Monday, October 05, 2015
Message or Messenger: The Rise of Professor Porn and the Death of Ideas
Gone are the days in which law professors could be viewed as people who lived a "life of the mind."[Not being quite old enough, I am not sure they ever lived a life of the mind as much as other academicians and I suspect not.] In those days, teaching, thinking, and writing were the principal activities. Professors put their work out there and it spoke for itself. They might attend a conference or two each year and mail out a few reprints. It seems old fashion now but the process of thinking was in itself a reward. Personal recognition was a side effect.
Over the last 30 years, probably to coincide with the rankings race, this changed. Law schools and law professors began to sell themselves like soap powder, beer, and used cars. The louder the "commercial" or the noise, the more likely that a school or a person will be "heard" regardless of what he or she has to offer. In fact, sales tactics by professors have become so intense it appears that sales are made simply by being persistent to the point of pestering. Recognition may come just to make the pestering stop and the professor quickly reports it to the Dean and the world as an accomplishment. These profs are constantly on the road, no conference is too far away. They blog and write several articles a year which typically reveal little deep thought. Every thing they do is reported as important. At the extreme it is almost a frenetic effort to make one more sale. Promoting oneself is far far more important than any idea. Ideas, in fact, are passe.
These are the two ends of the law professor continuum -- the "life of the mind" and the "soap." I am not sure anyone fits at either end of the continuum although I think I have known and know people close to the "life of the mind" including some on my own faculty. Increasingly I know people crowding the soap seller model.
I have a bias against the soap sellers and I think this is not only because I am lousy at selling. To me they are like the kids in little league who hung around the coach saying "put me in, put me in, please coach" while others just worked their asses off in practice and quietly hoped their work would be noticed. They made so much noise they practically drowned out anyone else. On the other hand, the idea of the life of the mind in which little effort is made to connect with others seems wasteful especially in a discipline that is supposed to address real world events and problems.
I do not claim to know the right balance but fear the future means more soap. As long as the soap sellers are reinforced others will feel they must follow. Those who follow might be talented writers and researchers but will have little choice but to raise the noise level and this means less effort devoted to actually solving problems.
Mainly I see a parallel between the law school rankings race and the law professor "recognition race."
Think about it. Among law schools the tail began to wag the dog as they adopted policies to increase rankings without making sure it mean better teaching and research. With professors it's more articles, more presentations, more everything to advertise one's name regardless of whether there is underlying value. With law schools it meant fudging the numbers. Law professors pad their resumes and claim everything they do is evidence of recognition and influence. In articles they include meaningless footnotes or ones who do not relate to what they claim the cite supports. Law schools disseminate gobs of law porn. Professors look for every chance to have their photo in law porn and many many articles exist simply to exist and not because there is conviction and hard work behind them They are professor porn.
In the process the underlying raison d'etre is lost unless there is value in simple being someone other have heard of or being able to drop the names of those you claim to know you.