The New Norm

This post is a little something old AND a little something new (but no, we’ve moved on from wedding talk. til next year). I want to talk about the brand new Zoom School of Law, of which I am now a PROUD MEMBER!

Okay, not really. But we have been doing online school for almost two full weeks, with mostly positive results! I’ve been very impressed at how smoothly we’ve transitioned.

Schedule

This hasn’t changed one bit. All classes are conducted at their normal times (EST) on their normal days. Of course, this occasionally presents time zone challenges, but even those are more manageable than expected. The time difference really only impacts our 8 am Criminal Law class on Mondays and Tuesdays. Our professor was wonderful about it; she just asked that people email her with scheduling issues so she could take them off the cold call roster. And even with that conflict and relatively early start time, we usually have 60 of the normal 80 attendees present!

The administration also decided to record classes, so students who miss the session can view them later. This NEVER happens – and though the tapes will be deleted and students are strictly prohibited from distributing them or recording themselves,* it’s still given a few people pause. As our Constitutional Law professor pointed out, you don’t usually talk about race, abortion, and the death penalty when you know it’s being recorded (obviously, he doesn’t have a facebook.) And for Con Law, at least, we can opt out of cold calls if we’d prefer to NOT be on record discussing these topics.

*The photos in this post are JUST photos, not videos, and I’ve blacked out all identifying features to protect the innocent!

With the recordings and more lenient attendance policies, I am kinda surprised that most people are tuning into class as usual. With the exception of Crim, our other classes are usually only one or two short! But the professors are still calling on people randomly, so you run a risk of discovery if you’re named and don’t appear. Happened yesterday in Torts, to two different people, in the same five minutes. yikesssss.

Class Norms

HLS is conducting all classes over Zoom, a virtual meeting platform that has been AMAZING. You have to join meetings through a website link, and the links are easily accessible on our main website, Harvard Canvas. To log into class you just go to the main website, click your class, click the “Zoom” side bar, and then click the link at the top of the list because that’ll be your next class! If you try to log in at the wrong time, or to the wrong class, the link simply won’t work and you’ll know right away.

Log into website – click on “Zoom” – click “Join Meeting.” Done!

Each Zoom session opens ten minutes before the official class start time, so you have plenty of time to log in, launch Zoom, adjust the camera and get settled before the professor begins lecturing. As a rule, students stay muted and the professor stays unmuted throughout class; when called on, the student can unmute themselves to answer, and then mute when finished. Video feed is more optional; some students have theirs on all the time, others hardly ever. However, the professors have expressed a preference to a) see at least a few faces and b) to see a face especially when someone is answering a question.

My professors also occasionally ask for volunteers, and for that we use Zoom’s “raise hand” feature. It causes our name to rise to the top of the class attendee list with a “hand” icon next to it, indicating to the professor that we’d like to answer. However, this has proven a little confusing for some profs; and since the class list appears alphabetically by first name, a poor guy named Aaron has been called multiple times for a ghost “raised hand.” It’s very amusing for everyone…except Aaron.

We also use the “yes” and “no” buttons to indicate if we can hear/understand the Professor

There are a few other common problems; about once a class, either the professor or a student will cut out due to a poor internet connection. A professor will occasionally mute themselves by accident, or get confused in “sharing their screen” to display a PowerPoint. And then, of course, there’s always a pause when the professor cold calls someone and they scramble to unmute and cobble together an answer. Once, the professor called on a guy that we could see was present, but his camera was off and he just never answered her. Turns out he muted the class to answer a phone call from his mom, and missed the cold call!

Nonetheless, we’re having a great time. There’s a fun feature on Zoom called “Break out rooms,” where we get split up into small groups without our professor – those are always very fun and minimally class-focused. People can change their screen backgrounds, and we’ve seen MANY interesting combinations there! And below, you can also see that one of my sectionmates created “Bingo” for a certain class; in the other, we’re all unmuted and singing Happy Birthday to one of our friends. We really are making the best of the situation!

Grades

One thing that has eased some MAJOR nerves about virtual learning is HLS’ transition to Pass/Fail grades for the spring 2020 semester. We’re still going to take finals; we’ll just take them at home on our laptops, instead of in a classroom on our laptops! If the formats stay the same, I’ll still have two 3-hr exams and one 8-hr exam; the other two will be final essays.

Additionally, many career services and job opportunities are being pushed back to January 2021, so 1Ls will have another semesters’ worth of grades to show employers. Therefore, the lack of grades should harm the least amount of people possible. Those will good grades first semester still have them, and those who wanted to use second semester to boost their GPA can do so during the first semester of 2L. You can never make everyone happy, but this seems like a good compromise!

Make no mistake though – the professors aren’t calling this semester a wash. We’re still covering all the material we would in the classroom. But they have started laughing at us whenever we ask exam questions, or express uncertainty about them – “you guys do know it’s pass/fail, right?”

Other Major Changes

Of all our classes, virtual schooling has definitely impacted Legal Research & Writing (LRW) the most. During the spring semester, 1Ls usually write a 20-page brief and participate in an oral argument, both based on an extensive mock scenario. (Ours was about a convicted drug dealer, who may or may not have been entrapped by the government). The oral argument isn’t a mock trial; in this case, the trial has already happened and we’re presenting arguments at the later stage of appeal. (If you’ve ever seen Making a Murderer, where the fancy Chicago lawyer argues for a convicted Steven Avery in front of three random judges, that’s exactly what we were going to do).

However, we only got through the rough draft stage of writing the brief before everything shut down. We’ll still turn in a final draft, but it’s due two weeks later than expected and honestly, motivation to perfect the draft is way down. Furthermore, oral arguments have been totally cancelled. You can do one over Zoom if you want, but I think most people are opting out – since we’re in pairs for these assignments, it’s very hard to practice when you don’t live in the same place!

And of course, graduation and all other on-campus events have been cancelled. The 3Ls will have some kind of online ceremony and there has been talk of having an on-campus event next fall, but nothing is solidified.

Personally

As I said in the beginning, this has gone more smoothly than I expected. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t weird as heck. I haven’t ridden a bus, or even checked the bus schedule, in three weeks – and that used to happen several times a day! I haven’t studied at my favorite coffee shop, or even bought a coffee, since March 10; I haven’t had to meal prep, plan out my days, or pick outfits at all. These days I’m squarely in sweats for class – usually with unwashed hair and glasses, and DEFINITELY without make-up. Twice now, I’ve returned to my computer set-up to find my notebook and textbook open, uncapped highlighter still sitting on top.

What am I, some kind of ANIMAL???!!!

I miss leaving the apartment, but I love the freedom of the online platform. Sometimes I turn my camera off & do lunges, squats and push-ups while my classmates are answering questions. I can openly text my friends about funny things happening during the class period (which is great, but also distracting). Additionally, I have a co-worker sitting behind me who occasionally yells at his computer – that can be equal parts hilarious and annoying. (It’s Ben. Ben is my co-worker). Finally, my dual-screen set-up allows me to have Zoom and notes open in front of me – I can even google questions if I’m confused!

Which I may or may not have employed prior to a Con Law cold call yesterday. Not important.

Overall, there’s no doubt we’ll get through the semester with the same pizzazz we had in the classroom. It looks a little different, to be sure; but I don’t think “different” means “definitely worse.” Still – I won’t deny that I miss my fancy coffee, and seeing my friends in person!