So far in my two short years as a professor, I have tended to use the common practice of drawing on figures from pop culture for the names and basic features of the characters in issue-spotting exam questions. For example, I’ve asked questions about a student named Harry Potter at a college called Hogwarts, a fellow named Cosmo who runs a company called Kramerica, and a Hollywood agent named Ari who manages a movie star named Vince.
The other day, one of my civil procedure students asked very politely if I would be willing to identify for the students, in advance, any pop culture characters featured in the upcoming exam. I thought about it and then said no, mostly because I was afraid that some of her classmates would then run out and watch Seinfeld reruns or whatever rather than studying the Erie doctrine. I also thought such an announcement would greatly overemphasize the importance of this fictional backdrop, which should be trivial. The facts are all right there in the question, and they often depart entirely from the book or TV show that inspired them. (Of course, it goes without saying that an exam question must not assume any knowledge of the source material.)
But the student’s request got me thinking about whether using pop culture sources for exam questions is a good idea. On balance, I still think it is at least harmless and probably useful. True, students who happen to be familiar with the characters may have a slightly easier time keeping the fact pattern straight, and maybe that is slightly unfair. But it is such a miniscule advantage. And unavoidably there is lots of luck in exams — if a question happens to resemble one you studied, that is a much bigger advantage than knowing about Harry Potter. Meanwhile, a well-chosen set of characters probably helps the bulk of students to digest the facts, and it definitely helps me keep the fact pattern straight as I carefully read 100 answers. Besides, it can provide a little comfort and perhaps a smile to at least some students during the stress of an exam. Those who are oblivious to the cultural references can just ignore them.
There are other ways to write fact patterns, of course. Bar exams seem to draw on lists of obscure first names, almost like the roster of hurricane names. One of my colleagues puts her acquaintances into exams, and every year one particular friend dies a gruesome death. I will never forget a first-year professor of mine who populated his exam with multisyllabic figures from Greek tragedies, whose names all sounded alike to me (and many began with the same letters too!).
Law professors and students: what do you think?