1L-curriculum changes yielding positive results

BY MEREDITH MCKEE

Attending “large” classes that max out at 80 people, socializing over Tex-Mex with your professors and receiving written feedback throughout the semester. Can this be life at Harvard Law School?

Thanks to recently implemented changes to the 1L program, it can.

With finals in the middle of January, the Class of 2004 wrapped up its first semester — a semester spent as the first guinea pigs of the Strategic Plan. In line with recommendations made in that Plan, which was finalized in the spring of 2001, HLS has made drastic changes to the 1L program in an effort to forge a more personal, student-centered experience. Those changes include:

  • Breaking the first-year class into groups of 80 students each, in place of the 140-student sections of old;

  • Launching the seven law “colleges,” each with its own section leader and budget for extracurricular activities;

  • Redesigning the legal research and writing curriculum and the way it is taught;

  • Mandating individualized written feedback for every student in every class; and

  • Allowing 1Ls to choose from a vastly expanded list of spring electives.

Now, six months after the changes were implemented, the 1Ls and their instructors have witnessed first-hand what this new experience looks like.

The reaction? Though students and faculty agree that some adjustments are in order, they are positive about the new 1L experience.

“Overwhelmingly, the changes are a success,” says David Altschuler, a 1L who serves as the LSC representative for Section 3. “The little changes that need to be made don’t override the things they’ve done.”

This first installment of a two-part series reports on the compliments and criticisms given by students and faculty to the most outwardly noticeable changes: the introduction of 80-student sections and adoption of the “law colleges” structure.

No more “gunner bingo”

Of all the changes, the 80-student sections receive the most praise from students and professors.

“Even though people weren’t here for the sections that were 140 people, I think everyone thinks the smaller sections are an excellent situation,” says Altschuler. “Our section and, I think, all of the sections have a tight sense of community.”

Professor Dan Meltzer, who is a leader for Section 2, says the smaller sections seem to have been well-received. At the Business School, which uses similar 80-student sections, there is “apparently a very strong section identification among students,” Meltzer says.

“We’ve gotten some indication that there’s a similar sense in these new sections [at the Law School],” he says.

Maya Alperowicz, the LSC representative for 1L Section 4, says the smaller class sizes also give students more airtime.

“You get to speak a lot more than you would with 140 people,” Alperowicz says. “Even with a purely Socratic professor, we all still got called on at least three times.”

Some might question whether or not being called on more often is a benefit, but she says it maintains parity between students.

“Of course you have some students speaking more than others, and the smaller size helped it so that you weren’t always hearing from the same four people,” Alperowicz says.

Smaller class sizes might also be leading to warmer relations between students and professors.

“With 80 people, it’s not as intimidating,” Altschuler says. “Professors get to know the classes pretty well. We definitely have close relationships with the professors. It has much more of a community feeling, not competitive.”

J.D. Dean Todd Rakoff suggests the Law School will think twice before reducing 1L class size any more.

“I don’t know what’s ideal, but the faculty discussion leading up to it did not take the view that smaller was necessarily better,” Rakoff says. “It’s not just a matter of money. Obviously it costs more money to make them smaller, but there is also the feeling that unless you have a certain size you start losing the statistically marginal points of view, which, however, might be very interesting.”

He continued: “That’s partially because given classroom dynamics, you don’t hear a point of view until three or four people have that point of view. So there was a feeling that if you made it too small, it’d be a less interesting class.”

Alperowicz seems to agree: “The tradeoff is between getting to know 80 people really well, or 140 people sort of well. I don’t think you should go any smaller.”

Acknowledging that his section is “pretty cliquey” and serves as a “social nexus” for most of its members, Altschuler says the size is ideal.

“Eighty people is small enough to get to know everyone, but not so small that you’re always hearing from the same people,” he says.

Reducing the size of the 1L sections, though unanimously praised, has not gone off flawlessly. Heading the list of complaints are constraints imposed by HLS’ physical limitations.

“We don’t really have enough classrooms that are the right size,” Rakoff says. “Some of our 80-people classes have been meeting in rooms that were built for 140 or 150 people.”

The majority of classrooms at HLS were built to seat more than 140 students or fewer than 75.

Another challenge is the need for additional teaching staff to instruct the increased number of classes.

“So far we’ve done pretty well by making sure our existing faculty teach first-year courses,” Rakoff says. “I think next year we’ll probably have three visiting professors in our first year out of 35.

“I’d say we’re doing alright, although each year it takes some work just to make it happen,” he says.

Law colleges

Perhaps the biggest conceptual change in HLS’ approach to the 1L program was the establishment of a “law colleges” system. As the first step in implementing that change, each 80-person section was given a “section leader,” a professor to coordinate activities for the sections outside of the classroom.

“The most important thing is to break down the in-classroom-out-of-classroom distinction, to break down the idea that (a) professors and students are creatures that only see each other in class, and (b) that intellectual life only happens in the classroom,” Rakoff says. “And I guess the word ‘college’ is meant to capture that idea — partly social, partly intellectual.”

But making that concept a reality has not been easy.

“This is the first year this is being done, and, to a certain extent, we’re trying to figure out what’s better, what should be done,” Meltzer says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter thing. The section leaders are both trying different things and comparing notes.”

Activities have varied widely across sections, including all kinds of social events, presentations and speakers on world events, and panels addressing student concerns like career paths and elective selection.

“There were good and bad things about all of them,” Alperowicz says. “Different section leaders took different initiatives to plan events — it was related to their personalities, what they chose to do with the time and money set aside for the sections.”

She says that time reserved for section activities has, in some cases, been used to schedule make-up classes.

Alperowicz says that some sections have suffered from a “lack of affirmative effort” on the parts of the leaders.

The change Alperowicz and Altschuler say they would most like to see would be for leaders to be drawn from those professors actually teaching the section.

“Section leaders should teach for a semester, and it should be a professor who wants to be a section leader and has the time,” Altschuler says.

Section leaders might also follow Professor Bruce Hay’s example and work with students, who may have more time than professors, to plan section events, Alperowicz and Altschuler say.

Rakoff notes that implementation of this concept is only beginning.

“From the faculty point of view, most people are pretty positive about it, bu
t the faculty leaders feel they are still experimenting — what’s too little and what’s too much,” Rakoff says.

Meltzer says he agrees: “There’s a real question about what’s the right number of events to schedule. There are always lots of activities going on at the law school.”

The new system has also made possible changes to the Law School’s system of advising, Meltzer says.

“I hope it’s a little better than the one we’ve had in the past,” he says.

This new advising structure allows students to select their own advisors from among the ten faculty members “associated” with their section. That way, Meltzer says, students can pick someone with whom they are already familiar or one who specializes in an area they are interested in.

“The idea was that if students wanted advice, they’d be more likely to approach someone who’s a more sensible advisor for them,” he says. “Plus, if students know their advisor, they’ll feel more comfortable about approaching.”

Meltzer says the law colleges system seems to be a net-positive.

“It’s very hard to measure how it has gone,” he says. “But my sense from a number of indicators is that it’s made quite a considerable difference this year. Students seemed to find orientation more welcoming, faculty more accessible, their sections more cohesive. And there are pedagogical and social benefits as well.”

As for the future, “[a]ny of the stuff that requires physical space is just on hold until we come to a resolution about that — to expand past the mini-version we’re operating with now,” Rakoff says.

The Strategic Plan originally contemplated individual common space for each law college.

If space constraints were resolved, Rakoff says: “We would definitely have what you might call a clubhouse, with mailboxes together, a separate room where you could leave your stuff, lockers, a coffee machine, places to study or hang out. You’d have at least that.”

Planners have also discussed building college-specific dorms around these common spaces.

“I think we’d have to think hard about whether that’s a good idea,” Rakoff says. “[T]he way this was discussed in the faculty was, would you prefer to live in a village or a city? Do you want to feel like there’s a small number of people that you’re closely connected with, or that there’s a broader range of people that you’re less intensely connected with?

“It might be that if you have classes with some people, you’d rather have dorms that are mixed with other people,” he continues. “You might even want to have dorms that are mixed with non-law school students – graduate schools or the Kennedy School. I’m not ready to say where we should go on that.”

Alperowicz says she wouldn’t put setting aside college-specific space high on her list of priorities.

“I don’t think you need to set aside space to get people to socialize,” she says. “Our first semester, everyone has the exact same schedule. So the sections all get out of class at the same time, and these great big groups of students end up eating lunch together in the Hark.”

Still, Alperowicz says, building section common rooms might improve section-identification across classes. For example, members of Section 4 in the Class of 2004 might maintain and share that section identity with the members of Section 4 in the Class of 2005.

She says that kind of multi-class section identity would benefit the Law School.

“It would be helpful in the long run for 1Ls to talk to 2Ls and 3Ls who had the same system, the same professors, to touch base before students got here,” Alperowicz says. “You might set up something like a mentoring system or a big brother-big sister system between the classes.”

Altschuler says that section-community building might be best served by having the same group of professors teach a section every year. Section leaders might also benefit from signing on for multiple years, Altschuler says.

“If the section leaders committed to more than one year, they could call on members of that section next year to help plan events for the incoming classes,” he says.

Whether or how the 1L law colleges might continue through students’ 2L and 3L years, however, is still an open question, Rakoff says.

Continued next week

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