Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Being prepared

Last Friday I talked about my master thesis. During the weekend I got an email from my professor advisor to set up a time for the first meeting. I have been fretting ever since about what I should and should not do to prepare for this talk. In two previous blogs I mentioned that it is impossible to be completely prepared for anything, and I wanted to expand on this.

My first year there was a course called introduction to Criminal Law. It was incredibly fascinating and I seemed to have an above average understanding of the material. I summarized the major points and posted the summaries online via the university website and got loads of compliments on how I had helped people pass that course. Meanwhile… I failed with an average grade of just under the minimum of a 5.5 out of 10. It took me a while to figure out what I had done wrong.

Partially it was because I was not used to answering questions in as much detail as was required, but it also had to do with me preparing in a different way. Coming from a background in exact sciences, I had always needed to learn how formulas worked. I had never needed to memorize them. Likewise, I was far more interested in learning how to use particular criminal provision to judge whether a particular behavior is criminal or not, rather than memorizing the names of the four different reasons we punish criminals.

My problem was that I had been prepared to understand the problems without preparing how to quickly and accurately solve them. Even then there is always more to learn and more to do. You can put stickers in your law books to more easily find specific provisions. You can write the names of jurisprudence by the articles and the articles by the jurisprudence. You can memorize summaries of the material and of the jurisprudence, or just memorize the literature itself. But when you get to that stage, where all the information is readily available in your head, you start thinking critically about some of the things you are being taught and, probably out of curiosity, start reading the quoted sources in the literature or reviews of the literature. You might look up other handbooks and start comparing the different points of view. Having an endless amount of time on your hands, you could become more knowledgeable than the professor testing you.

You have to draw the line somewhere. Students do not have an endless amount of time and are allowed to spend time on other things than studying. That may sound like an excuse, but it is the simple truth. A line has to be drawn somewhere and every student gets to decide for themselves where to draw it. As long as they are willing to live with the results, of course.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Master thesis

It has taken me over three and a half years to get here, but I am finally working on my Master thesis. It is weird, because the past years professors and students have told me constantly to prepare for this time. Whenever an interesting subject came up, I was supposed to jot it down so picking a subject would be easier.

It was still hell. A lot of subjects have already been discussed endlessly and specific problems have been discussed to little for a student to say very interesting things about. After thinking about it a lot, I remembered the introduction of a new law that had seemed significant to me at the time: a new law that in a sense introduces animal rights. I could write about how that would alter criminal law.

Except… that is far too vague and practically impossible to investigate exhaustively. After a quick talk with a professor, it turned out I should focus on a few specific aspects, like the legality. That made me also focus on a general provision that unclearly defines a general responsibility to care for all animals. Now that I have started talking with my Professor-Advisor, I have found that I need to focus more on this general responsibility. At the moment I have to change, based on his comments, the introduction and planning I had made. I am having a little bit of trouble with it at the moment because… well, if I knew exactly why I was having trouble with it, I would have already fixed the problem.

The thing is, nobody has ever taught me how to research and write a full thesis. I had some practice with the Bachelor thesis, but that was hardly filled with instructions and not all of the skills are fully transferable. But the more I am planning this massive body of text, the more I am able to cut it up in pieces that I am experienced in writing. I want to know about what kind of behavior becomes criminal according to a certain provision? No idea how to do that. Figuring out whether certain behavior X is criminal… that is Law School 101. So, simply generating a different amount behaviors is the difference between unable to answer a question and being completely familiar in answering it.

I cannot shake the feeling though that I keep having to reinvent the wheel and that a lot more could have been done to show us how to do all this. Then again, that is probably what every student thinks about every situation. If it was supposed to be that easy, there would be a lot more lawyers around.

Monday, 16 April 2012

A scary exam

Last Friday I woke up around seven in the morning, feeling significantly less sleepy than I normally do when waking up. Of course, I had spent of the night awake while twisting and turning in bed, filled with troubling thoughts. It was a combination of pondering the various consequences of moralistic viewpoints and needing to wake up really early that make me nervous enough not to get enough sleep. The advantage is that I will feel really awake until later in the afternoon and my exam was just before lunch.

I had my breakfast, packed my things and headed for the bus. It is a two hour commute, so I made sure to use my time by studying a little more. I wonder if you can ever be fully prepared for an exam. Is it not true that the more you know about a subject, the more you realize there is yet to learn? I arrived in Utrecht  90 minutes early, letting me buy a lunch and some sports drinks to provide the mental energy I was sure to need later on. I arrived at the examination room an hour early and used the time to read up on a mathematical theorem; it is always important to relax just before an exam instead of nervously cramming every single fact you can find. If you do that, it becomes very difficult to handle two hours of intensive thinking.

The door open eventually and all the students take their seats. I take out my two law books, my bundle of jurisprudence and three working pens. My name is written on the answer sheet and I start reading the information on the front page of the exam. We are not allowed to look at the actual questions yet, but everything that is read now will not have to be read later.

The professor present announces that we can begin and I check it out. Three general questions and a case. I can feel my mind formulating answers to all three questions and start writing down keywords on a blank sheet. I glance at the clock and start planning my answers. I have two hours, or 120 minutes. I can get 70 points for all the questions. That means I have a little over 17 minutes per 10 points worth of questions. I regularly check the clock to make sure I am not falling too much behind.

After a lot of stress, with just two minutes to spare, I hurriedly finish my final question. Had I had more time, I would have searched for a couple more provisions of criminal law to strengthen my arguments, but two minutes was not enough time to both find and incorporate it. I handed in the exam, packed my things and left the room.

I thought I did well, as I walked to the bus home, though it is always impossible to tell. I had to guess one answer, but I thought it was a good guess. Not all my answers were complete, but they all seemed correct. Like always, I will not be sure until the grades become available.

Friday, 6 April 2012

4 ways to get away doing almost nothing and 4 ways to prevent it (part 2)

3. Having only hours before the seminar:
This is more like it. With a few hours we have plenty of wiggle room. Not enough time to actually do the required work, but probably more time than most students will

How to get away with it: You will not have time to read all of the literature, nor all of the jurisprudence, but you can get pretty far. Try to answer the questions by looking up the relevant paragraphs in the literature and scanning for useful information. Answer the simple questions first since you can probably get away with insufficient answers for the difficult ones.

How to prevent it: Asking questions about the material that is not required to answer the questions. Also, checking students’ knowledge about the jurisprudence is a handy indicator because that takes the most time to study while giving the least amount of details.

4. Having only days before the seminar:
Finally we have the time to do all of the work. Wait, you do not want to do it? Why are you even a university student then? But okay, if you really do not want to do the work…

How to get away with it: with a few more days to prepare, you can start to delegate. Make sure you have some mail addresses of students who do prepare and mail them for their answers. It is preferred if you ask them just to share the answer to one question in the guise of ‘I did not understand this one, could you help me?’. If this all fails, please fall back to one of the previous methods.

How to prevent it: this is incredibly difficult without some work on the professor’s side. One course solved this by requiring all students to hand in a copy of their work at the beginning of the class. This way copies and non-doers could be caught.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

4 ways to get away doing almost nothing and 4 ways to prevent it (part 1)

I promised earlier that I would write about this and here we are. The University of Utrecht has the obligation of active participation. To participate means missing at most one or two seminars, depending on the specific rules of the course. To participate actively means to show up having read the material and having done the work. I cannot stress enough that this is incredibly important to getting good grades and getting your degree. I understand though that it cannot always be done. Some professors will, when taking presence, ask if you are prepared.

1. Having done no work:
No matter how little you have done, answer that you have in fact prepared. There are at least three reasons for you to lie like that, though they are omitted from this article in fear they might persuade people to stop doing work.

How to get away with it: hope really hard that you are not picked to give an answer. If you do get picked, claim that this is the one question that you did not prepare, preferably in a vague manner so you can later still claim the same with other questions.

How to prevent it: teachers need to either have a tougher sanction when the lack of preparation is admitted, or need to have a good system of making sure you give every student a question to answer. Make up your own if needed, or keep track over a couple of seminars.

2. Having only minutes before the seminar:
So you find yourself outside class with only a few minutes left. Been procrastinating too much again? Oh well, here is what you need to do.

How to get away with it: read all the questions and scan literature and jurisprudence for key words. Note things like ‘margin of appreciation’ down really quickly and if asked a question answer in a vague question. “I am not sure exactly, but am I right to think it might have something to do with the margin of appreciation?”

How to prevent it: Do not accept vague answers. Ask about what the keywords mean and ask in-depth questions about the literature. It is okay if students start opening their books and looking it up; that they know where to look shows they did the work (required) even if they did not understand it (the reason they are at this seminar).