Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Revisiting Anthropological Notes 3

What follows is a comment on Anthropological Notes 3. I am posting it because I think it is a very insightful  and partially correct criticism of the original "Anthropological Notes 3" and I wish I had thought of some of it.  I'd comment further myself but I have forgotten what irked me as much as it did. I think the commentator is right when he or she mentions "the context."  In fact, I was mocking the context because of its standards for what was to be regarded as noble and what was regarded as an appropriate reaction.  In a way, I guess that supports the thesis found in this little series of "notes." The context is an unusual and bizarre society. As an aside please do write any comments complimenting me on admitting my original blog might have been off a bit. Admissions like that are what normal people do.

Hi Jeffrey,

I am a fan of your blog, but I think you've got it wrong on this one. I was one of the law professors who complimented Rod Hills on his post and I did so precisely because he did something that you have repeatedly noted elites are almost constitutionally incapable of doing: demonstrate the self-awareness and sense of shame that are necessary to combat the sense of entitlement that you regularly rail against. 

I think you are correct when you write that Hills was not fishing for the kind of praise he received. Interestingly, this very fact seems to make the compliments paid to him--the very compliments you mock—even more warranted; in fact I am surprised you did not join in the complimenting. Others, many of whom think like you do, saw the genuineness of his humility and self reflection and thanked him for it. It's important to do this in a culture (that is, legal culture generally) wherein it seems the default response is to see such humility as a sign of weakness rather than to praise it as intellectually and personally brave and of great utility for systemic change. 

So I agree that Hills' post was not the Gettysburg Address but that actually helps make the point. It merely highlights the very premise driving Hills' apology and post. Given the insular nature of law professors' existence, such manifest shame is so unusual that the self-awareness he demonstrated becomes almost profound in context. Everything is relative. The commentators realized this and were thus inspired to give Hills a shout out. And I don't think the specific wording they chose to use was as inflated as you seem to think—again, given the context. The commentators were perhaps a bit more sensitive to the key considerations than you are being, which is, to your credit, not necessarily the norm. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Anthropological Studies 4

Over on facebook I sometimes field letters addressed to the Law School Ethicist. It's a take off on the New Times Sunday Magazine column. I don't attempt to answer the questions sent to the "ethicist."  I am not qualified. I also do not make up all the questions asked. Almost all of them are based on actual incidents or are submitted to me. Recently I received this from a  close law school friend. His question in many ways captures something of the strange world of law professordom. 

Dear Jeff: Could you pass this on to the ethicist? What is the intention of the hiring process, exactly? I know that there are more than two views, but let me try to limit my question to two, since these two seem to me in tension. The first is a transparently meritocratic intention that acknowldeges a glittery resume indicating the potential for success in an academic post (success meaning advancement of various types for the new hire, the school, and its students). If the potential is realized, then so be it; if not, then it seems either the new hire squandered an opportunity or was overestimated by the hiring powers. Time for both to move on. The second is an opaquely nurturing intention where the hiring powers accept responsibility for the new hire as though the act of hiring was something they have done to (as opposed to for) the new hire. If he or she tanks, it is the fault of the hiring powers, not of the new hire. Accordingly, the promotion process is influenced by feelings of compassion manifested in utterances like "we need to bring Johnny up to speed before his next review. Let's get him some mentors!" Under the nurturing approach, the decision to hire carries an obligation to promote the new hire if at all plausible. Does the Ethicist prefer one approach to the other? Please advise.

My answer is that I personally prefer to first approach albeit administered in a helpful way. In the real world of law school hiring the second may be attractive but quickly morphs into a process that is really designed to avoid change and reinforce the power of incumbents. Nurturing has a nice sound but the goal of "nurturing" is to avoid having to admit a mistake. And nurturing, in the world of law professors, soon becomes creating an illusion about the new faculty member. Lousy scholarship is phrased and mentors scramble to make sure it is placed and then that it is positively reviewed. Someone who is slow in producing becomes "brilliant." Someone who has trouble in the classroom will have the classroom visited and the report will invariable be that he or she is a well organized and caring teacher who is actually too good for the students.  

Hiring someone does carry with it the obligation -- to the institution -- to do what is reasonable to help them succeed. But remember, they are typically adult graduates of elite law schools. What is reasonable stops well short of the hand-holding which is what typically goes on -- teaching loads are reduced, summer grants are granted,  and multiple mentors are appointed. In a very real sense it should be insulting to the new hire. What is reasonable also stops when those hiring begin to act like success or failure reflects on their own judgment and grease the skids. When they do that all they do is tenure someone and donate to them for life a position maybe a person who actually would be productive would hold. But such is this strange culture. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Anthropological Notes 3

I have spent some time lately reading other blogs. I like Above the Law and find The Faculty Lounge interesting. There is another blog, however, that makes my efforts at exposing the bizarre word of  privileged professors look feeble, at best. On that blog one can easily find commentary over days and numbering close to triple digits on what to do if someone does not keep an appointment or if an email is quoted. There are issues like just how oppressive it is to grade exams.  Just go there and forget about this blog. Entire dissertations could be written about the characteristics of the culture you will find.

It is somewhat like a faculty meeting -- a great deal of aggressive self-interested behavior carefully disguised so as to appear like civil discussion.  It's amazing the number of ways people can tell others they are idiots but maintain their deniability. And, some of the butt kissing is embarrassing. When you like someone's post or comment there are congratulatory platitudes that will make you want to look away. "Thank you for doing this, and for contributing to thoughtful discussion on the internet." says one. Another goes with, "An extraordinarily gracious and knowing post." And how about,  "This post is a remarkable act of introspection and self-interpretation." And what are these comments referring to: The Gettysburg Address? Letter From a Birmingham Jail? Meta World Peace's after game commentary?

Not exactly. These comments are for an admittedly privileged and sheltered law professor who wondered "out loud" on a blog what one might do to overcome the handicap of privilege. Yes, in a sense he was wallowing in the self pity induced by knowing he has it made. No, I am not kidding and I want to quickly add that I do not think the writer of the original piece was fishing for this level of gushing.

In subjective competitions it is said that judges keep the scores of the first competitors low in order to save something up if another competitor blows them away. What have these commentator held back? What do they say if they read a spectacular article or a moving poem. Maybe "Your analysis of Citizens United made me weep." "I knew from the first line that I was not worthy of your genius."

Remember, this was for someone -- one of their own -- who basically asked "Is there a way for me to be less of a jerk."