Ultra Vires


In Defence of First-Year Small Groups

Proposal to reduce small groups from full-year to one-semester courses should be opposed

Sometime later this semester Faculty Council will consider an administration proposal to reduce the first-year small groups from full-year courses to one-semester courses. I oppose this proposal as one that will make first-year a less good program than it has been. I am also concerned about how the idea has been rolled out to the law school community. 

For most of the years that I have been on the faculty, major changes to the academic program had followed a period of broad and lengthy consultation and debate. A committee is struck with a mandate to examine the issue and report to Faculty Council; submissions about the issue are invited, and draft proposals are circulated for discussion. Quite often the issue is discussed at more than one Faculty Council meeting. 

All of this is started early in the academic year so that there is plenty of time for the discussion to percolate through the law school.  What has happened this year is a pale imitation of that. Faculty members were approached individually by the administration for their views, which means there has been no exchange of ideas. 

While the matter is before the curriculum committee there have been no fora through which the student body can express its opinions. The issue has stayed under the surface. With just a few weeks left in the term, I do not know when Faculty Council is slated to discuss the matter; I have asked that question but have received no reply.

All of this matters because this is a large change to the structure of the first-year program. When a few years ago the program in general was semesterized, it was explicitly decided to keep first-year small groups as full-year courses. This was done because first-year small groups have a special role to play in the program. They provide a format in which students can discuss their ideas, and their uncertainties, about the subject matter and the legal system in general. The most important legal writing the students do in first-year is done in the small groups.  

Many graduates will also tell you that the personal friendships with other students and the academic relationships fostered with faculty were the highlight of their first-year experience. All of this is well-summarized on the law school website: “The small group provides a seminar-style learning experience in which students interact closely with a law professor and fellow students in a convivial learning environment.”

The suggestion that we should cut the time spent in a small group environment from two semesters to one is, therefore, a suggestion that we should substantially diminish a very important part of the first-year program.

Of course, if the consensus is that we should do this, then the fact that some people, like myself and other faculty colleagues, disagree is neither here nor there. But what is germane is that there should be ample opportunity for debate, discussion and reflection about such an important decision. There hasn’t been that, and there isn’t much time for it to happen now. We have a few weeks left in the term, and within a couple of weeks students will rightfully be devoting all of their attention to exams and papers. Better to put this off until next year, and start the discussion early.

Here are just a few things the community needs time to discuss and reflect on. First, why is this being proposed? The explanation I’ve been given by the administration is that “We are noticing that an increasing number of first-year students struggle with writing.” On what evidence is this assertion based? Who is the “we” in this sentence? I have personally seen no evidence of this.

Second, even if it were somehow shown that students’ writing abilities have diminished, why is the answer not to have more time devoted to the small group rather than less? In fact, as far as I’m aware the administration’s idea for dealing with these apparent ‘struggles’ with writing is to maintain the three assignment requirement in the small group, greatly compressing the time available for each one—hardly a recipe for improvement. There has also been a suggestion that small group assignments should be coordinated with the Legal Research and Writing program, the least successful aspect of our first-year program because it operates at cross purposes with the rest of it. As was illustrated vividly earlier this year, it requires students to do short assignments on questions which are unanchored from any context but to which there is apparently a clear answer. It is about simplicity not complexity, exactly the opposite of small groups and indeed the entire first-year program.     

These are just two problems with the proposal as it currently stands (as far as this is publicly known). Some people may wish to point out other concerns about the small groups. Perhaps they don’t work in the idealised way quoted above? Then why not find ways to fix the small groups rather than reduce the time devoted to them. Alternatively, why not eliminate the small group program and devote the faculty resources to providing more, smaller, “large/medium” classes. 

I’m not proposing any of these things. I am saying that we need more time and more opportunity for dialogue that has been afforded by an impoverished process out of line with past practice.

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