Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Using Students

Although I crab a bit about class bias in legal education and law professor self promotion, self-interest, work avoidance, and senses of entitlement, I have little to say about what goes on in the classroom. There are reasons for this. My only observations are based on my own experience which is a pretty small sample. Plus, as a student, I found actual classroom instruction to be very high quality. I suppose I could look at teaching evaluations but my sense is that a number of factors can account for high and low evaluations that have little to do with the actual quality of instruction. In fact, as a law student I remember thinking one professor was  great who infuriated the rest of the class by not giving them "the answer."  In any case, from my own experience and the grapevine I think law professors, when in the classroom, are generally pretty devoted.

There are some exceptions, though, and I do not necessarily mean lousy teaching. I mean devoted to oneself. I've written before that law professor rarely engage in scholarship. For those who missed this which would be nearly everyone, scholarship involves research designed to discover answers. Law profs do advocacy -- they know the answers (how do they know? they just do.) and then devise ways to convince others.

It's clear to me that some professors carry the advocacy of personal beliefs into the classroom. Of course, we all do that since the notion of pure objectivity is a silly one. Still some professors use the material to promote broader beliefs that are actually not based on the material but reflects the professor's own values. For example, in my own case when I teach contracts I cover the Walker-Thomas case. I can teach it in a way that makes Walker-Thomas and others like Walker-Thomas eligible for water boarding. Or, I can teach it as though Williams is an irresponsible dupe. There is an obvious  political message associated with each side. I do try my best to stay in the middle even though my own political leanings are not close to the middle. Increasingly, though, I hear that other professors use the students to promote their personal views in subtle and not so subtle ways. They can make light of or discount student views with which they disagree. They be critical of some opinions and not so critical of others.

Another form of advocacy is far more discouraging. For example, suppose the faculty is getting ready to vote on whether to have a program in Environmental law. It may be legitimate to discuss it in class or maybe it's just a way to kill time. In either case, it can be presented as an issue on which people can disagree or it can be presented in a way that fuels the student rumor mill. For example, "I thought we were going to have a good environmental law program here but the Dean scuttled it without even consulting anyone." This is the two birds with one stone move. First, you've let it be known that in your opinion the program is needed and you've managed to demonize the dean even though he or she may simply be looking for the best way to allocate funds to make the students more marketable. In fact, giving part of the story is a great way to rile the students. This is often accompanied by claims that "I am getting so many complaints about this from other faculty." When someone says many, several, or tons but does not say how many you know the numbers are actually very small.

People who engage in this second type of "using" the students are right up there or down there with Donald Trump. Their aim is to scare the students into believing something is happening that will have a negative impact when just the opposite may be true. People who disguise their self interested concerns as institutional ones tend to  be short (actually I do not know that but the Randy Newman song came into mind and I thought it could be connected). Well, maybe not but they are weak on substance. They too are water board material.

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