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The sweetness at the end of the tunnel

Ab Initio
|Written By Ted Flett
The sweetness at the end of the tunnel

Exams ruin Christmas for law students. Even the term “Christmas exams” infuriates me. Such an oxymoron.

As a mature student, I recall a solid decade of holiday seasons replete with parties, shopping, decorating, and connecting with friends. But, no more. Rather than merriment and fun, December features endless hours in the library. Any slice of fun, whether a small gathering or quick trip to the mall, is mired in guilt and angst that my time should be dedicated to pouring over casebooks, writing CANs and rewriting CANs. Bah humbug.

Last December, I arrived at Pearson airport, home to Toronto for Christmas, hours after my last of five exams, exhausted and bewildered after surviving a gauntlet of exams.

I make this complaint with a qualification. While hundreds of other students and I are flung back home depleted of energy with days to get ready for a family Christmas, at least the schedule accommodates our religious or chosen holiday. Those who celebrate Christmas have the convenience of decking the halls exam-free while other religious holidays are not accommodated.

Hanukkah, for example, begins Dec. 16. A quick glance at many Canadian law school exam timetables have exams scheduled right up to Dec. 17, 18, or 19. I sympathize with my fellow law students who observe Hanukkah and are forced to celebrate the first night while preparing for an exam in the morning.

I am not alone in feeling cheated from Christmas at the hands of exams. Erika Anschuetz, my 2L classmate and friend, commiserates.

“Exams impact on my ability to prepare for the holidays in that I have to put off shopping for gifts, decorating, and most of all, getting into the spirit,” she says.

An atheist, Anschuetz celebrates Festivus and normally milks the most out of preparation. She makes her own Halloween costumes. She makes her own hats and scarves. She makes her own cards. A scrapbooker, knitter, and all-around crafting enthusiast, she puts a personal touch on most occasions and exams get in the way.

“It stinks,” she says of the truncated holidays.

But, for Anschuetz, the scheduling of fall exams is also a blessing according to her “light at the end of the tunnel” argument.

“The holidays also help me get through exams,” she says. “Knowing that after exams are finished I get to go home and spend time with my family doing Christmas stuff gives me the motivation to power through.”

A pragmatic, Anschuetz schedules her flight home to Zephyr, Ont., on the day following her final December exam. “I like to get a good sleep and have some time to relax before I jump into craziness of holiday festivities,” she says.

The Ab Initio column one year ago by my predecessor was on this very same topic — it’s one worth repeating given exams dominate a law student’s mindset — though as a 3L, Rebecca Lockwood had culled two years’ worth of law exams to distil into wisdom on how to survive law school exams.

As a 2L, I confess to being less experienced on the topic though distancing myself from stress, doubt, and angst in the coming weeks seems a sensible route. My former figure skating competitive days remind me that calm confidence reaps more rewards than frantic anxiety.

The stress of law school exams is compounded by the skepticism many of us hold of the seemingly arbitrary evaluation of them. While 1L is about finding a student’s legal sea legs, my December exam results were all over the map, making me question the certainty in my strengths and weaknesses. But, evaluation by examination is under attack. Douglas Judson, president of the Law Students Society of Ontario, calls the current system of testing and grading flawed.

“The grading curve is at the heart of many law school contradictions,” he says. “There’s a push for practical legal education, yet students are given exam-based courses that often boil down to tests of typing speed. The legal community is scratching its head about mental health and wellness, but standing by oppressive evaluation methods.

“We are needlessly separating talented people into meaningless groups of winners and losers, over what can be a narrow range of actual performance,” he says. “We are also rewarding certain skill sets and under-valuing others. It’s like asking an elephant and monkey to climb a tree and calling the contest a fair race to the top.”

There needs to be an institutional culture shift, he says.

“We need a grading regime that rewards collaboration and collegiality — qualities valued in the workplace and by clients. A strict ranking profile cannot accomplish that, and it produces twisted incentives and work norms. Other competitive programs — like MBAs — have more flexible scales, and in my view they foster a stronger community and a healthier work environment. Let’s cut the exceptionalism out of legal pedagogy and introduce more relevant incentives.”

Judson’s arguments note, at the present time exams are a harsh reality.

Back at the University of New Brunswick’s law library, Anschuetz reclines deeper into the chair of her second-floor study carrel, settling into a long afternoon of reading civil procedure. She has her eye on a prize. Despite the bland environment, Anschuetz is chasing a merrier carrot.

“Eventually surviving exams makes the satisfaction of cozying up on the sofa with my family and loved ones in front of the fireplace, with a glass of wine in hand, so much sweeter,” she says.

Candy cane sweet.

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