Getting stuck on the dot

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Aug 24, 2009 in The 1L Life

I got here early today to wait for Torts to start, and have inadvertently ended up in a workshop talking about the importance of study aids and study group composition.  So I figure it’s as good a time as any to pen some thoughts for the day ;)

All of us have (hopefully) heard the phrase “missing the forest for the trees.”  The cliché is (ab)used so often by so many people that once upon a time I started compiling a list of alternative phrases that had the same meaning.  I never did anything meaningful with that list, but the one I end up using myself came from a former Student Government official at N.C. State who always complained about Student Senators “getting stuck on the dot” — which in his case referred to the Finance and Government Operations Committees exercising their oversight powers in questioning his not-exactly-ethical financial practices, but is just as good a metaphor as any.

Getting "stuck on the dot"

Getting "stuck on the dot"

My initial impression is that 1Ls seem to get stuck on the dot pretty easily (myself included).  Maybe it’s the abject terror of ending up like That Guy, or maybe it’s just a more simple fear of being the awkward kid in class.  But when you remember not to get stuck on the dot, it’s fun watching everyone else respond :)

Today’s example:  Civil Procedure this morning (3rd class of the semester) where we’re discussing Mas v. Perry (489 F.2d 1396 (5th Cir. 1974)) and diversity jurisdiction of federal courts.  Mean Dean Green — who thus far doesn’t seem to be mean at all, although his sarcasm is just plain funny — pulls up Article III of the United States Constitution and puts it on the projector screen prior to the case discussion.

Midway through the discussion there is a reference to a different court’s opinion that (in a nutshell) noted a court has general jurisdiction over certain classes of issues unless Congress specifically removes its jurisdiction via statute.  He then asks the class “How do you know if a federal court has jurisdiction over an issue?  What are the 2 primary sources we use?”  The first person responds with “the statutes” (obvious + correct).  The professor asks what the 2nd source is… and… silence.  Frantic flipping through pages in books.  More silence.  More flipping.  Someone responds with “the United States Code”, which of course is the same thing as the statutes.  Someone else says case law (no), someone else says common law (no), someone else says state law (no).

Bear in mind the United States Constitution has been on the screen the entire time this Q&A is taking place.

In the back of the room, once one or two people get the answer to a question it’s usually whispered around to the rest of us or passed via notes.  So I whisper “Section 2 of Article III” to Karl(a) (another member of the Gang of Eight), most of the other folks in our vicinity realize it in short order, and we just sit back and watch at the perplexed look on the faces of people worried they’re going to get chewed out for not being prepared.

Once someone said the Constitution, you can hear this class-wide “oooohhhhhhh.”  I’m fairly sure we all knew it, we just got stuck on the dot and never said it.  So if you find yourself trying to answer a professor’s question and can’t figure it out, (1) breathe and (2) take a top-level view and make sure you’re not missing something painfully obvious… especially when it’s on the projector in front of you ;)

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