal process, legal ethics…all could make important enhancements to the first-year experience.  Faced with so many subjects that have a legitimate claim to be taught in the first year, there was reason to step back and say ‘are we making the optimum choices?’

Our first-year curriculum didn’t have criminal law in it, and there was a concern that, except for constitutional law, we didn’t have other public law representation.  Public law focuses on the relationship of the state to the people.  Offering criminal law provided an important contrast to the other private law course, such as contracts, torts and property.  It provided a balance to the first-year curriculum.

What were some of the ideas behind the change in 1L semester structure?

Under the old curriculum we had put a trimester system on top of the semester system in order to cover everything we wanted to do.  That was a decision dating back to 1986-87.  The disadvantage of that scheduling had been building up in the last few years.  One disadvantage was feedback from students saying that it was difficult to compete with other first-year students for jobs when they didn’t get their grades until March or so.

A second concern was harmonizing our first-year schedule with the rest of the university and with the upper level schedule.  When you had visitors, you would have to have a full-year visitor for a first year course.  If pedagogically this was the best way to do it, we would have just figured out a way to deal with that challenge, but there were these other kinds of concerns on the table that caused us to rethink. 

Allocating five credits to Torts, Property, and Contracts was becoming less common in legal education.  When Catherine Wells started this process, she discovered that many schools have moved toward more traditional four-credit models.

What were some of the major issues going into this process?

Two years ago we had two big continuing questions on the table.  One was: what to do with ILPR (Introduction to Lawyering and Professional Responsibility)?  In my view, it’s a terrific course, but it seems to have lost momentum.  And if we don’t do ILPR, what’s to take its place?  The second big issue on the table is whether semesterization, which gives students final grades in the fall, provides them sufficient time to get meaningful feedback and hopefully correct mistakes before they go into their December exams.  Would this process of having final exams in December have a disproportionate impact on students who might be coming to law school from different backgrounds and experiences, and might it also have a disproportionate impact on students of color?

How are those evaluations coming along?

One of the important things to do for the EPC is to take the slender data we have (remember, we only have one full-year of this experience plus, just now, finishing up the fall semester of the second year).  We have interviewed many of the key players in academic support, career services, and taken a student survey, to explore their experiences.  Academic Services is where you will see students in crisis.  Academic support captures students who may be floundering and try to do some triage to assist them.  We still don’t have all the data we need to compare GPA of students.  What we can say with confidence is that on the soft data, which were the interviews and a student survey, is that students were positive overall about semesterization.  One interesting consequence of the changes is that because of the semester change, Academic Services identifies struggling students two months sooner than they did under the old system.  We have also obviously been talking with the faculty to obtain their perspective on the changes. 

In advance of the February faculty meeting, the EPC is holding a curriculum workshop.  What are the goals of this workshop? 

The curriculum workshop is inspired by identifying the core skills and perspectives students should have coming out of first-year and coming out of law school.  ILPR was a very valuable course.  It had some very specific goals about skills and perspectives.  So if we are going to take that out of our curriculum, we want to say ‘what is going to fill that slot?  What are the knowledge, skills and values that people think should come out of first year and then by the time they graduate?’  We also want to ask people how (their courses), particularly those teaching first year, teach those knowledge, skills and values so that the EPC can have a more measured basis to identify gaps.  These conversations will guide us in what to fill that last hole.

Any predictions about how things might shake out?

I have some experiences from waaaaaaay back in the olden days, back in the 80s (the first time I was involved with first year curriculum reform).  I took two lessons away from the process.  The first is that it appeared to me the single biggest predictor about what anyone may think is essential for first-year curriculum is what they had in law school as a first-year law student.  Whether I talked to faculty, lawyers from other schools, or lawyers from our school, what people actually had heavily shaped what they saw as essential (for the first-year curriculum).  Not entirely, but heavily.

The second thing I learned is that it’s very hard to factor in the needs of a wide-range of learners.  Twenty years ago, we implemented two new courses: ILPR and Legal Process.  The Legal Process course was fascinating.  We had two years of data of evaluations and feedback from students.  What you had was roughly fifteen percent of the students who loved it.  Oh my God, it gave meaning to their first year curriculum.  Finally they saw the big picture, they adored it.  Then you had forty percent of the students who hated it.  They couldn’t stand it, it was awful, it was a waste of time.  Then you had the balance of students who were ambivalent -- ‘whatever’.  How do you balance out reaching those fifteen percent against that forty percent?  In the end, we dropped that course.  As valuable as it was for that fifteen percent, there were just too many students for whom it wasn’t working.

And that’s the complexity of making these kinds of decisions.

By Paul Marzagalli

Look for more on the curriculum changes in future editions of eBrief.