August 26, 2008
"Communities of learning" in "classrooms of competition"?
Posted by Gordon Smith

Inspired by various posts on teaching around the legal blogosphere, Jerome M. Organ, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis sent me a thoughtful and provocative email, which I reproduce in relevant part below with Jerry's permission:

I am writing to try to tie some threads together from some of your observations, and Eugene Volokh's and  Ann Althouse's observations and some of the responses that you have received to your postings, particularly from students focused on grades and competition for grades and jobs.

Eugene Volokh stated – "I want to argue that students — though they of course pay lots of money to us — are not just customers of legal education, but are also in a sense a sort of employee: Law school classes rely on students' participating in the class, as a means of helping educate the other students. Learning, the theory goes, is a cooperative endeavor, in which students benefit from hearing each other's comments."

Ann Althouse, in response, stated – "They should feel an ethical responsibility to the classroom community they asked to join and to the rejected applicants they are displacing."

And yet, when you posted a syllabus explicitly requiring that your students work together as a "classroom community" and engage in "team" projects that might impact their grades, one student expressed significant reservations about collaboration (particularly if it impacted grades) and several people posted comments objecting to the team approach and demonstrating the view that law school is a competitive environment in which students must compete as individuals for grades (and the corresponding high paying jobs at a big firm).

There would appear to be a significant tension between what we as professors have as aspirations for our "classroom communities of learning" and for what students have been acclimated to understand as their "classrooms of competition."

Dean Cramton wrote 30 years ago about the "ordinary religion of the classroom," including the following quote on individualism, competition and professionalism:

. . . Too often the young lawyer must grope alone toward an effective strategy for mingling humanism and professionalism in the lawyer-client relationship.

The atomistic character of the student’s work in law school accentuates this difficulty.  Much professional work involves cooperative activity, but law school does little to assist a law student to work effectively as a member of a team.  The competitive environment of law school tends to pit each student against all others and, not surprisingly, feelings of isolation, suspicion, and hostility develop among students.

Knowledgeable observers comment that law students become more isolated, suspicious, and verbally aggressive as they progress through law school; their aptitude for verbal articulation increases, but they rarely stop to listen to others.  If so, will they be good counselors?  Will they need to unlearn a number of things in order to operate successfully as a professional?   The sharing, helping and serving aspects of human endeavor, especially important to future professionals, are not recognized adequately in the law school experience.

Roger C. Cramton, Ordinary Religion of the Law School Classroom, 29 Journal of Legal Education 247, 262 (1978)

If the "ordinary religion of the classroom" still communicates a message of individual, atomistic competition (and I would suggest that the student's response to your syllabus and some of the comments to your post evidence that this competitive environment remains as part of the "ordinary religion of the classroom"), then students are likely to act on that cultural signal and function based on competitive individualism and are going to be resistant to our calls for them to engage in a "classroom community of learning" based on a collaborative model.  Indeed, if I am functioning within a "competitive" context, and I believe I have a better understanding of the material than some of my classmates, my rational choice will be to refrain from participating (and possibly to participate with misinformation and sow confusion) so that I do not erode my perceived competitive advantage by "helping" my classmates come to a better understanding of the material.

My point here is that we are sending mixed signals. Eugene Volokh and Ann Althouse and Gordon Smith may be encouraging, perhaps somewhat explicitly, the communal nature of the learning experience where each participant benefits from the insights and contributions of a diversity of voices drawing on different educational and experiential backgrounds, but there appear to be other "signals" our students are receiving (from us or others on the faculty or from each other) that convince many of them that this is an atomistic competitive environment in which collaboration and teamwork are to be avoided (and perhaps disdained).

Notably, for those students pursuing joint degrees, particularly JD/MBA students, the cultural shift from the atomism of legal education to the collaboration of the business school environment can be jarring.

The reality is that law school can be (and should be) more collaborative.  This happens in clinical contexts and perhaps intermittently in some courses, but I suspect very few law schools are intentional about creating an institutional commitment to collaborative learning that overrides the culture of individual, atomistic competition that Cramton described and which still manifests itself in this new millenium.

Here at the University of St. Thomas, we have tried to tackle this issue to some degree with a week-long introductory course as part of our Orientation Week in which we have students read and discuss excerpt's from Cramton's article, Joseph Singer's recent article on Normative Methods for Lawyers, my colleague Rob Vischer's article Legal Advice as Moral Perspective, Patrick Schiltz's article On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession and my article From Those to Whom Much has Been Given, Much is Expected:  Vocation, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Culture of a Catholic Law School, along with a variety of other materials related to the role of the lawyer, the pressures of the legal profession and the challenges of legal education.  While one of the primary motives for this course is to engage students in an explicit conversation about integrating their moral compass into their professional identity  (the third apprenticeship reflected in the recent Carnegie Report – Educating Lawyers), part of our purpose also is to explicitly engage students in a conversation about whether they want to define their success in law school and in the profession by the types of extrinsic rewards that are identified with "winning the competition" -– grades, big firm jobs, large salaries -– or whether they want to define their success in law school and in the profession based on intrinsic factors -- their sense of mastery of material and the development of understanding about those job opportunities within the legal profession that reflect their vocation -– using their gifts and expertise to serve society.    (While we didn’t assign any excerpts from Larry Krieger’s and Ken Sheldon’s research on law student well-being, we do reference the literature in the positive psychology field highlighting that those motivated by intrinsic factors have a much greater tendency for well-being and fulfillment than those motivated by extrinsic factors.)

If students can shift their paradigm from a perception that all are competing against each other for some extrinsic goal –- great grades that will lead to high-paying jobs –- to a paradigm motivated by intrinsic factors -- that each is trying to live out his or her vocation as law student and spouse and parent and friend and volunteer while beginning to discern his or her vocation as a lawyer –- it becomes much easier to promote collaboration rather than competition. I cannot be in competition with someone else to find and live out my vocation. I can also find joy in supporting others (who may perform better than me on a law school exam) because I am not competing with them as they try to find and live out their vocation.

Nicely done, Jerry. I assume it is not mere coincidence that St. Thomas' law school website contains the subtitle, "Faith, Reason, Community."

The elephant in this room is the law school curve, which has always been justified in part as an incentive mechanism for students and in part as a sorting mechanism used by law schools to make their graduates more employable (by identifying the "best" of those graduates for judges and big firms). Jerry's post accurately identifies the mixed messages we send to students, and I wonder: can "communities of learning" flourish in "classrooms of competition"? Or must one triumph over the other?

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