Wednesday, October 28, 2015

First-year reading groups at NYU Law School

Last year at NYU we started having first-year reading groups. Professors could volunteer, and first-year students could sign up for, small groups that would meet for a couple of hours on four evenings, preferably at the professor's home. I believe we adopted the idea from other schools. The idea is to build connections, bring newcomers inside the community, etcetera.

Last year I interpreted "reading group" a bit too literally, and thus had as my topic Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. This had the downside of making the people who signed up commit to reading an 800-page book across four widely separated meetings. It also seemed to suggest having academic discussions that touched on background economic literature, etc. I swiftly came to realize that, while this might be in principle a worthy thing to do, especially since all members of the group are volunteers, it's not really what the first-year reading groups either are or should be about. The first year students already have too much other work on their plates, and shoveling a bit more their way is neither what they do want, or should want, or need.

This year, having seen the light after my own experience and after comparing notes with colleagues, I came up with a very different structure that I think worked better. It didn't involve actual reading, but so what. Instead, we watched four episodes (each about 40 minutes long, from a 1-hour commercial TV time slot) of the 1970s to 1980s TV show The Paper Chase, which of course is based on the 1970s movie and stars John Houseman as the ridiculously imposing Professor Kingsfield. Given the length, we had time to chat both before and after each viewing.

One thing that did work out as planned, I thought, was that the episodes are (thankfully) ludicrously inaccurate as depictions of what being a first-year is actually like these days. Nowadays there's far less hierarchy, pomposity, performance pressure, and rote memorization, and I certainly hope less panic and anxiety, than in the fictional world of the movie and TV series.

In part for this reason, the show was frequently unintentionally funny. But the problem, at least for me, was that, although The Paper Chase is apparently regarded as having been a fairly good show, at least in a comparative sense (considering all the other junk that gets made), it's actually pretty bad in any moderately demanding sense. It predates Seinfeld's raising the sophistication bar a bit for mainstream commercial television (in terms of both structure and black humor), and it even more substantially predates the modern auteurist, niche-marketed cable era of show-runner-curated higher quality television (perhaps initiated by The Sopranos, but with all the famous examples since that everyone knows about).

For next year, my tentative plan is to read two law firm or law school novels, spending two weeks on each and NOT doing stuff that lies as far in the past as the Paper Chase book. One of them would be my novel Getting It, which I genuinely think the students would like, although I recognize the potential awkwardness if particular group members didn't like it. For the other, I am tentatively thinking about either Lindsay Cameron's Biglaw or Lisa McElroy's Called On, although I need to read them first and see what I think. (Other suggestions would be welcome.)

A bit further out in left field, perhaps for the following year I'll do a pair of alternative takes on Tolkien's Middle Earth. I have two in mind, each delightful when read against the background of the canonical books and films. One is Kirill Yeskov's The Last Ringbearer, set a short time after the destruction of the One Ring and told from a pro-Mordor standpoint (e.g., Gandalf was a genocidal racist, Aragorn was a ruthless opportunist, and Mordor was a rising modern industrial society challenging feudalism). The second is Rolf Luchs' The Last Homely Housekeeper, founded on the point that Rivendell, to run smoothly, would have needed low-ranking elves to do all the grunt work on behalf of Elrond's guests, and that such individuals' perspective on all the visiting worthies might well have reflected the old Montaigne line that no man is a hero to his valet.


Lisa McElroy said...

Dan, Thanks so much for considering my book, CALLED ON, for your reading groups! It's light, a very easy read, but hopefully it raises some important questions about the nature of law and justice. I'd be glad to come in and visit your class if you decide to use it.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Thanks, Lisa. I will keep this in mind. I may end up doing the other book due to the thematic linkage (like my novel, it's set in the law firm world rather than law school). But perhaps we could arrange some sort of event, somewhere some time, about recent legal fiction?

Lindsay Cameron said...

I echo Lisa's thanks for considering BIGLAW for your reading group! While it is fiction, I think gives readers some insight into the sacrifices that come with chasing the brass ring. I live in NYC and would be happy to come and visit your group if you decide to use it. Sounds like a fun group!