Legal research as soulcraft, and drilling in a familar lesson

We love indexes and promote their use all the time.  But there are also limitations to indexes and certainly a range of quality to them.  This past quarter I assigned pages 129-38, “Indexing and Abstracting,” from Matthew B. Crawford’s wonderful book Shop Class As Soulcraft:  An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.   The author tells the story of working as an abstract writer for Information Access Corporation (IAC); from the reading:

In some journals . . . articles begin with an abstract written by the author, but even in such cases I was to write my own.  Nor was I simply to reword the author’s abstract . . . Rather, I was to read the entire article and distill it afresh.  The rationale offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by IAC’s products.  It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material. . . .

My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this does not require understanding (like a computer that manipulates syntax while remaining innocent of semantics).  I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard diagramming an abstract.  The writing of abstracts had been conceived in general terms, but I soon discovered that what the task in fact demanded was complete immersion in the particular text before me.  Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person, and gave no outward sign of suffering delusions. . . .

My starting quota, after finishing a week of training, was fifteen articles a day.  By my eleventh month at the company, my quota was up to twenty-eight articles per day . . . Whereas Charlie Chaplin’s efforts to conform himself to the accelerating pace of the machine in Modern Times took the form of brilliantly comic ballet, mine were rather mopey and anxious.  More than anything, I felt sleepy.  This exhaustion was surely tied to the fact I felt trapped in a contradiction.  The fast pace demanded absorption in the task, yet that pace also precluded absorption, and had the effect of estranging me from my own doings. . . .

My efforts to read, comprehend, and write abstracts of twenty-eight academic journal articles per day required me to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus.  This can only slow you down.  The quota demanded that I suppress as well my sense of responsibility to others — not just the author of the article but also the hapless users of InfoTrac, who might naively suppose that my abstract reflects the contents of the article.  So the job required both dumbing down and a bit of moral reeducation.

. . .

It will be objected:  Wasn’t there any quality control?  My manager would periodically read a few of my abstracts, and I was once or twice corrected and told not to begin an abstract with a dependent clause.  But I was never confronted with an abstract I had written and told that it did not adequately reflect the article.  The quality standards were the generic ones of grammar, internal to the abstract, which could be applied without my supervisor having to read the article. . . .

I mention this now because the latest issue of Duquesne Law Review  just landed on my desk, with an article commenting upon Shop Class As Soulcraft and making the analogy of shop tools to legal research tools, and also offering an exercise that some of you might want to consider to drill in a certain very familiar message.

In the article, “If I Had a Hammer:  Can Shepardizing, Synthesis and Other Tools of Legal Writing Help Build Hope for Law Students?” author Ted Becker (clinical assistant professor at University of Michigan Law School), relates an exercise he does with his students:

. . .  Bring two handheld drills to class, one cordless, and the other an old-fashioned manual with a crank handle.  Be as much of a showman about this as you like.  Start with the power drill.  Take your time unsnapping the drill case and fitting the drill bit into the chuck.  And then, without a word, drill a hold in something.  Students will pay attention.  Then, pull out the manual drill, and ask if anyone knows what it is.  Somebody probably will.  Switch the bit to the manual drill, and drill another hole (or ask a knowledgeable or eager student to come to the front of the class and demonstrate).  undoubtedly, this will take longer than the cordless drill, and might require some extra steps.  But it will work.  Needless to say, practicing this demonstration before trying it for the first time is always a good idea.

The lessons of this exercise are straight-forward.  As with any tool-based demonstration, emphasize that if students aren’t familiar with woodworking tools, they should extrapolate the lesson to something they’re more familiar with.  The power tool is easier and quicker.  But it’s not the only way to get the job done.  Remove the battery pack from the cordless drill, and ask whether the drill serves any purpose now other than a paperweight.  Without a spare battery or other means of power, the cordless drill is useless.  The manual drill, however, suffers from no such limitations.  It might not be the first choice, but it’s good to know how to fall back on it if circumstances warrant.

The larger purpose of this demonstration, obviously, is to make a point about researching using book and computer resources.  One suspects that this won’t be the first time the students hear about the need to become familiar with both types of sources, and that it won’t be the last.  But I also hope that a demonstration of this nature is memorable, and circumvents students’ near-universal tendency to zone out when hearing abstract soapbox pronouncements about “know how to use both books and computer-assisted legal research.”  Ultimately, via this demonstration or others like it, substantive lessons about legal tools can be tied to students’ experience with physical tools, one hopes in the somewhat imaginative and interesting ways, with more likelihood that the lessons are taken to heart.

The cite to the article is:  Ted Becker, “If I Had a Hammer: Can Shepardizing, Synthesis, and Other Tools of Legal Writing Help Build Hope for Law Students?,” 48 Duquesne Law Review 325-47 (Spring 2010).  In the article Professor Becker proposes “that we legal writing professors can better serve our 1L students, and increase our chances of engendering and maintaining hope in our students, . . . by more explicitly acknowledging  the connections between the tools of legal writing and tools as used in the more down-to-earth context of manual labor.”

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