Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hiring Bias and Public Legal Education

Elites tend to view themselves as ends rather than means to an end. This is especially the case when it comes to law teaching. Unless public legal education is viewed as a huge and ill-conceived method of redistributing income from lower and middle income groups to relatively higher income groups, its only purpose can be to enhance public welfare. In this sense, both faculty and students are means to an end. Both are necessary components and their efforts should complement each other.

Within the faculty student relationship, though, there is a huge imbalance. Students are relegated to a distant second place. The bias in favor of faculty desires undercuts this complementary relationship and also reduces the return to the public investment. For example:

1. The courses offered are what faculty want to teach, not necessarily what is needed to best prepare students.

2. Teaching times are dictated by faculty. Generally they want to teach from 10-3 on Tues. – Fri. Thus, classes conflict while there are stretches of time when classrooms are empty.

3. Scheduling is dictated by faculty. For example, a 4 credit course may be offered in two two hour sessions. Especially for first year students taking standard courses (as opposed to a skills course) this is pedagogically indefensible and only exists because of a desire to minimize student contact days.

4. Faculty cancel classes for any number of optional activities, often for weeks, and then make up classes (if they are made up) at the end of the semester when students are otherwise swamped.

5. Faculty are often craven about teaching evaluations. Part of effective teaching may be to challenge students yet the prevailing trend is to make them feel good even if this is inconsistent with classroom rigor.

6. Faculty support of grading curves is often motivated by a desire to avoid hard decisions or to avoid “hurting the feelings” of students. The result is that students do not a have a realistic assessment of their progress. For example, at my School, students with a GPA that is even a fraction below a B are very likely to fail the Bar exam.
7. The use of machine graded, multiple choice exams with recycled questions can hardly be reconciled with an education designed to stress analysis and critical thinking. Law School is, after all, a graduate level education. Those exams, however, can be reconciled with a desire to avoid grading.

These policies are consistent with a sense of entitlement most frequently possessed by those in control of legal education. In a context of low accountability and ineffective management (primarily because management serves at the pleasure of those managed) everything hinges on the character and sense of duty of faculty. Here is the good news: It could be even worse and will be unless hiring policies change.


Anonymous said...

This post gives me hope. I'm amazed multiple choice exams are a part of graduate education. I don't care if they were formulated by somebody who had the connections and money to attend Harvard. I had big expectations coming here that life was going to be different because I'd made it to this point. I'm 22, the first college graduate in my family, and now the first to get a postgraduate education. I went to college on a full scholarship but waitressed to pay rent. The reason I went into debt to come here was because it was a quasi-guarantee that my life was going to be better than my folks'. And that still may be the case...but the resurgence of the generic multiple choice exam is still a (for lack of a better word)...bummer.

A Student At UF said...

Thanks for mentioning the make up days at the end of the semester to suit the needs of professors. This has been brought up among friends and I about how it is unfair this late in the semester. There is a way of preventing it though, even from unexpected situations. If the professors scheduled about 3 make up classes earlier in the semester then if they got sick or an emergency came up later in the semester, at the end of the semester we would still be on schedule. If no emergencies came up then we would just end a bit early in the semester giving us more valuable reading time at the end of the semester. I think it is win win for the students.

Jeff Harrison said...

Your suggestion is completely sensible. I wonder if anyone has raised it with the UF administration. It would have to come from the students and then, perhaps, the administration would appeal to the professors to be more considerate. Now, though, the bad news. Many of the classes that are made up at the last minute are known about when the term begins.