The assignment for my Business Law course reads in its entirety:
The student will obtain a documentary paper copy of a collectively bargained agreement between an employer conducting operations in the United States and an American labor union. The agreement must cover employees working in the United States (though there may be incidental coverage of employees working abroad). The student’s name shall be written on the front of the document, which shall be submitted on or before the beginning of class on 24 April 2014.
This is what I call a “witch’s broomstick” assignment. From the line in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion are told by the Wizard, “Bring me the broomstick of the Witch.” The student basically needs only to procure some sort of trophy, and is not tasked with any writing more creative than the student’s own name. One might also call it a “scavenger hunt” assignment.
It is an assignment where either the students get it or they do not. There is no middle ground (unless the student submits the assignment late, in which case it incurs a downgrade that increases progressively with the number of days lateness). This assignment counts for 5% of the student’s final grade.
I have been giving this assignment for a number of years now, but this semester I began to wonder whether it really is pedagogically worthwhile, whether the assignment really contributes meaningfully to the student’s learning experience.
Following a discussion in class today, I do believe that this assignment delivers a valuable lesson to the students. One of my students who walked into the classroom totally clueless left the class better for the experience. She found and submitted a document that complied with the assignment specification (probably following discussion with one or more of her fellow students), but didn’t really understand what it was about.
So I asked her, “Do you ride the Long Island Railroad?”
“No,” she replied, “but my mother sometimes does.”
“Have you heard about the Long Island Railroad’s threat of a strike?” I continued.
She applied in the affirmative.
“Well,” I said, “right now the Railroad and its employees are trying to negotiate a contract. They are now in negotiation, and eventually they will come up with a new contract. That contract will be set forth in writing, and copies of the contract will be given to all members of the union, and to all supervisors who work for the Railroad.”
I saw the smile of realization on the student’s face.
Anyone who reads the local papers or who listens to the news on a semi-regular basis has heard of an actual or threatened labor union strike at some time within the past year. But unless the student, or one or more of his or her close relatives is or was a member of a labor union, the student likely does not fully conceptualize a labor union contract. This is especially so where the student (including the one with whom I had the conversation) has recently come to America from elsewhere and is not as familiar with American organized labor as his or her peers may be.
Regardless of whether the Long Island Railroad and its unions can get to a new contract without going through a strike, the current labor impasse has provided a teachable moment to go with this witch’s broomstick assignment.