The Benefits of Low Expectations
Since arriving in Williamsburg, one of my main tasks has been to prepare for the first class that I will be teaching: Secured Transactions. Based on the involuntary grin that comes over the face of my-former-Article-9-teaching colleagues when they hear that I have been given this, I take it that it has, perhaps, not been regarded as the coolest class to teach. For myself, I suspect that Secured Transactions is the ideal class for a new law professor. Here are my three reasons:
1. Article 9 tested is on the bar exam, so it is something that students feel they ought to actually master.
2. It is a code subject with a reputation for difficult technicality, so students are more likely to feel like they must pay attention in class to master it. (See 1 on their motivation for mastery.)
3. Students will have very low expectations about the interest of the subject matter. No 2L or 3L thinks, “Wow! Lien priorities! There is an exciting and sexy subject.”
Reason 3, in particular, I hope, will work in my favor. It turns out that Article 9 is quite a bit more interesting that students suspect. It includes a number of great set-piece battles: secured v. unsecured creditors, voluntary v. involuntary. Thanks to the work of folks like Lynn LoPucki and Elizabeth Warren one can present the subject as an ideological battle between the banks and the little guys that raises basic questions about the nature and reality of legal liability. In other words, students will come to the class expecting a few hours of weekly boredom suffered for the higher cause of passing the bar and will find — to their surprise — that, hey, there is actually something going on in this class other than mastering the intricacies of the UCC filing system.
This optimistic line of thinking, has made me wonder about which subjects benefit from low expectations and which subjects suffer from high expectations. For example, in law school I expected to find Administrative Law fascinating. I had these visions of titanic struggles over the separation of powers and ongoing battles over the legitimacy of the administrative state. To be sure, Admin provide these, but in the end the battles were not as much fun as I had expected. On the other hand, I took bankruptcy for the sole reason that after a couple of semesters crammed with courses like legal philosophy, Roman law, and Islamic jurisprudence, I had to demonstrate to prospective employers that I was more than a disappointed Yalie and actually knew some “real law.” I was shocked to find how much fun bankruptcy was. It was less that bankruptcy had some decisive advantage according to some universal metric of interest, than that it managed to wildly exceed my (tremendously low) expectations.