Going Back to the Future

It’s orientation week on university campuses across the country. This September marks my first back-to-school since 1991 (yikes!), although this time as a sessional instructor instead of a student. While much has changed in the past twenty-five years, I’m more than a little curious to see what has not.

When I started out as a 1L student at Robson Hall in 1989, my school supplies included a couple of 500-sheet packs of looseleaf, several binders, a clipboard for daily notetaking use and of course, dozens of pens and highlighters in all colours. I loaded it all up in a canvas backpack, along with my lunch and maybe, a novel to read en route.

On the desk in my basement apartment sat a Brother electronic typewriter that could, through the magic of eraser tape, “delete” up to an entire line of typed text. I used it to write all my law school papers, with endnotes, not footnotes, of course.

I bought voluminous cerlox-bound casebooks filled with poorly photocopied cases that I zealously coloured with my highlighters so that it seemed every line was critical.

In September of first year, I remember learning about how to use Quicklaw on the bank of computers found in the library, but much more emphasis was placed on how to find cases in series like the Supreme Court Reporter, Western Weekly Reports, Dominion Law Reports or Manitoba Reports. We learned to begin our research process by reviewing the relevant volume of the Canadian Abridgement for a summary of the law in any area and direction to the pivotal cases on any issue. Hours were spent in the stacks, collecting books and carrying them back and forth to a private carrel or large table for group work.

I lived some distance (in Winnipeg terms, anyhow) from the University of Manitoba and had to bus to get there. So my first year also included learning a new bus schedule (printed in a paper brochure format) and figuring out the campus layout to get from the bus loops to Robson Hall. When I got to the law school, I’d grab a styrofoam cup of standard-issue percolator coffee and maybe a muffin from the snack shop in University College, lined up with many of my classmates.

Then we’d head to class, armed with pens and paper and casebooks and listen to our profs lecturing on the basics of the first year curriculum – contracts, torts, property, criminal and constitutional law. They referred to notes on scattered bits of paper as they spoke and fiddled with getting overhead slides turned in the right direction so we could read them at the back of the class. Some used chalk on the chalkboard to note case names or relay other important information.

If you missed a class, you’d have to find a classmate known for legible handwriting and a good sense of what was critical information in the lecture. You’d borrow their notes and head up to the library to make a photocopy.

Between classes, we lounged and chatted and ate in the Common Room, or went for a run or to the gym. Those lucky enough to have cars might go home to eat or study, returning later for the next class.

In the late 80s, Robson Hall classlists were based on surname. Most of my classes were with students from the first half of the alphabet. If your surname started with M-Z, I probably never got to know you, or at least, not very well. My best friends today are from this very group, surnames beginning with A, C, H and L. I had no idea then that I was forming lifetime relationships.

Entering law school was an exciting and terrifying event in my life. I know now that I was lucky to find in Robson Hall a law school that was a good fit for me – those were my favourite years of university.

Excited and terrified are what I feel now, too, returning to law school for the first time as an instructor. I am looking forward to meeting the students and seeing what 1L looks like nearly three decades later. I’m expecting more screens, fewer sheets of looseleaf, a more focused group of students and much less fear and trembling among them. My own fears about facing this new challenge will soon melt away as I find my groove and adjust to the new role.

I expect (hope) I’ll learn as much or more than I impart through this year, through the process of preparing for class and even more, through interactions with students. Stay tuned. I plan to blog my way through this experience as a way of reflecting upon and retaining what I’m learning – about legal research, writing and drafting, oral and written advocacy and what thinking like a lawyer means in an increasingly dynamic legal profession.

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