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Time, Place, and Manner

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Crayon Theory

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If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

- Bokonon, Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut


My evidence professor is a nice guy. I would say too nice in fact. He allows people to avoid being cold called up to four times during the semester, no questions asked, by writing their name on a piece of paper and handing it to him before class begins. Despite this, there are hardly any reasons to take him up on this offer. He goes over the rule that we’re covering for the day at the beginning of class. He breaks it down and goes over policy reasons for why the rule exists and why it was written in the way it was. If that wasn’t enough, because of his years as a litigator he knows how to phrase a question to elicit the exact answer he wants. It’s a soft version of the Socratic Method. All of this means that no one should ever be scared to be called on, and the only reason one should ever pass is if you simply didn’t do the reading at all and had no idea what was going on in the cases.

My professor, as nice as he is though, doesn’t allow laptops during class because they “inhibit healthy class discussions,” i.e., “you darn kids spend too much time on Facebook.” This means I have no internet distractions—no Reddit or Zero Hedge to occupy my time with, and a man can only do so many Sudoku puzzles. At some point, despite my best efforts, I began paying attention to the lectures.

We were covering the Verbal Act Doctrine and a guy from the back row was called on for a hypothetical problem. The problem involved A leasing part of his farm to B for payment in kind. B took out a loan from Bank and gave them a security interest in part of his corn crop. B defaults and Bank repossessed his corn. A sues Bank for conversion. Lawyers for B and Bank want to introduce statements made by A to each and the guy in the back had to decide which statement, if any, should be admitted. Now, one would think it obvious that at least one of the statements would come in as a verbal act seeing as how we were covering the fucking Verbal Act Doctrine. Yet somehow the guy in the back declared both statements as hearsay. The professor held his hand as he walked him down the path to finally get the correct answer, but by then we had already wasted 30 minutes of class time on a single hypothetical.

The whole scene got me thinking about a professor I had in undergrad. His favorite refrain was: Explain it to me in crayon. His theory was that if you couldn’t break down a concept into its simplest form, so simple a child could understand it, then you didn’t truly understand it. His maxim stuck with me, and I put it to good use. My senior year I would occasionally work as a tutor to juniors who were having trouble understanding financial concepts. As good as my grades were I quickly realized that I didn’t understand the concepts enough to teach them. My own understanding was at the level of mere regurgitation. I had to go back and relearn everything from the beginning. It was only after I broke everything down into crayon that I was able to understand the material enough to teach it.

My evidence professor wasn’t holding the guy’s hand; he was breaking down the Verbal Act Doctrine into crayon. He went back to basic property and contract law and forged a path for the guy in the back to follow; one logical step after another until he got the right answer. I’ve seen professors give up once they realized a student wasn’t prepared or felt a particular line of questioning was a lost cause. At that point they move on to another student or tell us the answer outright. How much blame should be apportioned to the professor in those instances is debatable. What aren’t up for debate are the merits of breaking concepts down into crayon. Simply put, it works. The guy in the back had obviously not done the reading, nor had he paid attention in the beginning of class while the professor had explained the doctrine, and yet he got the answer without having it told to him.

Some may say the professor spoon-fed the guy the answer by breaking it down into such simple terms. I say there’s nothing wrong with that. Better to come off like a child in class than in court. The consequences of not understanding the material are too real. Imagine losing a criminal case on a technicality because you didn’t understand basic evidence rules. “But the client can get a new lawyer and appeal.” Yes, but the appeal process is long and costly, and the client will likely be in jail while it’s happening.

The next class period I saw the guy from the back row write his name of a piece of paper and hand it to the professor so that he would be excused from being called on that day. Why? The odds of being cold called twice within the same week are categorically zero. He wasted a pass. Perhaps my initial assessment was wrong. Maybe his performance from the previous class had nothing to do with how unprepared he was. Maybe he’s just a vapid idiot.

[Read more from Shadow Hand]

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