Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Some interesting assumptions about rurality

I've just finished grading my spring semester torts exams, and I found significant numbers of students (perhaps a tenth) making some interesting assumptions about the people and places in the essay exam question, who I assume they took to be rural. The fact pattern involved some teenage boys who stole beer from a bootlegger (which, I explained in the exam question, is someone who sells alcohol in a "dry county," one in which it is illegal to sell alcohol). The teenagers got drunk with the beer and went canoeing down a river where, in their inebriated condition, they decided to play a one-sided game of "bumper canoes" with a family who were canoeing on the river that day. The family's canoe overturned when the teens hit it, and their young daughter drowned, in part due to a faulty life vest (products liability issue!). The jurisdiction was Alabama, which had no particular legal relevance. I suspect, however, that it was my situating the hypothetical in Alabama that got the students to thinking "rural," or maybe Southern. (Of course, the idea of a dry county is also quite alien to most of them, as they are mostly Californians).

Here's where the unusual interpretations/assumptions came in:

First, many students revised the scenario and the terms I used--presumably unwittingly--to convert the bootlegger to a moonshiner. In their legal analysis of the fact pattern, they invoked both the terms "moonshine" and "moonshiner," which I used nowhere in the exam question. They also referred to his manufacture and production of liquor and alcohol, so I know what they took moonshine to mean.

Second, many students (not necessarily the same ones who blurred the distinction between bootlegging and moonshine) assumed that the private outfitter who rented the plaintiff family their canoe controlled the river, even owned it, so that the outfitter could have prevented the teens from being on the river that day.

As for the first error, I suppose it reflects reasonably widespread knowledge of what moonshine is--and an association between moonshine and rurality (or the South) that caused some students to make this substitution of "moonshiner" for "bootlegger."

As for the second, well, I guess those students who assumed the river was privately owned haven't spent much time doing outdoor activities in and around rivers. (They also may not have paid much attention in property class). Nevertheless, it seems odd that students would assume a river would be privately owned when they presumably would not assume most land thoroughfares (highways) to be privately owned. Hmmmm.

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