Monday, June 15, 2009

Velvet Hazing

This is not a “walked 5 miles through the driving snow” story although it may seem that it is.

At the mid level schools at which I have taught, life for untenured faculty has changed. At my first teaching job, I taught the summer before my first fall -- a first preparation crammed into a 7 week course. Like others, the course load thereafter was the same as that for my senior colleagues. At tenure time, we had no input into who the referees were for our scholarship. They were all national figures and I was surprised they would take the time. When the class visitation issue came up, the visits were announced the same day or not announced at all. Why would they be?

These days at my school and others, I assume, it is quite different. Untenureds receive summer research grants starting with the summer before beginning teaching and extending through the tenure decision. Reduced teaching loads in the first year are the norm. The candidates are involved in selecting referees for their scholarship. The scheduling of class visits is done to make sure the candidates can be at their best. (Not that anyone actually writes a negative class visit letter even though their private comments may suggest there are problems.) Faculty, many of whom are not successful writers, are constantly providing advice, often conflicting, about whom to try to please, how to get a good placement, topics, etc. Or, they babble on about their own work, name drop or otherwise try to impress. There are scholarship mentors and “friend” mentors. Next there will be mentors for the mentors and an Associate Dean for Mentoring.

Sounds pretty good right?

I am not sure. I preferred the old way. The new “supportive,” “sensitive,” “caring” approach seems nerve racking. There is so much attention focused on the untenureds, I do not see how they survive without mega doses of Valium. The assistance has an unsettling ritualistic quality about it. It seems so much more intense than when I went through the “less sensitive” process (where I was told to work hard and everything would be fine) although the standards are exactly the same. Everything written will be published and favorable reviews are readily supplied. The production about class visitation suggests that somehow it is not just another day in front of the class.

The new “sensitive” process also strikes me as undermining. We, and every other law school, hire relatively confident and competent fully developed adults. Often they are married with children or have other support systems and come from successful careers. Immediately, like overly protective parents, we “tell” them that they are dependent, need our help, and face a huge challenge. By making life “easier” we communicate that the job is overwhelming when it is not and that we have little confidence in them. What the pretenure period reminds me of is a kind of velvet glove hazing like that which first year students seem to want to experience even though those days are long gone.

Finally, there is another dangerous lesson this may teach. It is only human for untenureds to develop expectations. If their every need(or non need) is anticipated and satisfied, what kind of faculty do they become? Will they accept it if a dean asks them to teach in an area where the School is short on coverage that year? Will they be willing to meet with students even when it is not convenient? Will they simply become part of the Matrix in which they deserve all they get and more regardless of what they do? Most have a sense of entitlement when they arrive and the new sensitively reinforces it.

I honestly feel sorry for today’s untenureds and would not trade places. My hope is that they can ignore the messages and laugh, forgive, and become productive (no matter how much we tell them it is unlikely).

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Casebook Scam

I serve on two on two University committees, one of which deals with grievances and professional ethics. Surprising as it may seem, what I have learned makes me feel better about what goes on at the Law School. Here is one example of a scam that seems over the line.

A Professor teaching hundreds of students requires them to hand in homework on workbook pages custom made for his course. The books are available at the local Kinkos and sold at a profit. Students may not hand anything but the actual purchased pages. Evidently, handing in the correct workbook pages has an impact on the final grade. The professor takes a cut of the sales. The Dean of the College where he works is evidently unconcerned. (This newest practice is evidently a replacement for one that required buying CDs with codes in them so that actual purchase could be verified.)

Outrageous! . . . In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”

Hasn’t the professor simply perfected the casebook editor/casebook publisher scam. Think about it. Is there a principled distinction between that professor and authors (clearly not just in law) who happily issue a new edition whether a new one is warranted. In fact, I recently received the new edition of a casebook I have used for years. It took an extensive search to find what was different. In addition, since the demand side of the market is, for all practical purposes, composed of professors who dictate which books will be bought, how are those professors different from a stock broker who mishandles a client’s portfolio?

I'd like to pin this indifference on class bias but I am not not sure I can. My own behavior is similar to that of the privileged. When the memo comes out each semester asking what the assigned materials are for the following semester, I typically name the book and add “latest edition.” In reality, when teaching contracts, I think I could almost get by with the classic Kessler and Gilmore (now that was casebook scholarship!) I had as a student many years ago. If so, that means I have cost 20 years of contracts students many thousands of dollars that went to publishers and editors without any substantial change what goes on in the classroom.

I admire the very small handful of my colleagues who keep using an older edition of a book even when newer editions are created in reaction to the used market. I have done it myself but it means complications. I admire even more the casebook editor who, when Thomson or Aspen comes calling about a new edition, says “there is no need for one.” Isn’t legal eduction, where the choir claims to be so concerned about the welfare of others, the best place to begin drawing the line when to comes to exploiting students via the casebook scam? Or, do you need the eggs?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Summer Rerun: The Matrix

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 “referreed” 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 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Your faculty teaches nine 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. The reasoning is that you would still comply with accreditation requirements.

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

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Summer Rerun: Captive Newspapers

If you live in a college town you are likely to find your local newspaper complicit in the preservation of control of the University by the elites. The Gainesville Sun seems to be a good example. The Sun, despite open meetings and open records law appears to have little interest in examing the University of Florida and seems wary of any op-eders who challenge them to do so. In fact, all indications are that the preferred action is to look the other way. Recently the University constructed a $20 million Law School building that is vastly under utilized. This is because those with a sense of entitlement -- the faculty- resist efforts to spread classes over the full week or to offer summer school classes, unless taught overseas. The prime teaching times are 10-3 on Monday through Wed and that is when most of the classes are offered. Of course, the students are left out of the equation because classes are jammed into a short period of time creating many conflicts.

Our local paper evidently sees nothing wrong with this or with faculty junkets to far away places to meet with other faculty at conferences that were created so there could be faculty junkets to far away places. Foreign programs, centers, institutes and programs are evidently immune from scrutiny. (This was not aways the case. In the past, one President was discovered making huge increases to the budget of an institute he was destined to land in once he left the presidency and rewarding his closest staff with shockingly high raises. These revelation by the newspaper were instrumental in helping move us to a more responsible Presidency.)

What accounts for the failure of these monopolies to serve the public welfare. Frankly, I cannot say. It is possible that the need to have full access to sports news which then sells papers is at the root of it but this is not a theory I would bet on. Another possibility is the small social environment that exists in a college town. Publishers may be pals with local politicos or high ranking University officials and close scrutiny may damage these valued relationship. It is, in fact, a type of log rolling where those involved get what the want and the public is treated as though it is irrelevant.

Ironically, "my" local paper, The Gainesville Sun, ran a long editorial praising Judith Miller the NYT reporter who went to jail for journalistic independence. Yet, no one at the Sun seems to have similar backbone when it comes to scrutinizing University expenditures.