Distance Learning in the COVID-19 Era: A Reflection From Governor Swift

Today I am hosting a guest blog post from Governor Jane Swift, who is currently the Rappaport Center for Law & Public Policy Distinguished Visiting Professor.


The ironies abound. First, the course I am teaching at Boston College Law School is titled, “Governing in the Era of Facebook: Privacy, Propaganda & the Public Good.” The entire course is premised on the speed of innovation and how it is rapidly changing the nature of work and learning and challenging the legal and regulatory sectors. Second, I have been an executive in the Education Technology industry for nearly two decades. I have run online learning companies and sold and delivered online courses to schools and colleges. So, if anyone should have been ready to quickly pivot their face-to-face teaching as a Rappaport visiting professor from traditional delivery to online, that guest professor should have been me. If I could play a guitar or sing, however, I would have written and tried to get this video to trend.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCe5PaeAeew&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1jsCv4x-qVlKUGzmzGvJRH3DnXkKCI0EvKIkBHvFFh6K8UGvPlGxi1w8g 

One thing is really important to put in perspective from the get-go. What is happening this spring semester, where schools are continuing to deliver coursework to college and university students, is decidedly NOT online learning. True online courses, like the ones my colleagues and I built at Middlebury Interactive Languages, take months and sometimes years to build. They depend on professionals with specific expertise in course design to translate pedagogy from in-person to online. Even in online learning, there is huge variation in the degree of features and functionality, the use of video and audio, whether assessments are embedded in the course, and how those are proctored. None of that can happen at scale, securely in a three day or two week period. Instead, what you see now would more fairly be categorized as distance learning or – and even this is a stretch – as blended learning.

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Equitable Grading in Times of Crisis?

Dear BC Law Community,

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has created a widespread public health crisis, larger than what most of us have seen before in our lifetimes. This is not, however, the first-time members of our community have faced an unprecedented life circumstance. Your classmates deal with issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, chronic physical and mental illness, family tragedies, and much more, on a daily basis. When members of our community face these issues, absent a pandemic, we tell them to suck it up. We tell them the curve is what it is and they just need to find a way to solider through, or we contritely tell them “hey, B’s are still passing,” when we all know full well that in a tight  job market, the arbitrary difference between a B and a B+ can be the difference between employment and unemployment. An overly competitive curve is all well and good when it only effects the have-nots, but when it starts to affect the “haves” as well, then we start paying attention.

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What Do Bats and Viruses Teach Us About American Government?

Editor’s note: due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Boston College has moved all classes online and sent students home for the semester. The BC Law Impact blog has suspended its normal posting schedule, and bloggers are now focused on writing about the impact of the shutdown and the current state of the world on their academic and social experiences as law students. We are all in this together; let’s find our way through together.


Recently, I’ve been thinking about a night I spent in Panama trapping bats. More precisely, I was taking pictures of a team of German scientists who were trapping bats. I had been traveling in Latin America when a journalist friend asked me to meet him in Panama and tag along on a story he was doing for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which studies tropical ecosystems and their impact on human well-being. As the virulence of the coronavirus has shown, bats are especially potent and prolific reservoirs of disease due to their strong immune systems. So every night, this team of scientists would head out into the tropical forest, put nets up between trees, and catalog and take samples from all the captured bats.

The goal was to understand the dilution effect, which refers to the way that biodiversity in the natural world helps prevent the spread of disease from animals to humans. The theory is that when an ecosystem has high levels of biodiversity, it is more difficult for a disease to take hold in any one species. Without any species becoming a potent reservoir for that disease, it is more difficult for it to spill over into human populations. When biodiversity is low, however, a single species can serve as host to a critical mass of disease, facilitating its transmission to humans.

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Moot Court: Mock Trial’s Nerdy But Cool Older Sibling

Note: The 60th Annual Wendell F. Grimes Moot Court Competition Finals will be held at BC Law on Wednesday, March 11 at 4:00 pm in East Wing Room 120. 


Television shows like Judge Judy prepare every person in the English-speaking world for what could possibly go on at a mock trial competition: there are opening statements, directs, crosses, redirects, closing arguments, and certainly tons of objections and shocking witness impeachments. These are all aimed at typically convincing a jury that your side has better evidence to prove your point, or in the alternative, that the other side simply lacks sufficient evidence to prove theirs.

While this is, I am sure, one of the many cool things about grade school, college, and yes indeed law school, I have found mock trial’s lesser known appellate sibling to be much more entertaining.

Picture this: you, your moot court partner, your opposing counsel and their partner, a panel of typically three judges (often actual judges and high powered successful attorneys), and a fascinating point of law. Your job in a fifteen minute span is to engage in an eloquent and respectful conversation with the judges about the issue at hand. Opposing counsel cannot object to your argument. In fact, the only people who can interrupt you at all are the judges who, if you’re lucky, are peppering you with questions about holes in your arguments and points raised by your opposing counsel. Or they’re asking you about circuit courts that disagree with your theory of the case. Because there’s no jury for whom you must translate the law into something a lay (read normal) person can understand, you just have a bunch of highly intelligent, legally trained people discussing the nuances of our legal system. It’s a total nerd party!

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Moving Beyond 1L Grades: Words of Wisdom

I think we can all relate to the feeling you get when you walk out of a final thinking you nailed it, only to find out a few weeks later that your grade was not nearly what you expected. When this happens as a 1L, however, I think the stress is even worse. All you have heard about for the months leading up to finals is that only your first-year grades matter and if you fall outside of a firm’s cutoff, you have a very big uphill battle ahead of you.

Well, even if this happened to you, your fellow 2Ls and 3Ls are here to tell you that you don’t need to beat yourself up, it will all work out, and it’s now time to move on with your second semester. Below are their words of wisdom:

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The Fall from Grace: Tackling Choice and Moral Culpability in Class

“This seems like a philosophical question.”

My classmate was trying to parse the Supreme Court’s reasoning in two cases with similar facts and different outcomes. Our professor did not seem enthusiastic about the prospect of a philosophical discussion. Some professors teach introductory law classes like a foreign language, immersing students in legal syntax and vocabulary until its functioning becomes intuitive and fluid. Imagine trying to teach French students to conjugate a verb while they’re working on a grand theory for the union of sound and thought. You would get further by just drilling, “Je vais à la plage. Tu vas à la plage. Il/Elle/On va à la plage.” So our professor responded with a pointedly practical answer spelling out the officially recognized legal rule at work in the two decisions.

But there was an interesting, philosophical issue beneath the surface of the Court’s reasoning, even if we didn’t have enough time to cover it. These are the two cases:

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Don’t Let The Curve Make You Unkind

Coming into law school, I had many choices to make. Several of them were financial: where I would live, how much I would take out in loans, and whether I could hold a part time job during 1L (that final one was a no, which made things very tight during those many months of learning how to Bluebook and outline). I had to decide who I would befriend on the first day of orientation, who I would trust as study partners, and who I would go to when I was having a horrible time with my lot in life.

One thing I was determined NOT to do was to allow the confines and constraints of law school to turn me in to someone I would be ashamed of, or someone I just didn’t like.

And then I met “the curve:” the infamous, fixed grading system that pits section mate against section mate and keeps many law students up at night.

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My Unconventional Spring Semester: Four Classes That Inspire Me

One of the things I was most looking forward to as a 2L was being able to select my own classes. Unlike my undergraduate experience where it felt like the list of required courses was never-ending and took up most of my schedule, BC Law gives students a ton of flexibility when it comes to deciding their courses of study.

My strategy to picking classes falls into three categories: classes that will prepare me for the bar, classes that I think will be helpful in practice, and classes that I simply find interesting. Last semester I tended to focus on bar classes (including Evidence and Corporations), but my spring course load is filled with classes that I thought sounded interesting.

Below I provide a brief overview of my spring semester, including why I chose to take the classes I did:

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365 of 1L: Internal Monologue of My First Cold Call

I was never really worried about getting cold called.

For one thing, my name, appearance, and general vibe are so monumentally uninteresting that I knew I’d be functionally anonymous to my professors. For another, I came to law school straight through from undergrad. My academic career has been uninterrupted since kindergarten. So when people started to hype up the pressure of cold calling, this long-standing historic educational tradition built on the learning philosophy of Socrates, a daunting gauntlet every 1L has to traverse, I may have been a little nervous. That is, until I found out cold calling just means getting called on in class. I’ve been getting called on in class for 17 years. No big deal.

But then I actually had my first cold call. The following is an account of my internal monologue at that moment:

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Closing Casebooks and Opening Discussions: BC Law’s Campus Speakers

Part of why I decided to come to law school was to engage in deep, complex, and nuanced discussions about the law and current events. During college I was able to take courses that challenged and engaged these questions and provoked discussion on campus outside the classroom too. The 1L curriculum doesn’t have the same freedom of course selection as an undergraduate one. We select one elective class in the spring semester, but in the fall, our course schedule is entirely up to the Law School and long-standing professional norms. That isn’t a bad thing—undoubtedly, these doctrinal classes will make us better lawyers and teach us about the law. BC Law also has excellent, engaging, and caring 1L professors. But I imagine everyone else who goes to law school, just as I do, has a desire to discuss many legal interests that extend beyond the scope of 1L courses. Simply based on how often law is in the news, we obviously have questions about topics that will not be covered in class.

Fortunately, BC Law’s administration and student organizations help fill the gap.

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