What’s In A Name?

BY DAN KAHN

If you are a 1L, you’ve probably answered the standard ‘getting-to-know-you’ questions at least several dozen times in the last few weeks, like “where are you from,” “what section are you in,” and “what college did you go to?”

The questions may not be original, and gunners warming up for the Law Review competition might complain that they all end in prepositions. However, they’re useful questions for getting to know the basics about other 1Ls, and the answers to most of them of them are interesting and can lead to further, more meaningful, conversation.

Except for one: “what section are you in?” The question is inevitably answered with one word, an ugly number that rolls off the tongue with all the grace of an incontinent cow. It sounds no more personal or meaningful than the response to the question “which line did you wait in at the supermarket?”

Not only that, the answer is hard to remember. As a 1L, I found that remembering the difference between section six or seven difficult, and I imagine I am not alone. Among all the other information 1Ls get bombarded with, threes and fours just don’t sound very different. When the number value does not mean anything, numbers make poor labels.

Fortunately, there’s another, better, possibility. HLS should permanently name its 1L sections. Not only are names easier to remember than numbers, they would bring a host of other benefits as well.

Names are much more personal than numbers. I think people would stop being sports fans if their hometown team became “Team #28.” Nobody wants to feel like he or she is “just a number.” A name carries with it the implication that the thing named is worthy of a unique designation. Within sections, a name would make it easier for sections to develop an identity and to develop HLCentral subsidized t-shirts and the like.

Names can also acquire connotations more readily than numbers. Last year, and I imagine every year, many 1Ls made furtive attempts to ascribe ‘personalities’ to the different sections. The ‘personalities’ were a little muddled – I think I heard of four or five different sections that were “the social section” – but they were all in harmless good fun. As humans, we naturally desire to identify ourselves with larger groups of people. Taken in excess, this tendency to form in-groups and out-groups can be a major source of hate, baseless stereotyping, and loss of independent thinking. However, in smaller amounts, such group identity development can be a harmless source of fun, pride, and friendship. Names would subtly encourage all of this by subtly implying that a section is something of value, and not merely be an institutional mechanism for sorting students and scheduling classes.

Permanent names would also create a feeling of interconnectedness between students in the “same” section in different years. Using names would be a small, but valuable, way of establishing a sort of continuity. 2Ls and 3Ls who had been in the section with the same name might still feel like they are a part of its “community” and choose to do BSA or other activities in support of the 1Ls in the section.

But isn’t it rather artificial to expect names to improve student life? I’d admit that it is; after all, I’m calling for the most superficial change possible. However, names are still meaningful. Scholars tell us that many, if not all, communities exist primarily in the realm of ideas. Thus, it is sensible to use the change the label of the idea to help influence its nature.

And isn’t it all the community-building stuff a tad silly? Wouldn’t names imply that the pursuit of serious scholarship and seriously a lot of money aren’t the only important things going on here? I enthusiastically say yes to both. Harvard Law may not be Hogwarts, but even a school like ours full of Hermiones, I hope, could embrace our own Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs. Harvard College also already does much the same thing, by separating its upper-level students into twelve Houses; and most of us at law school are not so much older and more mature than those in college that what works for them could not work for us.

I don’t think what names are chosen is important, as long as they’re distinct and only one or two words. They could be decided by a student vote or some sort of naming contest. Since the school seems to be always looking for new sources of money, it could also bring in a handsome sum by selling off the rights to name the sections. Personally, I think any names would be an improvement over numbers, but I can understand how having sections with names like “Skadden” or “Cravath” might seem rather crass, so perhaps it would be best to restrict names to famous deceased alumni. The school could still raise a lot of money by auctioning to alumni the right to name a section after one’s favorite deceased alumni-jurist.

Dean Kagan has admirably made it a part of her mission to improve the quality of student life and the attachment students feel to the school. A few years ago, the size of the 1L sections was drastically reduced to its current size, in order to create small, meaningful communities within the HLS metropolis. The communities now exist, and they need names!

Dan Kahn, 2L, was in Section 5.

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