Friday, February 22, 2013

Reverse Respect and My Mom, the Dean

The default position for me has always been to respect people in inverse relation to their status, money, and authority. The error rate is pretty low but there are times when the privileged can work their way out of the hole and ways for highly respected people to lose my respect.

How does a person come to that view of others? I think when your grandfather comes from Italy at 16 and is told at Ellis Island that his name, Diaco, is too hard so he is Ross now, works as a coal miner till he drops dead putting on his boots, marries a hillbilly, has 5 kids and 10 or so grandkids and only two in the lot finish college and your family get togethers are warm, friendly, and happy but always include subjects like night shift, car payments, trouble with the law, and so on, you learn to respect lower class people and distrust upper class people.

My Mom, one of those 5 kids died two days ago. She worked hard, sometimes a day job and a night job.The last job--at 70 something -- was handing out samples at Publix. By that point she did not need the money but you could not convince her that it was OK not to get up and go to work every day. She never quite understood what it meant to have a Ph.D. or to be a law professor. To her, almost all law was criminal law. She was extravagant in two ways -- gifts to her grandchildren and jewelry (when she thought she was getting a good deal which she actually never really got.)

I cannot help but think how different her life was than mine and how  she might have reacted to some of the things I see in the privileged world of law professors. Let's take some examples and her reactions if she were Dean for a day.

1. A professor tells her  what he will teach, when he will teach, what room he will teach in and how any students are permitted in the class. Her reaction.  "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

2. A  professor with the most expensive education in American asks to "teach" a class of only 12 about feelings. Her reaction: "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

3. A professor asks a secretary to scan a casebook so he does not have to worry about carrying it around. "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

4. Ten or so people want to fly to Rio for a day long conference and then many will branch out and take a vacation essentially on the school's dime. "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

5. The Dean (my mom) announces that budgetary problems mean that we should not all have our own separate printers with unlimited toners supplied by the school. One faculty member objects, calling the measure "punitive." And her reaction,  "Could you repeat that because, if you said what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

6.  A faculty member complains about missing meetings because a secretary did not open the faculty member's email and tell the faculty member about the meetings."Could you repeat that because, if you said what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

7. A faculty member proposes  a groovy new teaching arrangement. She will teach in the summer using taped lectures that will be available on line. Even though on line, enrollment is limited to avoid too much grading. For this there is teaching income. And, since the teaching is a breeze, she can also be paid to do research."Could you repeat that because, if you said what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

I did not tell my Mom about these things and I am not sure why. I think it had something to do with shame, or perhaps the absence of it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Cruelty and Hypocrisy of Law School Grading Curves

Maybe the most remarkable thing about law professors (and perhaps others) is how 3 years of doing well in law school makes them experts on anything from administration to meditation. Lately, though, I have been thinking about law school grading curves and the lack of rationality created by these self-appointed experts.

I first found out about curves in calculus class. The teacher gave an exam and the best test taker got about 50% of the problems right. The teacher said, not or worry, the grades would be curved. I did not understand why but it was definitely OK with me. I thought curves were for when everyone did miserably but the teacher for one reason or another could not bring him or herself to report accurately how the students did.

When I started law teaching there was no curve. Then, in response to some low graders there was a suggested curve. I do not recall if this cured the low grader problem but it definitely coincided with the "grade race" and grade inflation. This was in the era of student teaching evaluations and the beginning of vanity courses. High grades reduced the risk of bad evals and could pack students into vanity courses if one was known as an easy grader. I might add, this was also the beginning of the -- what to call it -- "do not hurt their feelings"  era and anything might just do that. Actually, I do not mean to criticize this change since most of the harshness, I felt, was contrived.

So in response to a lack of grading norms (or one might even say collegiality) and complaints that the School's GPA meant that our students could not compete with others schools giving higher grades we, like may schools, instituted a curve.  (I never understood the student competition argument. I thought law firm recruitment people would be bright enough, in a world of different curves, to rely on class rank. I was assured that this was not the case.)

So in this era of "be kind to students" the solution was to pit them against each other and ratchet up the competition. Grading became a zero sum grade. No matter how you cut it, if one student were given an A, it decreased the probability that another could have an A. Instead of grading on the basis of each student's merit most schools pit their students in a horse race. It seemed to be welcomed by the students because the numbers were high enough that all horses appeared to win. Eventually, though, they adjusted as they realized that B did not mean "good" but average or, in the case of most curves, below average.

There was, however, an even more bizarre twist. Although the advent of the curve meant that no student was evaluated on the quality of his her work, the argument was made that in some classes, the curve should be higher. The reasoning was that individual merit could be counted in some contexts and for some reason this was in small classes -- yes back to packing them into vanity classes.

In the name of being fair to the students this twist meant students were torn between taking small course in something they had no interest in or even scoffed at  in order to boost their GPAs or taking classes that were often more interesting and more useful. In fact, most law schools, unless they normalize in some way,  now have multiple curves. How many? As many combinations of high and low curve courses possible in an 88 hour teaching load. And, if they then rank the students on the basis of GPAs calculated on multiple different  curves, they are being about as honest in those rankings as they are with their employment figures.

Since it does not change, I assume the students like the increased pressure and the perversion of their decision making and professors will keep doing what is "best" for their students (and for themselves.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Are They Thinking??

Law  School graduates are having a hard time finding jobs. It is a sorry state of affairs in part because many of those now graduating may be better at doing what lawyers do than students who graduated years ago. Just like tenure, getting there first may block things up for capable and more talented people.

But this is not why I writing. Law schools are all out to somehow do something "radical." Radical means, in this setting, teaching more skills or making law a two year degree. The demand for more skills is really a call from those in practice for greater subsidization from public and private schools. That may be fine for private schools but I have never figured out where profit making law firms get off asking for handouts in the form of instruction. What is the distinction between that and paying them to hire law graduates. In fact, why not just pay the firms directly and let them to the skills training. After all, the dirty little (not really so) secret fact is that most law professors practiced so long ago or so little that they do not have an inkling of how to teach skills.

The two year degree may be a good idea but, if it is, it has nothing to do with the current crisis. Sure, it means a lower investment in legal educations and and an easier time paying off loan IF salaries do not similarly decline. How many people actually think  the 2 year law graduate is going to demand the same starting salary as the three year graduate?  In short, the two year option is likely as not to leave people exactly where they are.

You can think if it in terms of supply and demand. Demand has shifted to the left or not shifted to the right sufficient to offset the rightward shift in supply. The resulting surplus means unemployment. In theory, wages could fall so there is less or no unemployment and but the salaries would be rock bottom. Just how far they would have to fall to soak up the surplus I do not know. Lowering the cost of a legal education by going to two years does mean less debt. It also shifts the supply curve even further to the right -- an increase in supply. Does increasing the supply of lawyers -- even two year lawyers -- seem like a sensible solution to the current glut?

Again, maybe the two year degree idea is sound but I am not sure how it is viewed as a serious reaction to the current plight of law grads.