Ban the Independent Study?

Rebecca Schuman, Slate.com’s outstanding higher education columnist, has called for banning independent study papers in graduate schools (and undergraduate schools as well, although such papers are far less common there). She thinks–based on strong, if anecdotal, evidence–they too often lead to sexual harassment and that their limited value does not outweigh this risk.

Schuman is clearly writing about traditional graduate programs for master’s and Ph.D. candidates, and not professional schools that award degrees in law, business, or medicine. Nevertheless, since many law schools, including mine, offer independent study options, it’s worth considering whether law schools should get rid of them.

I’ve probably advised 8-10 of these papers in my six years of teaching. They are generally positive experiences for the students and for me. I generally don’t have a lot of face-to-face interaction with the students I advise (usually one or two meetings total, with the rest of the advising done via email), but there is nothing stopping a professor with inappropriate intentions from requiring multiple meetings. So I think Schuman is right that these situations can put students, especially young women, at risk.

The question is whether the risk is outweighed by the value of these independent papers. I’ve had several students publish their independent papers, and getting a publication on your resume before graduating from law school can lead to interesting professional opportunities. But I don’t think a law student necessarily has to work one-on-one with a faculty member in order to write something of publishable quality. A lot of students at Michigan, where I went to law school, did this in the context of an upper-level seminar where there was no final exam and students were required to write a scholarly paper.

There are other downsides to the independent study paper. At Miami, there are no grading guidelines, and I gather from conversations with students that most independent papers end up getting A grades. Also, there is really nothing preventing a situation where both the student and the professor do very little work on the paper. The student walks away happy if he or she gets an A, and the professor is able to list the advising in his annual report to the Dean of his contributions to the school.

Another important consideration is whether independent study papers really create additional opportunities for sexual harassment to occur. Sexual harassment of students by law professors is a very real problem (see here for a recent example). But any law professor who wants a lot of one-on-one time with a particular student is probably going to get it, even without advising that student on an independent study paper. Professors often spend a lot of time working one-on-one with their research assistants. And professors can very easily require one-on-one meetings with a particular student as a condition for passing the course or getting a high grade. I actually do this myself quite often, although not for the purpose of harassing students. I often write on student papers something like, “I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with me right away so we can begin the process of improving your writing.”

We should not ban law professors having research assistants, and I could not do my job effectively without a lot of one-on-one conferences with students. I’m ultimately not in favor of banning the independent study paper either. Instead, law schools must be vigilant in detecting and punishing sexual harassment of students by professors. Understanding and acknowledging that independent study papers create additional opportunities for sexual harassment to occur is an important step in combating such behavior.