Date of this Version
A Cameroonian proverb states that "[h]e who asks questions cannot avoid the answers,"' and, unfortunately, that proverb applies to law professors. At the end of each semester, law professors must endure the agony of creation that Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein had to experience only once in his life. We are horrified to see the monsters we have created, so different from what we intended. The joy of teaching is the constant challenge and interaction with students in the classroom; the agony of teaching is reading what some of those same students have written on their examinations.
Of course, not all law students' exams are bad. Some exam answers contain brilliant insights in spite of enormous time pressures. I learn much from grading such answers, and I doubt that my experience is unique. A majority of exam answers are satisfactory, if not completely satisfying. These students provide no new insights, but at least demonstrate competent legal writing and an acceptable understanding of the subject matter of the course. Unfortunately, there are also those OTHER exams-the ones for which law professors earn most of their pay, the ones that make grading exams such a miserable experience. Those OTHER exams send law professors on early vacations and, eventually, to early retirement. Those OTHER exams are often the ones indignant students bring into professors' offices the next semester, demanding to know why they did so poorly.
The grading process might be less frustrating if those OTHER exams were at least unique. Uniqueness is enjoyable, even the uniquely bad. Who among us has not at some point sat transfixed by a horrid, yet entertaining, movie such as The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? Who among us has not turned to a friend while reading something and said, "You've got to read what this idiot said"? Who among us has not taken whipped cream and lotion and aggressively .... (Sorry, I got carried away). Unfortunately, those OTHER exams are seldom original in any way. I don't know if a form book is available somewhere, but students from different geographical, social, and racial backgrounds with varying interests and ideologies share common exam answer styles. Year after agonizing year, the same dreadful, torturous exam styles appear and reappear. At least ten types of student answers are identifiable in those OTHER exams: (1) the Timeless; (2) the Empty; (3) the Waffier; (4) the Grammarian; (5) the Outliner; (6) the Repeater; (7) the Scholar; (8) the Avoider; (9) the Crit; and (10) the Footnoter. Each of these styles is different, although some particularly inept students are capable of writing answers fitting three or more categories.
To illustrate these recurring styles, let me pose a simple hypothetical exam question. Suppose that an exam question asked law students to write the opening line of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The actual opening line of the Gettysburg Address is: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Excellent students would recite these lines flawlessly. Most other students would capture the essence of Lincoln's message. However, a simple recitation of this sentence would be too difficult for some students. What follow are examples of how this question would be answered on the OTHER exams. WARNING: THOSE WITH A WEAK STOMACH SHOULD READ NO FURTHER. READING THESE ANSWERS COULD BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.