Take the bus, and leave the driving to us

In the last couple of days I’ve had a few incoming fall starters ask me if there’s anything they can or should do to register for classes. The short answer is “no,” but since that is so different from how things are done in undergrad and most other graduate programs, I thought a fuller explanation might be worthwhile. Plus, “no” just doesn’t make much of a blog post.

At Michigan, as at all law schools I’m familiar with, the first-year curriculum is largely etched in stone. That is, the curricula vary among schools, but whatever it is, is typically etched in stone. At Michigan, the first-year (or 1L, to use the universal shorthand—why, I wonder, do med students go by M1? Or, to be less chauvinistic, why don’t law students go by L1?) doctrinal curriculum consists of one semester each of civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, property, and torts, along with Legal Practice, our two-semester intensive legal writing and advocacy training course. Far in advance of the beginning of the semester, the dean of students undergoes some complicated and semi-magical process where he divvies up all those required courses for one summer-starter and three fall-starter sections, making sure that each section has the necessary courses available over two semesters. Thanks to details like sabbaticals and classroom availability, this is far more complicated and headache-inducing than it sounds. But it wouldn’t be optimally educational if we accidentally ended up with a section that had two semesters of con law and none of torts, so it must be done.

Each of those four large sections is itself subdivided into four equally sized small sections. In other words, an entering class of 360 is divided into four big sections of 90, each of which is divided into four small sections of … 22.5 people. Okay, you got me, they’re only roughly equal in size. But since I’ve never matriculated a class that was exactly 360, things were going to be rough anyway. Each of the small sections gets assigned an alphabetical designation: the summer starters are ABCD, and the fall starters are EFGH, IJKL, and MNOP. Each alpha group of about 22 or 23 is a Legal Practice section; two alpha groups of about 45 are a “small section,” and at least one doctrinal class gets taught in a “small section.” Right now, our summer starters have a small section of contracts, one of which is taught by the unparalleled James J. White at 8am, and the other of which is taught by John Pottow at a more humane hour. (I’m not saying Prof. Pottow is paralleled. I’m just suggesting that he is not yet as clearly unparalleled as Prof. White. But Prof. Pottow is young. I suspect that in another decade or so, he too will be clearly unparalleled.)

Still with me? The foregoing two paragraphs are mere background to the process I’m trying to describe, which is how we figure out who goes in which of those alpha sections, and why students don’t just register themselves.

A couple of weeks prior to the beginning of a term, I send along to our registrar a list of everyone in the entering class. The list has various bits of demographic information, like undergrad institution, major, permanent state, age, gender, yada yada yada. The registrar then—in a process that I imagine to be very similarly complicated and headache-inducing to the course-allocation process I mentioned earlier (and since the registrar is part of the dean of students’ office, I have just realized that I never, ever want to be in that office)—tries to allocate people evenly among the sections. We don’t want all the Michigan undergrads dominating one section, for example; they need to be disbursed evenly, so that their classmates can all benefit from the Ann Arbor and University insights they’ve accumulated over the previous four years. Likewise, each section needs to have at least one women’s college grad, jewels that we are. (What? You say the issue is actually that women’s college grads are too prone to being gunners, and must be separated? That is incorrect, and I’d like to talk to you about it for a few hours or so.)

Now, dividing up the sections by taking into account a single factor, like undergrad institution, wouldn’t be too hard. Balancing all the various demographic bits, though? Not. Fun. Oh, and I forgot to mention one teensy little thing—I very helpfully send along important one-off tidbitsof my own that I want the registrar to take into account. Some examples: when people are a couple, or brother and sister, relationship-maintenance principles dictate they be in separate sections; or contrariwise, when two strangers strike my vivid admissions imagination as being destined for best-friendship, I like to shove them together. Sometimes, too, there will be people who have important scheduling considerations that need to be accommodated, like childcare responsibilities, or a longish commute—those folks need to be in particular sections. Sadly enough, sometimes I forget to tell the registrar in advance about little things like this (even though he always reminds me), so he’ll diligently break his back dividing up the sections, and then I’ll write back and say, “looks good EXCEPT could you please just shift these ten people around?” And never once has he yelled at me. Amazing. (He is, however, occasionally sarcastic with me. But then, I like that.)

The fun really kicks in when, after he’s done all the divvying and we have the lovely result, an incoming student will withdraw at the last minute, or need to defer. The shifting commences. And I’m always very grateful at that point for the invention of e-mail, so I don’t have to relay that news in person, or by telephone.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the long answer behind the “no” to “is there anything I should be doing to register for classes?”

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions