Ultra Vires


Slashing Small Group

Curriculum change proposal leaves students and faculty blindsided

Earlier this March, the law school community received an email informing them of a plan to significantly rework the 1L curriculum. According to the email, a Curriculum Committee had been formed in the Fall and had canvassed “individual students and the full faculty” before crafting the attached proposal. 

The proposal, just over two pages long, recommended shortening small group to the Fall term, adding a 1L moot in the Winter term, and reconfiguring Legal Research and Writing to be full-year. Furthermore, 1L students would be required to submit “a series of short non-graded exercises” during the summer before the Fall term (though the structure and specific intended outcome of the assignment was not clarified.) Despite the preliminary nature of the proposal and the call for student feedback, the proposal claimed that retired Court of Appeal judge Robert Sharpe had already been recruited to organize the 1L moot.

The proposal created a strong response among both students and faculty. Within days, a petition began to circulate online criticizing the lack of detail offered and the short timelines for student feedback. The petition called for Faculty Council to reject any changes until more detail and greater opportunity for consultation could be provided. In 48 hours, it had gained 82 signatures.

Six days after the proposal was distributed, a town hall session was held to solicit student feedback. The town hall was well attended, half-filling the Moot Court Room. Students vigorously questioned the Curriculum Committee and raised a broad variety of concerns, which were largely fielded by Associate Dean Albert Yoon, Professor Larissa Katz, and Professor Catherine Valcke (though the entire Curriculum Committee was present.) 

On what consultation had already been done, Associate Dean Yoon said that he had communicated with SLS in the Fall about what changes to the curriculum might look like, and that Faculty had met separately in January to discuss the proposal. (SLS Executives at the session challenged Associate Dean Yoon’s statement and emphasized that consultation with the few students on SLS was not a sufficient replacement for broad student consultation. Associate Dean Yoon took issue with this characterization, saying that the SLS had declined to consult more widely, and that any consultation with the SLS should be done through the SLS members of the Curriculum Committee.)

Shortly before the petition was presented, a 1L student raised the concern of timelines; namely, that the proposal would have to be passed in roughly two weeks, and they felt that the “consultation process with students has only been happening in a way that has been productive in the past few weeks.” The remaining weeks, they suggested, may not offer sufficient time for consultation. 

Professor Katz defended the lack of detail in the proposal, claiming that it was merely a “blueprint for reform” and that the administration, rather than the committee, would be responsible for “fleshing out the details.” Professor Katz also said that the committee did not anticipate so much opposition that passing the proposal by the end of term seemed infeasible, though they were not in a rush to proceed.

Students repeatedly pressed for an explanation of the changes and what they are intended to target. Associate Dean Yoon pointed to lower student satisfaction reported in teaching evaluations for small groups as compared to large group classes as evidence that students were dissatisfied. Professor Anthony Niblett and Professor Valcke spoke of their anecdotal experiences in teaching small group sessions. Associate Dean Yoon also stated that the proposal intended to address a diminishing faculty pool to teach small groups given the number of professors on sabbatical or who also teach in other departments.

Student representatives on the committee noted that they pushed on this point, as well, and the response from committee members was a vague issue with writing strength. However, they noted, what constitutes ‘good’ writing varies. Certain student representatives on the committee seemed frustrated by their experience, with questions left unanswered or suggestions that were never taken up.

The session quickly developed into students expressing their broader frustrations with the school’s evaluations and manner of instruction. One 1L student used the opportunity to bemoan the level of engagement of U of T students relative to Harvard Law students, and an evaluation system that allows students to get an HH even if they didn’t complete all the readings in the term. 

Several students noted the inconsistency in 1L experience, specifically highlighting how different LRW instructors would give insufficient feedback or conflicting advice. Others challenged the grading system altogether, suggesting that what was required to get an HH was not only unclear, but inconsistent between different sessions.

At Faculty Council two days later, several professors heavily criticized the Curriculum Committee’s approach. Professor Martha Shaffer excoriated the process, calling it “fundamentally flawed” and “unlike any other process the faculty has had in the past for a significant curriculum change.” 

Professor Shaffer discussed how past committees usually reported to Faculty Council  in the Fall and held consultation with both faculty and staff at an early stage. She suggested that there were many faculty members not on the Committee whose small group teaching experiences were not heard. “The substance of this proposal is nowhere close to where it needs to be in order to be meaningfully considered,” she said. 

Professor Shaffer continued, “Let’s be frank, LRW is the absolute worst course we have in first year.”

Dean Edward Iacobucci strongly resisted this assertion, saying that to give the impression that this was a widely shared belief about LRW was unfair. However, Professor Shaffer’s negative impression of LRW was shared by a number of other professors, including Professors Réaume, Phillips, and Valcke.

Professor Réaume read comments by Professor Kent Roach (who was unable to attend), where he flagged the increased pressure that the proposal placed on students early in the academic year. He said the proposal would continue the last decade’s trend of moving experiences important to students’ later careers to earlier in their legal education. He was concerned that students may only have assignments written during the first three months of law school to use for clerkship applications, for instance—possibly before they know if they want to pursue a clerkship.

Several professors raised the issue of a lack of evidence for the alleged problems the proposal sought to address, and what benefits the proposed changes would bring. Professor Jim Phillips wondered why, if the concern was student writing quality, the LRW program had not been carefully investigated. Of the proposal, he said, “I’m not persuaded that if we have absolutely no evidence that something would be beneficial, the best solution is to try it for a year.”

Professor Alan Brudner, who noted his thirty-six years of experience teaching small groups, highlighted what he saw as a fundamental shift in the administration’s attitude towards small groups. Not long ago, the Faculty undertook a major discussion about the program, and the consensus was that small groups were the “jewel of our program, of U of T law school, that they were so special that they deserved to be set apart from semesterization.” 

Just a few years later, Professor Brudner emphasized, this “jewel” is being traded in, “quite cheaply,” for a mooting program, despite many other opportunities for mooting during law school. Professor Brudner noted that with 13 fewer hours in small group, he could not imagine “what kind of rump of a course will be left.” He felt the course could no longer be a general introductory course and would have to resemble a “selected topics” course.

At the end of the discussion, Dean Iacobucci acknowledged the differences in opinion regarding the value of small groups and what would be lost from their semesterization. He suggested that the Committee would come to a recommendation about what to do at the next Faculty Council, or in the next academic year. 

However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear when and how the proposal will move forward. Faculty Council was suspended for the remainder of the year, and it remains to be seen how the Faculty as a whole will proceed as an institution in the Fall, let alone how this proposal will be addressed. 

Recent Stories