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The Great Experiment

By Robert F. Cunha jr.

Harvard Law School professors call it "The Great Experiment." And the guinea pigs seem to be multiplying.

The experiment-with is being conducted in one of the four first-year section at the Law School-is a dynamic new teaching strategy that coordinates all five traditional first-year law courses. Inaugurated last year, the Experimental Program has met with almost unqualified success among the 140 students and five professors involved. Next year the program will expand to include half of the incoming students.

"We don't learn five separate subjects-we learn law," says a first-year (II) student is the Experimental Section.

Students in the non experiment sections law school format an which five "core" classes--Criminal Law, Torts property Civil Procedure and Contracts are taught in dependent of each other Section I this year's Experimental Section outwardly resembles these traditional section for most of the academic year.

But throughout the year Section I coordinates the five course by simultaneously presenting similar subject matter whenever possible further, the major structural distinction of the Experimental Section is live one of two wee "bridge periods in which all but one of the traditional core classes are suspended while the section devotes itself to interdisciplinary study.

During these bridge periods, teams of professors present topics that encompass all the core courses such as economic legal analysis and corporate personality. Both professors and students admit however, that the bridge periods are still evolving "The bridge periods feel very experimental." says Professor of Law Todd D. Rakoff '67 a member of the experimental team.

But one of the major advantage of these bridge periods says Professor of Law Frank I Michelman, is that professors and students "argue back and forth." giving a wider perspective on legal questions.

Michelman, who teaches Property in Section I. heads the committee that drafted the 1982 Report on Educational Planning and Development, which proposed the experimental program.

According to that report, the overall strategy of the Experimental Section curriculum is to coordinate the core subject matter. However, professors do not try to "integrate" fully the five core subjects. Although they do try to match subject matter, they still respect traditional course boundaries during the 75 per cent of the academic year in which there are no bridge periods.

Other than the bridge periods , the main structural difference in the Experimental Section is a more Methods class, which emphasizes There is also an extra 90-minute class meeting on Fridays to ask questions, hear speakers, and discuss special topics.

But despite these changes, the mainly traditional nature of the Experimental Section has spurred some questions as to just how "experimental" the curriculum really is. Although students in Section I often refer to themselves as "guinea pigs," most do not believe that teaching methods are recklessly unproven. "I don't think we're really guinea pigs," says 11 John M. Barr. "It's not too risky," Rakoff agrees.

Similarly, the Michelman Committee, which last October released an interim report on the progress of the Experimental Program, was quick to point out that "Neither the actual nor the planned departures from the standard first-year program are drastic enough to warrant the guinea-pig simile that 'experimental' suggests."

In fact, say some students, the Experimental Section does not go far enough. "No matter groovy the sections are, they still issue and there's still a good deal of pressure," says Michael T. Anderson '83-4. He says he believes that classroom reform has to go hand-in-hand with grade, financial aid, and admissions reforms.


Nonetheless, one of the major advantages for the professors in the Experimental Section--Michelman, Rakoff, Warren Professor of American Legal History Morton J. Horwitz Frankfurter Professor of Constitutional and Professor of Law Charles R. Nesson--is that they "get to work more closely with colleagues," says Rakoff."

The professors, besides teaching side by side during bridge periods, also get together to map out the year-long coordinated for first-year students Similarly students work together more closely in the Experimental Section. Rakoff says And almost all seem to enjoy it more, despite a slightly work load.

According to the Michelman Interim Report, 74 percent of the students in the Experimental Section last year gave the overall program the highest possible rating. Only 4 percent rated it average or below average.

And the popularity of Section I. Michelman "is the same this year as last" Barr agrees "I haven't heard anything of students who haven't liked it," he says. "And I'm really impressed."

A student sample in The Harvard Law School Record, the student newspaper, also showed almost universal enthusiasm for the Experimental Section.

But both students and professors say that the traditional curriculm still provides for effective teaching. "Experimental sections wouldn't work with dominating, rock-star professors." Anderson says. He praises the interplay of Section I professors, adding. "Two are less hierarchical than one."

Rakoff agrees that certain professors styles and personalities might not work well in the Experimental Program, and says that having two Experimental Sections next year will be the real test," because it will show whether the success of the current program is a function of professional style or structural superiority.

Students generally concur "In order for the section to work, you have professors that want to make it work." says a student.

Professors are therefore unsure about the long term future of the program, and are hesitant to say whether they behave the Experimental Program with become the model for all first-year students. "I'd like to see [the first-year program] go to the experimental model if it's useful to all the people." Rakoff says.

Michelman is even less sure about the ultimate growth of the Experimental Program "I don't think I'm prepared to take a shot at that one," he says.

Like all experiments, the Law School's Experimental Program will undergo thorough scrutiny before any conclusive results are reached. Until then, says Michelman. "I think we've got a lot more to learn."

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