Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Outliers, Class and Law Professors

Malcolm Gladwell's newest book, Outliers, is an interesting read. It is devoted to the reasons some people succeed and some don't. The reasons are often not what you would expect. On the matter of class, he captures the difference in impact "wealthier parents" and "poorer parents" have on their children very nicely. He sums up his discussion with "the sense of entitlement that has been taught is perfectly suited to succeed in the modern world."

Those who are intrigued by class differences will not be surprised. The wealthier parents encourage all kinds of special activities, have interesting reading material around the house, encourage their kids to speak up on their own behalf, etc. He quotes sociologist Annette Lareau as follows, "Even in fourth grade, middle class children appeared to be acting on their own behalf to gain advantages. They make special requests of teachers and doctors to adjust procedures and accommodate their desires."

Again, although there is little that is surprising here, I was reminded how institutionalized the "special requests" have become when I visited my son's school to pick him up after an exam that ended at 11 AM. I came across a room full of kids still taking the exam at 11:30. He was not among them. I asked if the test had run over and the answer was "No, those are all the kids who get extra time for one reason or another." And then the teacher added, "For a couple of thousand dollars evidently anyone can have a child diagnosed with something that results is extra time." Yes, the teacher was describing yet another market the wealthy visit far more than the working class -- the market for the disability advantage. In the room were kids with real disabilities and then kids who parents bought them a ticket for more time. (If you are wondering, in the article discussed in the post below, it is noted that "extra time people" score significantly higher on the SAT than others.)

The second thing that struck me about Gladwell's description is how much the entitled children behave like life is a zero sum gain. They "act to gain an advantage." Nowhere in his description of the lives of wealthy children is there a word about teaching empathy or even that one's efforts to gain an advantage usually mean leaving someone else with less. I suppose that type of consciousness is actual a form of disability.

Finally, although it goes without saying, Gladwell has perhaps unknowingly described something about law faculties. There are, of course, very few people on law faculties without the sense of entitlement he describes. For the average entitled law professors asking or demanding special treatment causes no angst because whatever is wanted is deserved. For the handful law professors who do not feel so entitled, asking for anything special is a struggle and they are still, to their disadvantage, under the impression that special treatment is something that is earned.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Over Parented (or is it Parenting) Law Professors

There was an extended book review/ article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about over parenting and how it can result in a fairly inept adult. Over parenting, if you unfamiliar with the term, is the largely upper middle class tendency toward making sure a child never experiences a sense of not succeeding. This means the child spends his or her life in a protective bubble that hardly prepares him or her for life.

Over parenting has clearly hit law schools. At mine, untenureds are given the first and every other summer off with pay, assigned multiple mentors, and have teaching assignment tailored so they can write. I doubt it is much different at other law schools.

At first, I thought these changes were a reaction to the first wave of over parented kids becoming old enough to be law professors. In effect, their protective bubbles would continue at least until the point of being tenured which, then, is like a life time protective bubble.

This model did not fit the actual individuals hired since they seem, to me at least, to be pretty adept at dealing with life and the job. In fact, a couple have confided that what I am calling over parenting makes them uncomfortable. It would drive me crazy.

I realized then the problem may not be with the untenureds at all. Isn't it more likely that the impetus comes not from the parented but from the parenters? It seems increasingly clear that overparenting adults cannot distinguish between their own children and people who they relegate to the status of children in the work place. In the case of conventional over parenting, those engaged may get something out of it that goes a bit beyond love and caring. Or, if it is only love and caring, it is the type of smothering that eventually hurts the person who is loved.

What we will not know for a few more years is whether over parenting of untenured law professors will be as disabling as it is for children.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Are Law Schools Recession Proof?

The pecking order at law schools is pretty well set. First are the tenured professions then the tenure track but yet to be tenured. Next, oddly enough are the yet to be hired untenured people. After that are year to year, untenured people who typically teach skills courses. Then secretaries of various sorts and finally the maintenance crew. I suppose actual and potential students fit in here somewhere and I am inclined to say at the very bottom.

When budget cuts come, the ordering of cuts can follow the ordering but in reverse. A school may or may not save money by reducing its enrollment. If it can, the potential students will be first to have opportunities removed. Next up the line in terms of vulnerability are the people who earn the least and, thus, can least afford to lose their jobs.

Law school policy, even with respect to budget cuts, is largely faculty driven. Perhaps a test of the character and humanity of the faculty of a law school is how it deals with cuts. For example, if it is possible to preserve opportunities for students or the jobs of those at the bottom of the pecking order, are those at the top willing to teach extra hours or courses that are not their main interests. Are they willing to open classes they do teach to greater numbers of students? Are there programs that seem to have outlived their use that could be eliminated? These things mean reducing the need to replace retired professors with new ones or with visitors.

Only in the rarest of instances are tenured law professors likely to have their job security threatened by economic conditions. Their decisions, however, do affect the job security of others. Maybe they are not the Godfathers of those lower in the pecking order but they have the capacity, if they care to, to soften the blow of economic hard times.