Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Life imitating art: The Paper Chase and a Snowmobile

Almost four decades, John Jay Osborn Jr., wrote a novel called the Paper Chase, about a first year student at Harvard Law School. It was turned into a movie in 1973 (with John Houseman as the contracts professor and Timothy Bottoms and the student) and then into a TV series.
One of my most vivid memories from the movie is of the start of class. The professor stands at the front with a seating diagram that included photographs of the students in the class. He picked his victim and started his relentlessly intimidating demonstration of how to make a student realize how little he actually knew about the subject.
Not long after the movie came out, I walked into my first year contracts class at Osgoode Hall Law School. The professor, George Adams, showed up a few minutes late and told the class he had gone to the wrong room. Since Adams was a brilliant lawyer, professor, judge and mediator, I kind of doubted that he had really been lost or confused and decided that he was simply trying to put us at our ease.
Still, I realized that there was at least one similarity with Harvard:  he had a folder with our pictures. Nobody had told us where to sit so there was no meaningful seating diagram but he could figure out our names. I didn't notice any of the other professors using the photographs and really didn't notice him using it much after that.
Some professors believed very strongly in a system of teaching law that had come from Harvard called the Socratic Method. The idea was that the professor should never provide answers -- just questions. Court cases were studied in order to figure out the legal principles that the judges had followed in making their decisions.
The Socratic Method worked very well for subjects that were strongly based on court decisions as opposed to the close scrutiny of statutes.
A few professors followed the traditional practice of calling upon students from the class list. I imagine they thought it encouraged us to actually get around to reading the cases before we showed up in class. Others simply looked for raised hands and let the ignorant sit in silence.
When I went to law school everybody called it Osgoode except for the people at other law schools who called it WasGood. Nobody liked to mention that the historic school was by then the Faculty of Law of the upstart York University in the middle of empty fields in remote Downsview. Until 1968 the school had been in the same building that housed the courts in downtown Toronto, Osgoode Hall on Queen Street. I went to York for my undergraduate degree so I had a little more pride in the place than most.

As I sat in silent thought and recollection about law school of more than a generation ago, somebody was out on the Moose River on a snowmobile. Thanks to Mike McCauley and his good eyesight for pointing it out to me.

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