Grade Reform, Law Professors, Law Schools

New Law Professor Devises Grading System Bewildering To Children, Annoying To Adults

This grading system is a total train wreck.

If law students want one thing in their grading system, it’s clarity. This is especially true for first-year law students; 1L grades are too important for future job prospects to have a confusing and muddled set of rules.

Well, maybe not Yale law students. Famously, Yale doesn’t have traditional letter grading. A few top schools have followed Yale’s lead in recent years, but Yale is the OG of meaningless grading systems. (Berkeley students to start bitching in 3, 2, 1….) The meaningless of Yale’s Honors/Pass grading system doesn’t matter because all Yale students get jobs. No grades + Good jobs = “I don’t understand why humans cry.”

Yale students have such good job prospects that they can get jobs as law professors at other Ivy League law schools right after they graduate from Yale. But bringing happy-clappy Yale concepts of grading to “normal” law schools is not without its problems….

Penn Law hired a professor to teach this year who graduated from Yale Law School a few months ago (although he also has a Ph.D. from MIT — so there’s a chance he really doesn’t know how normal people interact). Rookie law professor Jonah B. Gelbach is teaching 1L Civil Procedure at Penn Law this semester. And boy is he making some rookie mistakes. He had to send out an email to his class, clarifying his grading procedure. It’s still a train wreck, but it’s a marked improvement compared to what he originally put in the syllabus. Here’s the start of his five-point email:

1. I will explain how I plan to grade the complaint writing exercise when I distribute it.

2. For your class participation grade, here is what I wrote in the syllabus:

Class participation will be comprised of your performance and preparation when I call on you in class, and perhaps including voluntary participation. It might also include some quick-reaction take-home assignments (typically a paragraph or two, due in the next class). Regarding the on-call system, I will randomly choose students to call on each class date. Of course, if you are absent, you cannot perform well when I call on you. I recommend not being absent.

Didn’t Penn have anyone who could tell him that words like “perhaps” and “might” are not words that are allowed to be in a grading system? These are 1Ls, for God’s sake. They don’t know what’s going on, and with those words the professor is basically admitting that he doesn’t know what he’s doing either. This syllabus would be like telling my baby “I’m not sure if anything in this box will kill you, why don’t you play around in it for a while and we’ll figure it out together!”

Gelbach’s clarification definitely involves more action verbs, but I wouldn’t call this grading system “clear,” as much as it’s an “unnecessarily complicated thought experiment”:

(a) First, regarding “your performance and preparation when I call on you in class,” my plan has never been to assign finely grained grades to what you say. As I explained on the first day of class, I use the cold-call method because it provides incentives for students diligently to do the reading. Civil procedure is entirely new to you all, and I believe there is no substitute for reading, and reading carefully, before class.

So, the point of the on-call system—and the point of having your performance be included in your grade—is primarily to give you incentives. I continue to believe that is a good idea, though I am not unmoved by the level of genuine angst some of you have about on-call performance and grading.

In hopes of reducing this angst, and in the interests of providing the clarity that I failed to deliver earlier, here is how the on-call part of your grade will work.

(1) You all will be deemed to have begun the semester with 100 class participation points.

(2) If you do a reasonable job when I call on you, you will keep all your points. I will conclude that you did a reasonable job as long as

(A) you are present in class when I call on you (or have an acceptable excuse to miss class);

(B) you appear to have done assigned reading; and

(C) you take seriously whatever questions I ask you.

(3) If you do an unreasonable job, you will lose 10 of your class participation points. (As a side note, no one would have lost points based on participation so far.)

(b) Voluntary participation.

(1) The syllabus states that voluntary participation “perhaps” will be part of your grade.

(2) In light of the substantial amount of stress that this possibility seems to have caused at least some of you (something that was neither my intention nor my prediction!), I have decided to use the discretion inhering in the word “perhaps” to exclude voluntary participation from any part of the grading of this class.

What the hell? A 100-point system? Really?

This is what happens when you hire people right out of law school. You get some dude trying to reinvent the wheel. The benefit of a grading system where, say, 100 percent of your grade is determined by your score on the final exam (which is how we rolled at Harvard when I was there) is that it renders moot these questions of how a professor “believes” people learn. Gelbach says, “I believe there is no substitute for reading, and reading carefully, before class.” And that might have been true for him when he was in school… yesterday. But it might not be true for everybody. Do you know how we figure this out? GIVE A FINAL EXAM AND GRADE IT. If Gelbach is right, then the students who read diligently before class will do better. If Gelbach is wrong, than grown-ass adults will have perfected a way of learning material that suits them best. Either way, everybody wins… assuming Gelbach can write a competent exam and grade it fairly.

I took Civ Pro with Elena Kagan, and she taught that class with hard-core, Socratic class participation that she took straight from the pages of One L. It was hard. She embarrassed me when I was unprepared. She didn’t deduct some stupid points from some fictitious class participation pool that existed only in her head. It turns out I learn best when I don’t want to be made to look like a fool in front of my peers. Luckily, I was able to recover in time for the final exam, and didn’t spend the rest of the semester chasing lost points.

Meanwhile, you might have noticed that as much as Gelbach wants you to read and come to his class, he also likes giving homework assignments like people are in high school and need to prove that they really thought about Heathcliff’s complicated relationship with Hindley Earnshaw in real time.

Since maybe, perhaps, kinda, sorta grading somebody’s “quick reactions” is fundamentally stupid, Gelbach has come up with this… thing (I hesitate to call it a “system”):

(c) Mini-writing assignments.

(1) Mini-writing assignments believed helpful to legal education.

(A) I believe it is very useful for you to have the experience of writing about what you’re learning, even if the writing is short.

(B) I believe it might also be useful to you to receive written feedback on the writing you do.

(2) Substantial disagreement among students. Through the feedback you’ve given me (which I requested and which I very much appreciate!), you have made it clear to me that there is substantial disagreement among your ranks concerning the better way to arrange writing assignments.

(3) Syllabus suggests discretionary powers. The syllabus states that your class participation grade “might also include some quick-reaction take-home assignments.”

(4) Resolved. In light of (2), I have decided to use the discretion inhering in the word “might”, as discussed in (3), to exclude anything having to do with writing assignments from your grade entirely.

(5) However. I really do believe in both (1)(A) and (1)(B), however. As such, I will try to provide several additional optional, ungraded mini-writing assignments (I’m going to shoot for three, not including the complaint exercise). Here is how feedback will work:

(A) Each of you now has 3 assignment-feedback credits to spend.

(B) Turning in an optional, ungraded mini-writing assignment that you do all by yourself costs 2 credits and buys you feedback on your individual work.

(C) Turning in an optional, ungraded mini-writing assignment that you do with a single team member of your choice (previously announced team assignments are irrelevant) costs 1 credit and buys you feedback on your team’s joint performance.

(D) If you run out of credits, you will no longer have access to assignment feedback.

(E) However, if you can find one or more classmates willing to transfer you enough credits to entitle you to additional feedback according to (A) or (B), you are welcome to do so. A student’s assignment of credits does not become effective unless the assigning student notifies me via email or Canvas message, before I am done providing feedback.

God, I hate Yale.

I don’t even know what to do with subsection E, where the guy tries to create a marketplace for people wanting to do ungraded homework assignments. Honestly, that’s so ridiculous I assume he is just trolling his own class with that.

I’ll stay at the top level, where Gelbach thinks that people are so desperate for his “oh-so-important” feedback that students need an entire rules structure in place to figure out how to do voluntary homework. Do you know how adults get “feedback” from professors on their “quick reactions” to the lessons of the day? THEY ASK A GODDAMN QUESTION. They raise their hand and ASK for feedback. OR, they come to office hours and say, “Hi Professor Gelbach, I was just thinking about this, what do you think?”

Again, let me go back to Kagan: I once had a “quick reaction” to one of the Rules (I honestly don’t remember which one). I didn’t want to slow down the whole class with my personal question (because I’m not a gunner/asshole), so I went to her office hours. She gave me feedback, and I didn’t even have to barter with a classmate for feedback credits. I asked a question and she answered it in a NORMAL HUMAN INTERACTION. It was actually a delightful conversation where I was bitching about something and she was coming back at me with stuff that Thurgood Marshall told her when she clerked for him. Again, I have no clue what my issue was, but I remember what she said to me about Marshall, and I wouldn’t have gotten there if I had just dumped my “reaction” into a pseudo-mandatory homework paragraph.

Where is the Penn administration on this? They hired a guy, straight out of law school, and now he’s acting like he’s straight out of school and has no idea what he’s doing. Isn’t there any oversight at Penn Law? Shouldn’t a dean or wise faculty member be looking at this guy’s syllabus and saying, “Dude, no, you can’t do this”? If I got onto the Penn faculty, could I grade people based on how many times they win gunner bingo?

I promise you, in ten years Gelbach will not be grading 1L Civ Pro in this manner. I’m sure he’s a smart guy, and smart people eventually stop trying to reinvent the wheel when what they need is a freaking wheel. It’s just unfortunate that his current students have to suffer through his growing pains. This isn’t professor camp, this is the 1L year for people spending a lot of money to be there.

You can read his full clarification email on the next page. Everybody who has read this far gets to start the ungraded comments section with 100 points.

(hidden for your protection)

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