Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Matrix Revisited

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 "peer-reviewed” 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 faculty member goes all out to be appealing to the students. Assignments are modest, demands in class low and there is plenty of outside of class mingling. The professor's teaching evaluations are very high and he concludes that he is an "effective teacher."

3. A new course is proposed and the faculty considers whether it is a 3 or 4 credit course. One argument in favor of labeling it a 4 credit course is that it could then be regarded as a full assignment for the faculty member teaching it.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Your faculty teaches twelve 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. An acceptable basis for reducing the class period is "We would still comply with accreditation requirements. "

8.In the course of arguing for a candidate a faculty member who knows the candidate expresses pleasant surprise that the candidate has been considered by the appointments committee. "What a wonderful coincidence." In the file that has been distributed there is a long letter from the candidate to that faculty member discussing the faculty member’s extended efforts to convince the appointments committee to recruit the candidate.

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


John Meowshall said...

Professor Harrison,

Great post. I'm a current rising 3L at Levin. It has me thinking:
what percentage of faculty members are actually denied tenure? Based on your posts, it seems that getting tenure is not that difficult once you make it inside the legal academy, as long as you're willing to play politics.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

John: Thank you for your comment and my condolences about your demise. You are a victim of free riding. Everyone assumed someone else would feed you and keep you warm and no one did. I am sorry about my part in this. I did try to befriend you one day but you shoved me.

With respect to your question, the faculty vote, the dean makes a recommendation and Central campus makes a decision. In 25 years at Levine, I am not sure anyone got a negative vote from the faculty but I think one person may have. Maybe two people have left, sensing that things were not going well. But basically it is easy as pie as long as you do not become too much of an irritant and make sure to have enough friends or, more importantly, political allies. As one faculty member said on the way to a tenure vote. "Clem is not a strong candidate but if I vote no it will be very bad socially."

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