Thursday, June 04, 2009

Summer Rerun: The Matrix

I think everyone has seen the movie, The Matrix. If you have not, it portrays the battle between being "real" and feeling good. In effect, machines have taken over the world and cultivate humans as an energy source. They--the humans--actually grow in really yummy looking little pods. They are content because whatever consciousness they have is simply the result of a computerized reality.

Some bothersome Moneylaw-type humans are actually fighting for real reality even though it means some unhappiness. In the movie, the evil forces are those who want to perpetuate the sense of well-being. Thus, the movie assumes, counter to what the current demand for mood-altering drugs indicates, that we are instinctively on the side of those who fight for the real reality. The movie skips over a question that philosophers have addressed one way or another for centuries. Are we actually on the side of the real? Descartes saw the issue as whether our consciousness is imposed by some outside force or the result of our free will. The idea is reflected in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia when he asks whether we would willingly enter an experience machine. In the machine everything is dandy, and you do not recall that you opted into the machine. Nozick makes the case that there are reasons for not entering the machine.

Most law professors seem to crave the painlessness of the Matrix. In terms of the experience machine, it amounts to a preference for sensing that one is part of a productive endeavor over actually being part of a productive endeavor. Having gone through the contortions necessary to change perceptions of themselves, their schools and programs, they then begin to take satisfaction from those appearances as though they were real. In terms of the film, it is comparable to constructing the Matrix or Nozick's experience machine and then happily jumping in. The pull is irresistible to many. Indeed, the unhappiest people I have known in the academic world are those who are unable to suspend their disbelief sufficiently to enjoy the illusion.

Some features of the Matrix are:

1. A new professor is asked to write an article for a symposium by a senior colleague. The article is called “referreed” because no law review students were involved. The article comes out and the senior colleague publicly congratulates the new professor and reviews the article for tenure purposes.

2. A popular faculty member is proposed for tenure. His teaching evaluations are good to average. His volume of scholarship is high. In the file is a negative letter from a national expert asserting, correctly, that 30% of the candidate's work is recycled from earlier work. After twenty minutes of laudatory commentary at the tenure review meeting, nothing is said about the negative letter and its claim.

3. Another popular candidate is proposed for tenure. She, her husband, and their children are regulars at faculty social events. Dinner at her house is always fun. Her teaching evaluations are average and class visits reveal that she is, at best, an average teacher. In addition, even though she has met the numerical requirements for number of articles to be granted tenure, most of her writing came in the last year. Both of her last two articles--one of which was a fifteen-page symposium piece she submitted at the request of a friend--were in manuscript form when evaluated. The tenure vote is positive.

4. A faculty member travels to Italy where he has family members. He proposes starting a summer program in Italy. None of the students at your school speak Italian, your state has little trade with Italy, and United States law would be taught at the summer school. At least two other faculty would travel to Italy, at the school's expense, in order to do the teaching. The program is approved by the faculty.

5. Your faculty teaches nine credit hours per academic year. This translates into six sixty-minute teaching hours per week. A faculty committee proposes reducing the teaching load to nine credit hours per academic year and reducing the class period to fifty minutes. The reasoning is that you would still comply with accreditation requirements.

6. You have read this list and decide none of this has happened at your school.


eric said...

I've never seen The Matrix. But I have seen Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure at least half a dozen times, and I strive to incorporate the So-crates method into my teaching. Be excellent to one another!

JD said...

Are you against classes being taught abroad because there is no added benefit to a students legal education, or that elites feel enititled to being paid to hang with other elites on the university's dollar? Also, given the budget concerns and tuition hikes, would the elimination of these programs help the bottom line in any significant manner?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Actually in this post

I have changed my tune a bit. My beef with the programs are they are rarely dictated by student needs but by where faculty want to go or have connection. In addition I am opposed to using state funds to subsidize overseas study by students when on average the less affluent students are anchored to domestic studies.

JD said...

I am new to reading your blog, but from what I’ve read it appears that elite professors operate as do the elites on Wall Street. Elites built a wall around the street and only allowed their club members access. Because they are the judge jury and executioner on the street they operate with impunity. The huge amounts of risks and any losses that come with those risks were ok because they were entitled to do what they wanted, they were the “smartest” people in the room, and if they got it wrong, there is no one that could have got it right.
I must say that although I didn’t go to an elite school, shortly after I started my first job at an investment bank in NYC I felt it necessary to tell anyone that asked what I did to tell them I worked on Wall Street. I don’t know what I felt this provided me, but you’re “Bill Smith” entry made me think of this. I no longer feel the need to say I worked on the street. I think now that I may be more comfortable with myself since undergrad, and I don’t need whatever the Wall Street statement provided me.
What do you think are the general effects on new law students and how they are educated when elites dominate professor positions?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

The impact is pervasive. It ranges from day to day neglect of the students in terms of office hours to the courses that offered. The courses are what the teachers want to teach not what will prepare the students for a career. It also extends to tenure decisions where having the right credentials seems to excuse limited or poor work and then for a a life time students are saddled with possibly bright but clearly underachieving professors.

JD said...

Do you feel that the since of entitlement is something that the general population of elite graduates possess? Elite law school graduates in general? Or that it is particular to elite graduates that pursue law professorships?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I cannot know but if I had to guess I would say it is a propensity all possess but may or may not manifest itself depending on the circumstances. For example in my profession their are no objective standards for assessing success. The insecurity means people find some other measure. In a profession in which people are assessed totally on some objective bottom line, the propensity may be there but playing the elite care may be worthless.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

"card." I mean.