Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A couple of days ago, I promised some thoughts on the impact of the classroom itself on how decent a class is. When visiting my friend over the weekend, I got a chance to sit in on a law school class at a school I won't name. Over the past year or so, the Dean here has made a fairly elaborate effort to make some physical pieces of the campus better -- she renovated a bunch of classrooms with new desks, good lighting, comfortable seats, lots of electrical outlets, wireless Internet, A/V systems, the whole shebang. And this summer she renovated the student center pretty dramatically. In all of the speeches I've heard her give, she pretty consistently hits on a message that the student experience matters to her, and she wants people to love it here. The sense I get is that people don't love it here all that much. You can get lost here. You can fail to find your place. You can blend into the herd. This may be a function of size, or it may be a function of something else. I think there's a community for people who make the effort to be part of it, but it's easy not to be. Anyway. I had never thought much about the physical renovations, except to contemplate that I'd rather have had my share of the $12 million it cost to renovate the student center, since I don't really use the student center for anything and I don't care if it's a dump. But the classrooms, while I absolutely recognized they were nicer than they'd been, I hadn't thought about them really.

The class I sat in on left me with two reactions. The first was that it was a horrible class. The professor was terrible. The subject matter was beyond dreadful. It would have been a bad class in the Sistine Chapel; it would have been class on a cliff overlooking the ocean; it would have been a bad class in the middle of a laser light show. But it was made so much worse by the setting. The classroom was old, and filthy -- the horizontal blinds on the windows, once white I'm sure, were closer to brown. The desks were sticky. The chairs -- those uncomfortable kinds that are attached to the floor -- like ones we had in some classrooms pre-renovation -- were in various states of disrepair. The space next to where my friend sat was just a chair stump -- the seat was gone -- and when his hand accidentally brushed it at some point during the class, his palm was covered in grease. The room was way too big for the class -- space for over 100 in a class of maybe 35 -- and arranged in church-pew-like rows, the professor seeming awfully far away. The students sat mostly toward the back. There was no chalkboard -- just a temporary white board on wheels, and a marker running out of ink. The lighting in the room would charitably be called dim.

Maybe I was just trying to justify my tuition, and don't want to admit that maybe it's really just as bad here, but I couldn't help but feel like even my worst class here has not been quite that bad. I have boring classes, sure. Classes I want to run from and never come back, because they're just so awful. But never classes that felt quite so... impoverished. I started thinking that atmosphere and facilities do make a difference. Comfortable seats, clean desks, good lighting, ample blackboard space, close proximity to the professor, professors who at least pretend to be trying to teach. Some level of engagement.

I'm not sure what my point is. Nice classrooms help? I guess that's my point. Of course, good teachers help a helluva lot more. But if you can't have those -- and I get the feeling that good teachers are not in rich supply at any law school... I've had a handful here who've been somewhere between very good and fantastic, and another handful who've been perfectly competent, but I've also had a handful who've been dreadful at this and a smaller handful who just haven't seemed to be trying all that hard. So if you can't get the good teacher -- and, please, I think we deserve every professor to be at least a little bit great, to have greatness inside of them, even if we can only see glimmers from time to time -- I really do think, more than I did before sitting in on this class, that atmosphere matters. That's all. That's all I wanted to say.