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.

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