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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A Call for Compassion and Understanding

Today, I am hosting a guest blog post by Robert Lydon, a first-year student at BC Law.

I cannot describe the relief I felt when I received the Dean’s email about the grading policy change. Relief because I would not have to choose between my family, my health, and my academic career. Relief because I now have the flexibility to be there for those who need me. 

I am just one of the students the administration probably had in mind when they rendered this decision. As of last week, I’ve learned that my brother, father, and brother-in-law are now unemployed after construction was shut down in Boston. They are all concerned about how they are going to pay their bills. My mother is a disabled two-time cancer survivor, and I cannot express how dangerous this illness could be for her. Despite this, she continues to help care for my grandmother, who is recovering from a recent hip fracture and is also extremely vulnerable. I live at home with my parents and am worried about their health, economic well-being, and housing security. I am far from the only one in our community affected, nor am I the most adversely affected by this global upheaval.

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We Are Human Beings First And Law Students Second

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.

I am a law student who, like everyone else at BC Law (and literally everywhere else on Earth), wishes this wasn’t happening.

I am a student attorney trying to figure out how to help my clients, since the courts have all but shut down.

I am a millennial who has grown up in endless war, and I probably have a lot of residual trauma from multiple mass shootings in my community.

I am a teacher whose first grade Hebrew students are going stir-crazy in their homes while I try to teach them on Zoom.

I am a daughter of parents whose small business has been shuttered in this crisis.

I am a sister worrying about my siblings who are suddenly out of work without a safety net to fall back on.

I am a partner of a full-time graduate student, who is also doing his learning and his part-time teaching jobs from our apartment.

But before all of those things, I am a human being living in a community that is being tested like never before, in ways large and small.

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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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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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Learn Our Names

We’re in our second month of 1L. By now, the Law Library has become our new home, caffeine and free pizza fuel our bodies, and we’ve all gone through the five stages of grief. And by now, almost everyone has been personally victimized by the supposedly random Cold Call. 

So why is it that some of my classmates still carry a sense of alienation in the classroom?

The first week of school, one of my professors painstakingly struggled through a name pronunciation before giving up and joking, “I guess that’s the first and last time I call on you.” People laughed. To most of our classmates, I’m sure this incident wasn’t a big deal. They chuckled along with the professor, then probably forgot about it by the next cold call, not a second thought given to this well-intended yet problematic attempt at comic relief. 

But as I glanced around the room, I met the eyes of other students of color. I could tell that there was a mutual understanding—this clear microaggression had triggered a feeling we all knew with aching familiarity. A feeling of hotness—a prickling sense of embarrassment and shame mixed with exasperation and invalidation. Of course, we knew that the professor had no malicious intent or meant any harm. But to us, the professor’s comment hadn’t just been a joke. It was a reminder of the underlying alienation and otherness we were conditioned to feel our whole lives. 

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