Fenno and the Winter Term of Discontent


ONE COULD FORGIVE Fenno for feeling rather good during the first week of 2009. Between travel, holiday shopping, and family obligations, he’d managed to fit in a healthy 2.5 days of relaxation between exams and the first day of winter term – a term of infinite promises. As a 1L toiling through mid-winter exams, Fenno had dreamed of this moment: spending the first weeks of the new year engaged in a fully-sanctioned half-assing of one solitary, standalone course. It was the law school of Fenno’s dreams: a couple hours of sanctimonious seminar room bullshit (he had secured a coveted spot in one of the cushier venues, “Issues in the Semiotics of Race in Palestinian Poverty Law”), followed by a possible twenty-two filled with much-deserved sleep.

It wasn’t with much surprise that Fenno discovered that many of the students interested in learning about the racial semiotics of Palestinian poverty were not his fellow Harvard lawyers, but freeloaders from the bureaucrat factory of the Kennedy School or, worse, the beatnik Fletcher School of Chicanery. This he had expected, and so much the better: the top of the curve always did need a few sacrificial lambs, and the entertainment value of watching the outsiders squirm under the Socratic spotlight was even enough to tear Fenno from his precious class-time tour des blogs.

As for his own performance, Fenno had long since discerned the secret to such classes: any use of legal language, from “perverse incentives” to “contracting purpose”, would win the day when going head to head with a comment about the hermeneutics of legal discourse or even a harrowing tale of childhood escape from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Fenno was occasionally aware that such classes provided the LL.M.s an opportunity to engage in some sophisticated analysis of the Vienna Convention; but no worry – if they were doing so in English, neither he nor, Fenno was sure, the professor could tell.

So it was with utter shock that Fenno picked up his seminar’s meager reading packet in the basement of Pound. “This is it?” he mumbled, paging through a thickly-typeset pile of cases and treaties. This would be a problem. The normal reading for such a course was a 500-page thick bundle of law review articles and treatise excerpts – in other words, reading so long and so dense that no student was expected to complete it. Even the gunners got by on the abstracts law review editors so helpfully included at the beginning of each piece. But a thin reader – and primary source materials – indicated close reading was expected.

Fenno was braced for the Socratic grilling to come. The next day, in class, his name was read out, as predicted. His unopened reader was still lying at home, soaking in the residue of the handle of Stoli he had polished off before passing out in front of the previous night’s umpteenth rerun of Frasier. “I have a degree from Harvard,” Fenno recalled Kelsey Grammer’s character saying. “Every time I’m wrong the world makes a little less sense.” Fenno chuckled to himself.

“Ahem,” the professor prompted, impatiently. “Mr. Fenno?”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I was a captive of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam?” Fenno volunteered. Realizing he needed a far better distraction, he hurriedly navigated his browser to the HLS website. Surely Dean Kagan had made another hiring coup he could publicize?

Fenno found that there had, indeed, been a hiring coup involving Dean Kagan, but not the one he’d been expecting. “We’re losing Dean Kagan!” he announced. “She’s off to D.C. to be Solicitor General. Sorry, Prof. I need to get some more free coffee before its time is up.”

To Fenno’s shock, the professor could hardly disagree. “There’s not even a point in paying a premium for the coffee in the Hark Box,” he observed. “It’s definitely watered down. They call that Starbucks?” Out the window, Fenno caught a group of students clearly making their way toward the skating rink. “It’s like last call!” one of them shouted. “Quick, before The Paper Chase returns!” Now, all around Fenno, the room was emptying of joint degree students, who were fleeing back to the cozy academic confines of KSG and FAS.

When Fenno looked back toward the front of the room, the professor was back, precious last cup of free coffee firmly in hand. “Now,” he said, “Mr. Fenno, can you tell me what the implementation provisions are for the Revised Comment to the Second Protocol on the Handling of Palestinian Cultural Rights?”

Fenno gulped. Implementation of the revised what…to the Second? How was it that all the steps he had taken in life to avoid dreaded math had led him to this? He took a second look down at his screen and smiled. He had another distraction ready. “Et tu, Sunstein?” he wailed.

What was left of the class was thrown into yet another disarray, and Fenno was saved from having to produce a substantive answer once again. But as he at back in his plush, reclining chair, Fenno thought about all that Dean Kagan had done to make his lazy law student life even easier, and worried that the fate of HLS was far less certain than his escape from Socratic scrutiny.

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