Exam Characters

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?

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33 Responses

  1. Dave! says:

    I think sometimes it’s funny or cute… sometimes it’s annoying. Helpful, eh? 🙂

    I would only ask that if you do use a pop reference, that you look kindly on students who creatively and appropriately work a relevant reference into their answer…

  2. Belle Lettre says:

    Complicated names are stupid. I love classic Greek tragedies, but seeing Aegyptus, Agammenon, and Aeschylus would just throw students. Best to stick to simple names that can be shortened to initials (that can be differentiated from one another) in a racehorse exam.

    I’m indifferent to the pop culture. It’s a little gimmicky, but so are law professors. I will probably stick to simple old-school names that I love and never see anymore, like Henry and Ruth. Or Dorcas. You never see Dorcas anymore.

  3. Deven says:

    Dave! reminds me of something I have seen. Rather than an advantage sometimes a student will indulge in the world of the characters and seem to lose a little focus on the facts. I have considered dropping the pop culture for that reason.

  4. This year, I used Pat Holder in patent law (it was fun to see how many assumed male v. female, and how many waffled). I used Cy Law and Weber “Web” Site in cyberlaw.

    I did use a pop culture reference in my patent law exam (though I explained all facts necessary) and I found that some students wasted valuable words and time on references outside of the exam facts.

  5. jen says:

    Had one first-year law prof who (almost) always used the same names – I don’t remember them exactly, so call them Jane, John, Sarah, and Ruth.

    In *every* hypothetical that he gave, Jane and John were good people, innocent bystanders, or victims. If the hypothetical had a villain, it was *always* Ruth. Sarah was more of a filler – if another good person was needed, or a second villain, or it was questionable, that was Sarah.

    We knew something was up with this of course – partway through first semester we got him to ‘fess up. Jane and John were his kids. Sarah was his wife. Ruth was his sister-in-law.

    It actually worked really well – you’d have figured that using the same names over and over would be confusing, but it helped that “Jane” quickly came to mean “someone who might have made a mistake here but had no ill intent” while “Ruth” pretty much implied bad acting. . . . 😉

  6. Adam says:

    I enjoy the fictional characters if only because they bring a smile to my face while reading the interesting facts and help loosen the tension.

  7. Adam says:

    replace with ‘fictional’ with ‘pop culture’

  8. Howard Wasserman says:

    I use pop-culture characters and references for precisely the reason Adam enjoys them: It helps break the tension a little bit. And occasionally a student will come in and tell me that I picked the characters from her favorite show. But the characters’ details and the fact situations they are in generally have absolutely nothing to do with the show, so knowing anything about the show will not help and should not be a distraction.

  9. ABC says:

    I’m with Adam; inserting a pop culture reference helps break the monotony of exams. I’ve had an exam where the President, acting as “The Decider,” wants a legal opinion on a policy question, a torts question where “Justin” ripped off a piece of “Janet’s” clothing on national television, among other attempts by my professors to inject a little humor into exam drudgery.

    Perhaps the most blatant use of pop culture I’ve seen, and one in which the exam fact pattern actually stuck pretty close to real events, was the evidence question on the July 2007 New Jersey bar exam, which followed the saga of “Anna,” a recently deceased model/actress, her infant daughter “Danni,” and claims of paternity by “Howard” and “Larry.” I distinctly remember an audible collective groan, followed by a chuckle, in the exam hall.

  10. krs says:

    Pop culture sounds fine, so long as knowledge of the TV show or whatever doesn’t give any actual significant advantage in answering the questions.

    I agree with the others who’ve suggested that pop culture references break the tension and are generally harmless.

    Naming a kid Dorcas nowadays would be cruel and unusual punishment.

  11. matt says:

    I don’t much like the pop-culture references in part because I don’t much like “cute” things like this. It seems that attempts at being cute often work to make the questions less good than they otherwise would be. In my (limited, I admit) experience this seems to be a real problem. Secondly, I’m so cut off from pop culture that they end up just seeming silly, or even dumb, to me. Perhaps because I don’t smile at the cuteness of it all I tend to see the distorting effect more clearly. So, my vote would be for doing without. (I have seen some pretty good questions based on stories, but in ways that were hardly pop-culture references- a crim exam where the liability of the various characters from a stripped down version of Hamlet had to be considered. (In that case it seemed that detailed knowledge of the play might have hurt since the facts were simplified in some important ways.)

  12. david says:

    Just finished my criminal law exam- I don’t mind the obscure names. They can put a smile on your face.

    What I do particularly mind is the ridiculous fact patters that often create cultural practices completely unfamiliar for those that live on this planet. They can be very distracting because more often than not, they are very difficult to visualize.

    My criminal law teacher was tame this year, but the year before he developed a fact pattern on the land of “pick-pocketing” where pick-pocketing (with consent) was a common and welcomed practice… I know what he was getting at, but still, it took me 30 to just to get the facts straight in his fantasy world.

    I guess, at the very least, it gives the students an entry into the professors mind.

  13. David S. Cohen says:

    Pop culture references worry me. I worry that a student would write an answer incorporating something external to the problem about the pop culture reference into the answer and that the professor would inadvertently look more favorably on the answer. Of course, the professor would try not to, but human nature being what it is, it seems that it would be hard not to be a bit pleased/entertained to see a student taking the professor’s bait and going with it. It would then create a possibility of an unfair advantage for the student who gets the reference over the students who don’t (and there will always be students who don’t, no matter how much we think we’re using something everyone knows).

  14. Belle and Jen:

    One more complication relevant to your comments. At least at my school we are not allowed to use the name of any student enrolled in the class, even “John.” I think Dorcas would usually be OK, though I guess I would have to check the roll before I used it!

    And, yes, Belle, we are indeed a gimmicky bunch, as will you be when you join us some day soon… don’t you sort of love us for it?

  15. Rick Garnett says:

    I use either “Notre Dame names” (e.g., Sorin, Moreau, Hesburgh) or Tudor-era types, like More and Fischer.

  16. Bruce Boyden says:

    Of course, it goes without saying that an exam question must not assume any knowledge of the source material.

    It may go without saying for professors, but not for students. I had a couple of students on one (fortunately, practice) exam answer a question differently because of facts about a Simpsons character that even I didn’t know. So it may be worth an instruction not to read more into the characters than is provided in the question.

    I do use cultural references myself, sometimes from comedy routines (e.g., old Saturday Night Live skits), but I usually try to keep them a bit obscure to avoid the Simpsons problem. Either that, or I appropriate the names only but everything else about the question is unrecognizable.

  17. kevin g says:

    It’s also kind of nice when a professor uses names that start with the first letter of the individual’s role in the scenario. Thus, for my bankruptcy exam, Darryl is the Debtor, Tom is the Trustee, etc. Helps me keep things straight when trying to crank out an essay in a limited amount of time. I hate having to keep re-reading the fact pattern because I can’t remember who’s who.

  18. Sean M. says:

    Prof. Oman, in a practice exam I worked on to prepare for my finals, did a rampant Harry Potter fact pattern for his second question. It was amusing for sure, but I preferred the professor that had every hypo, all semester, being between Alice and Bob. When necessary, Alice and Bob would assume various professions (such as Dr. Alice for medical malpractice claims). Even the generic names lent levity to the class — at one hypo, the student responded, “I don’t know. That sounds more like something Bob would do.”

    When it came to the exam, Alice and Bob were back, and the semester up to that point made us smile. If necessary, Carol and Dave also made appearances, but rarely.

  19. Sean M. says:

    My Civ Pro professor uses movies for his fact patterns. This year was “Big Lebowski” and year before was “Raising Arizona.”

  20. JudgeNot says:

    I try to stay with simple references such as the law firm of “Dewey Cheatum & Howe” or “Moe, Larry, and Curly”. I try to avoid to many pop culture references as we have more and more foreign students enrolled in the LLM track.

  21. Belle Lettre says:

    I think I am going to name my exam characters all the names my partner vetoes for the kids and dog, like Arthur and Daisy.

    I like the gimmickiness of law profs that doesn’t manifest itself in exam hypos or awful, punny article titles. Then they’re just normal pecadilloes like everyone else has. It seems as though law professors like to collect stuff. Perhaps it makes them feel like their life has some other purpose. One of my profs in law school collected bobblehead dolls, and so we had one made of him as a class present. I have heard of another prof who collects slinkys. Y’all are weird. Loveable, but weird.

  22. Fazed says:

    Since students are usually writing with limited time, I think it best to give the characters very short names – Tom, Ann, Pete, Kurt, etc. why should they have write out long names when they have so much else to attend to.

  23. Random Dude says:

    Interesting…I took the NJ bar exam a little bit ago, and they had a fact pattern culled from real life life as well. I honestly recall it being a bit tawdry and inappropriate the way it would not have been as a law school exam question.

    Then again, the NJ bar is also in the habit of asking politically hyped pending Supreme Court cases as questions for con law. Awkward, especially considering that you suspect they want the liberal answer.

  24. Random Dude says:

    As an aside, here is the NJ Bar exam question about Anna Nicole Smith.

  25. krs says:

    Fazed, I don’t think law professors dock your grade if you abbreviate the names.

    If Rumpelstiltskin walks onto the land of Karabelkinhoff and injures himself by tripping over the chainsaw manufactured by Confederated Hardware Enterprises, which was left on the property by SuperDuperRotoRooter Tree Trimmers Aktiengesellschaft…

    then I think you can still get an A on the exam by discussing the potential claims and liability of R, K, CHE and Super.

  26. Fazed & KRS — I explicitly allow abbreviations. And I try not to have any characters whose names start with the same letters.

    Kevin G — Initials that correspond with legal roles may work sometimes, but it depends on the subject. In civil procedure, for example, there may not be such clear-cut roles beyond plaintiff and defendant, and even then there can be all kinds of cross-claiming and impleading that may flip those roles. But in other courses I agree it can be useful.

    Bruce — Good point about the instruction — though sticking to the facts as they are given without making extraneous assumptions is actually a skill we want to teach students, so maybe that’s an argument in favor?

    David S.C. — So far I have not encountered more than a passing nod to the pop culture stuff. I have given very time-pressured exams so that may be part of the reason. If you are using precious time for your pop culture riff instead of substance it is likely to hurt you. But yours is a valid concern.

  27. Ann Bartow says:

    I just call my exam actors A, B, C, D etc. Boring yes but easy for everybody. The pitfalls of pop culture deployment may unpleasantly surprise you. I know one law prof who angered many students with a humorous “Soup Nazi” reference. Others were troubled by a hypo involving Chuck Norris in which he had a venereal disease. Possibly Harry Potter could distract a certain kind of uber Christian. I like to avoid drama around exam time where possible.

  28. Howard Wasserman says:

    Multiple choice changes this a lot, because you have to come up with a lot of questions and, thus, a lot of characters. In Evidence, the one class I do by multiple-choice, I follow something like what Kevin G talks about: Letters correspond to roles (P for Plaintiff, D for Defendant, W for Witness, etc.), then I pick completely random names and words (whatever pops into my head as I am writing it) for that question.

    And for what it’s worth, I actually appreciate the student who throws in a sentence that riffs off the pop-culture fact-pattern. It shows that she is having a little bit of fun with things and that she is able to see through the haze of the exam process a little bit. It also breaks the monotony of reading 120 identical essays on personal jurisdiction. But it does nothing to affect the grade, either.

  29. David S. Cohen says:

    William – along the lines of my earlier concern. I am now grading my conlaw exam. I had a problem set in 2010 with the President being “President McObamtin.” An exam I’m looking at now refers to the President as “President Joobahil McObamtin.” Cleverly and nicely done, and from my end, a nice moment of humor in the course of reading 120 of the same thing. Of course, I’m not going to let it affect how I grade . . . or at least, that’s what I tell myself. Is my subconscious going to do something otherwise though?

  30. Andrew says:

    I always enjoyed the use of pop culture references in law school exams–always good for a little chuckle.

  31. Belle Lettre says:

    David S.C.: now that you’re conscious of it (“primed”), you’ll try to resist the urge and may even overcorrect for the possible bias. Or so say the cognitive psych people. See, this is why pop culture might be bad. It’s twee and clever, but it shouldn’t go into the grading and very well might affect it on some level.

  32. Vanceone says:

    In my property exam, the prof used names of the students in the class the second semester. I took that and went wild with it, having a bit of fun.

    He told me about that exam, before he knew who wrote it–it woke him up, he said. Which was a GOOD thing, since my grade jumped a whole letter between first and second semester in that class.

    Was it because he was more awake? No idea, since 1st semester property was also my worst law grade of law school, so I probably had to do better, right?

  33. I agree with Jen. My criminal law professor used the same names for all the problems: Marv was always the bad guy, and Vic was always the good guy. Why Marv and Vic? Well, Vic for Victim makes sense. And my prof explained, “Only a real jerk would be named Marv.” At any rate, it was very nice not to have to deal with dumb names in his class. Contrast that with another professor who was a little late to the party in that she had “Morat” causing trouble in NYC.