Monday, May 16, 2011

Reflection at Semester's End

With the end of the Spring semester, posting will be intermittent through the summer. As our thoughts and attention turn back to course and lecture preparation later in August, regular daily posting will resume.

One prominent occurence at the end of this semester prompts this reflection and resolve for change next semester.  Last year at the annual ALSB conference, a recurring theme was, "I'm teaching, but are they leearning?" I had the experience of considering that question deeply last week in grading finals in my Legal Environment class. Just two weeks before, I taught a lecture that serves as the wrap-up for the unit on civil liability.  Featured is a presentation of purported lawsuit abuse and issues of tort reform.  The McDonald's Coffee case is featured prominently as the cornerstone for the presentation.  I know from student comments on earlier assignments that many of them believe that the plaintiff received nearly $3M from McDonald's.  This lecture, as the capstone of the civil liability unit, gives me the opportunity to talk about the difference between the jury's verdict and the court's judgment, how appeals of trials can affect ultimate compensation and other important issues.  All, once again, using the McDonald's Coffee case as an example. There is an assigned reading from Law 101- a chapter entitled "Auto Accidents, Scalding Coffee and Medical Malpractice." And also assigned is a short webpage, "The Actual Facts of the McDonald's Coffee case" from the 'Lectric Law Library.  A Power Point presentation of the lecture is posted on our Blackboard site.

Because attendance was particularly poor (about 55%) in those sections on that day, I made a point to specifically ask a final exam question on the McDonald's Coffee case. Any student who paid any attention in that lecture or read either of the assigned readings would have learned in class that the plaintiff's recovery was actually less than 25% of the nearly $3M figure that was reported and would easily have answered the question correctly.  To my dismay, only 27 of 129 students (23%) chose the correct answer. And, to make matters worse, a large percentage of students also believed in the veracity of other ridiculous litigation fables (a woman received millions from a microwave manufacturer after putting her poodle in the microwave oven to dry off after a bath; a man received millions of dollars from the crash of his Winnebago after putting the vehicle on cruise control and going in the back to make a cup of coffee.)  All this, despite having been assigned a website reading specifically debunking this folklore and following specific mention of their falsity during the lecture.

So, here I am left with nearly 100 students who came out of my class, convinced of the veracity of absolute gibberish about the law - and they believe that they learned this nonsense in my class. Read, here, the frustration expressed by a young PhD student (who happens to be my daughter) experiencing the same problem in another discipline. Despite my best efforts, my most provocative presentations, my most pointed and thorough coverage of the material, these student remain not merely uneducated, but thoroughly mis-educated with respect to an important concept that (in my opinion) is necessary to be considered an educated person.

These myths, this folklore, these popular beliefs apparently transcend common sense and are far more durable than I had ever imagined. Whether they come from popular culture or social networking sites or media misrepresentation, they endure even in the face of formal educational efforts.  I am now back to the drawing board, rethinking and redesigning my approach for the Fall - determined not to lose to the forces of evil mis-education, and far wiser about my students' reading and study habits and learning methods. Perhaps release of the "Hot Coffee" documentary in the Fall will help.

If you have any suggestions to share, please post it in the comments. We can all hopefully learn from each other.

Fox news reports of Stella Liebeck that "a jury awarded her $2.7M," but not that the court's judgment was only $640,000:

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