Sunday, April 24, 2011

There's something happening here (and there), what it is ain't exactly clear...

Recently I had an interesting trip into the world of anonymous and unrestrained of blogging. I attempted a relatively mild defense of UF after the embarrassing publicity of last week (which, by the way, common sense would lead one to believe is based on a partial story) and got clobbered by a few anonymous commentators. Not all of the personal criticism was unfair.

Some of the more interesting quotes are these.

"It’s ironic how UF Law professors complain about their students being unprofessional, when UF Law professors are violent, rude, unprofessional, not collegial and childish in their daily actions."

"Unfortunately, the Dean and the professors at UF School of Law have created and fostered a very hostile and unpleasant environment. The professors don’t seem to get along with each other and most of the professors seem to dislike the students."

"And, it is known that the faculty isn’t a student-friendly faculty—the students make that clear. Maybe to each other, the faculty pretends they are student friendly and you can feel better about yourselves, but the students and alumni know."

"I have taken many classes where the professors openly talk bad about students during class—either about students in another class they are teaching or a previous year’s class or the student body in general. In offices, the courtyard and in the hallways, I have heard many professors talk negatively about their colleagues and the students in general or talk about how their fellow professors hate teaching or hate the law school students. I’m tired of hearing from UF law professors that we act entitled, are lazy, are worst than previous classes, that we don’t work as hard as you professors did when in law school, that the professors deserve to be teaching at better schools with more intelligent students, that we are racist or homophobic, that we are elitist, that we are conservative bigots, that republicans are evil, that all southerners are bad, that we are rich snobs, that the grading curve is too high, that we are idiots or disrespectful when we may disagree with your jurisprudential views, that we are inappropriate, and that practicing lawyers are bad people."

"My classmates and I have heard professors bitching ad nauseam about students and other professors. It is a ramped problem at the school. Most students don’t even want to hear these things. But, it does create an unhealthy, negative environment. As for the students taking responsibility for being spun--spin or not (we may not believe the spin being shoveled), it nevertheless creates a feeling that the professors are “nasty” and makes the law school’s environment unpleasant--a place where students don’t want to be."

Much of this was delivered an what I would call an angry tone. Of course, I happen to appreciate strong feelings, even anger, when there is an injustice. Moreover, the commentators represented a small but perhaps representative sample and all were anonymous. Nevertheless the themes were consistent: 1) Faculty do not respect students; 2) Faculty do not like each other and 3) Faculty take their gripes about each other to the students. I am sure all of this is true at every law school and have had personal experience. I recall a recent conversation with a new colleague who said had been "briefed" within a day or two of his arrival able how evil I am. The faculty flowing to his office to recruit him one way or another (not with respect to me) has surprised him. He heard so many different versions of UFs history I am sure his head was spinning. The question is whether these thee conditions exist only at the margins of a School or begin to define a School. I do not know.

It is ironic that this exists in an era in which the Socratic method is dead and the average student is guaranteed a B+ average. In fact, at a recent retreat with faculty and alums the alums seemed generally surprised that teaching styles had made a 180 degree turn from what they were used to. My perception was that they felt it was a bad idea.

So, what is going on here in a era in which at least on a formal level things would seem to be the best ever for students but, in fact, they may very well be the worst.

I do not know but I think any explanation that focuses only on UF is too narrow. There is something bigger going on here. My own theory, upon which I hope no one will place any reliance, is that it starts with the late 60s, the generation that came of age then or shortly thereafter, a culture of over-affirmation, the pervasive sense of entitlement, and the lessons many of us influenced by that generation have taught our children. It may be a sign of an experiment that did not work


larryl said...

Common Sense in Education by Harry Kemelman addressed the shift of the college degree from a badge of education to a piece of paper required to find employment and how this led to the development of colleges as "degree mills." I think you would enjoy this book.

Anonymous said...

Where did you post the "mild defense of UF" that received those comments? Can you provide a link?

Anonymous said...

Students are sick of the nasty attitude of professors. It infects students with a similar attitude toward our educational experience. It almost seems like you guys aren't worried about merit. What's more important is who is winning the "game" and who has more cronies in his corner.

Many of us want to be challenged by our classes. But when the pervading cultures denies us that opportunity, of course we're going to feel a sense of disillusionment and anger. Being guaranteed a B+ is not what is best for students. I think law faculty need to take a long look in the mirror before they blame students for the grade inflation problem.

And besides, those blog comments were related to Nunn assaulting a student and not receiving any meaningful punishment for it. When the people in charge are not willing to hold their own for something so serious, why should we respect your authority? I think the sense of anger comes from a feeling that great injustice has been done here, and no one is going to do anything about it.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I'd like to review your comments to see if I am understanding them:

1.Even though the curve seems to be popular with the students, you believe it is not "good" for them. I think you are on to something. The curve was initially imposed because, in part, some faculty had already inflated grades. But it was also felt we needed to keep pace with other law school.

2. I do not hear you saying that the Nunn incident itself causes the hard feelings. I think you are saying is symptomatic. Is that right?

Anonymous said...

The curve encourages students to take classes with fewer than 25 students and classes with a "floor" of a B+. Also, some professors are known for retroactively changing grades at the end of the semester. So, grades are entirely negotiable for these professors.

What does this teach us? That its not how hard you work, and its not how good your work product is. What matters is that you take the 'right' (ie, easy B+/A-) classes, make friends with your professor, and keep that GPA high.

Students may "like" the curve. However, this is all part of the "game" that we're forced to play. I think its the law school's responsibility to create positive incentives for student achievement. If we're judged by a bar that doesn't convey meaningful value, I'm not sure students are really to blame for that. We're accountable for our choices. However, it's difficult to take harder classes (where you risk getting a B) when your peers are taking easier courses and keeping their GPAs up.

I can't speak for other students, but I think Nunn's non-punishment is an indication of a culture of a lack of accountability.

In part, students have responded so harshly to the incident because we see the lack of punishment as damaging to the reputation of UF Law. Furthermore, I think many of us see physical aggression between faculty and students as completely unacceptable behavior. The actions taken by the admin don't reflect that sentiment.

Here are some key quotes from that blog post:

"When hostile incidents occur, they are ignored, minimized or kept secret (like Professor Nunn’s two allegations of shoving individuals and the tenured tax professor that literally slapped an untenured professor). Something needs to change at the school before the “adults” in charge permanently ruin it."

"I'm in Prof. Nunn's class. Prof. Nunn actually laughed and joked about the incident in class--minimizing it in every way. Prof. Nunn made it seem that his actions were fine. This is the problem with the lack of any serious repercussions to Prof. Nunn for his behavior. A serious issue has been turned into a joke."

"I am a former alum of UF Law and I can tell you the whole situation reeks of hypocrisy."

"So the school suspended [Professor Nunn] for a week with pay. So basically that's just giving Professor Nunn a one week paid vacation. Nice UF. Nice. Way to take a hard line on professors not resorting to violence with students."

I know there were a lot of gripes in that blog post about professors involving us in a 'nasty' in-fighting, trash-talking, etc. I think its totally valid for students to want nothing to do with petty faculty conflicts.

You seem to think our comments reflect 'a culture of over-affirmation and pervasive sense of entitlement.' I honestly don't see anything in those comments that suggests we "want" something we don't deserve or haven't earned. With respect to Nunn, we wanted to see the admin take a stance against this unacceptable behavior. In a more general sense, we want professors that are there to teach us the material, and who don't involve us in their petty in-fighting with other faculty members. We also don't want professors that disparage our institution and our capabilities because they think they're "too good" for UF Law.

Prior to law school, I had only positive experiences in academia. I'm not sure if there is a problem with UF Law or a problem with US law schools in general. But there is an aggressive and mean environment at our law school. This shoving incident is definitely symptomatic of some larger problem.

Anonymous said...


I think the anger students conveyed in that blog was mostly valid. It didn't stem from a sense of entitlement. It stems from what we perceive to be a hypocritical administration and faculty that don't really seem like they're there to serve the best interests of students.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Thanks Anon for one of the more thoughtful comments I have received. The over affirmation to which I referred including professors and some students. Indeed in the case of faculty it means expecting respect because of who they are not what they do. Your generalized notions that students are entitled to fair grading, a safe environment and good example setting seem indisputable to me.

Anonymous said...

The bottom line is a professor pushed a student. If a student had pushed a professor, the student would have been arrested. What if Professor Nunn had pushed a female student instead of a male student? Would the administration have taken the incident seriously then?

While some of the student criticism was unfair to UF, I think it reflects frustration that a faculty member can go so far as to batter a student and escape meaningful consequences. You would think battery would be a bright line-- where the administration would say "this is unacceptable- therefore you will no longer be employed here."

larryl said...

While I agree that everyone wants a fairer grading system, what do you think the potential effects would be on the desire of students to go to UF Law? As it is now, if you get your foot in the door, you pay your tuition and you get a JD from a top tier law school. If word gets around that UF Law may kick you out after taking your tuition money and 2 years of your life, students might want to just go to another top tier law school where they can continue to just pay for their degree.

I believe this problem in academia is a symptom of an overall problem in American society where we constantly race to the bottom in just about everything. We want the most, for the least cost and the least effort. This is not sustainable forever but who is dumb enough to say they want to work harder for potentially less? I think I am.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

First LarryL. Amen on the race to the bottom not just at law school but in music, TV, politicians. etc.

To anon: I understand that the Nunn matter is the catalyst but the frustrations expressed seem to be here regardless of that event. I've tried to avoid that issue specifically but since you ask the question of man shoving woman, does it matter if it is a large or small woman, does it matter if it is a small or large man, does it matter if the person shoved shoves back or even hands the initial shover his lunch. I actually have tried to get some clarification on the shoving rules but Tigert only wants to "talk" not actually direct me to something concrete. My own view is that violence results in 2 stay at home cooling off period and a reentry interview. Automatic -- no exceptions unless you are reponding so someone else's shove.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Dear one of the anons: Interesting issue on the consequences of a student pushing someone. I just filled out a Bar reccommendation sheet for a student. There is a list of questions about honesty, drug use, etc., and one is whether the students has been violent.

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