Vol 11, Issue 5
We Melbourne Law School students love to complain.
The topics we gripe about are varied: the length of our readings, Commerce students in our library, the inscrutability of clerkship applications. So too the forums in which we grumble: seminar breaks, pre-drinks, LMR Facebook groups—even the very pages of this hallowed scandal rag.
But give a JD student a break in conversation, or a few column inches, and they'll fill it with criticism of MLS life every time.
At times our indefatigable predilection towards griping is a force for good. The fusses we have kicked up recently have resulted in deserved fines being levied against rogue developers and a partial backdown of a discriminatory institutional policy against recorded lectures. Our Type A personalities and august training in rhetoric and logic give us what amounts to a magical power: the ability to transmute complaint into crusade in a flash.
But more often than not, our complaints are just that. As is the case with the reaction to the recent announcement that Property students will be piloting computer-typed exams though the use of the 'SoftTest' application.
When news broke of an electronic exam pilot, the second-year cohort leapt straight to Facebook. The cohort's anxiety was palpable in the multiple comment threads that suddenly burst up.
Opposition to the change could be measured in the Likes that comments hostile to the pilot received, comparative to those that supported it. Three themes of dissatisfaction emerged: unease about how the SofTest software will work, worries about typing speeds and fears for the pilot's impact on grade distribution. One of the LSS Education Directors has committed to hearing the views of students and discussing the pilot with faculty. (De Minimis wishes to advise that in the print edition we incorrectly stated that the Education Director had committed to asking faculty to change the pilot. We apologise for any misrepresentation)
There are, no doubt, legitimate concerns about this move. As a third-year student has informed me, last year's Property exam was excessively long. Many students failed to finish. A typed exam is not a panacea for a poorly designed course. Fears about technology failing mid-examination, and equity for those without laptops, are genuine issues that should also be addressed by faculty.
However, these issues were not the key concerns of the cohort. Our reaction was just another manifestation of the eternal piteousness of the JD student. One fact underlines this: a three-page explanation of the electronic exam policy and procedure was posted on the LMS four days prior to the Facebook breakout. It succinctly explains nearly all of the issues raised—if you read it.
Maybe we don't want solutions. Perhaps the reason that the smallest controversies at the MLS often escalate is because what we JDers truly desire is the catharsis of a good whine and the opportunity to blame someone else for our woes. Rallying against faculty is an emotional win-win: either they accede to pressure, and we get the satisfaction of victory, or they don't, and we get the security blanket of a straw-man to blame for our failings.
It would be a shame for electronic exams to be another victim of the MLS sacrificial altar, another offering for the sanity of the second-year cohort. Handwriting is no longer a necessary skill in the legal world. In the 21st century, all vital legal work is done on computers. Our course mostly reflects the fact that computer literacy is the new mandatory competency: we applied for the degree electronically, we submit assignments online, students fought hard for access to lecture recordings. Handwritten exams predicate academic success in the JD on a dying skill—one that most of us aren't very proficient in anymore.
Furthermore, handwritten exams are inequitable. People with certain motor disabilities and learning disorders (like dyslexia) are disadvantaged by them. University policy generally allows such students access to typed exams already. However, accessing these exams comes with social stigma: it clearly signals to other students that you have such a condition. Universal adoption of typing would allow these students discreet access to the tools they need.
The JD is a reasonably difficult degree. Releasing some steam with a occasional complaint is no doubt a natural and healthy strategy to cope with its pressures. But if that tendency isn't checked it can devolve from a tendency for advocacy into mere oppositionism—as our reaction to a simple pilot for typed exams illustrates all too clearly.
Jacob Rodrigo is a second-year JD student
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