Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Response to Question on Experience

This was a good question posted as a comment to my last posting:

"I have posed this question to various friends and colleagues of mine who are in academia: At what point does the machine become so dysfunctional that the experience machine no longer operates? Is there a breaking po tint, or canhere be perpetual mediocrity?"

For what it's worth, I think the experience machine for students will eventually hit the wall. The student demand for high curves is a function of risk aversion. Even the best students want the curve to make sure there is a safety net in case they fall short. Eventually I think the market will force them to distinguish themselves. They will understand that part of the reason they cannot find jobs is that they refuse to take the risk of a grading system that will allow them to shine. For example, when I give a B, it really means anything from a to a B+. I think they may come to realize that the "nurturing," lecturing, multiple choice testing teacher may not be preparing them for life after law school.

For faculty, I think the machine will never break. As standards slip there will be new rationalizations. If all else fails one can stay in the experience machine by reciprocal citations, self promotion and creating yet a another top 10 list. The point is that any threat to the experience machine is dealt with by modifying it and unlike the students there is no outside mechanism to force reevaluation. It is stunning to me how malleable the machine is. The other day I happened upon a popular teacher's power point. The entire power point had to have been prepared for form not substance. I cannot go into here but it was comparable to a slogan. No doubt students love it and the administration loves it when the students love it almost without regard for whatever the "it" is. The "it will move as necessary.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Experience Machine for Students and Professors

Robert Nozick is often credited with the the idea of the experience machine. The question he posed was would you enter a machine in which you were always happy. Your subjective reality would be wonderful and you would not know it is all induced by something other than your actual existence. I think Decarte thought of this earlier and, if course, The Matrix made it into an entire movie.

The question can be applied to law schools and students. For the students it comes in the form of the curve. As one of mine put it recently "Don't worry about class, there is always the curve." In short, the curve will make you feel subjectively better off but you may be doing miserably. For students it is hard because they cannot stay in the experience machine forever. They take the Bar Exam and some who were happy find they were in the experience machine of the curve. Law students demand the machine and faculty are happy to oblige but it is not their "real" reality.

Law faculty are far better off. They can enter the experience machine and never emerge. Most enter it at birth when born into privilege. And then comes the elite line up of Schools that are popular in large part because they make students feel better simply be being there. Clearly, these days there is no evidence that the students actually emerge with a better education than those who attended non experience machine schools. Then there is law professordom and a life time in the experience machine. Tenure assures a steady income for life and once hired not getting tenure is an uphill battle, especially if you are sociable and sing with the choir with respect to what today's "liberal" issues even though one must be very conservative to do so. By conservative I mean close-minded and intolerant. The main requirement of staying in the professorial experience machine is not to interrupt anyone else's blissful experience machine existence. Do not evaluate, do not suggest improvement, do not question.

Law School Risk Factor Redux

(I found this quiz at and am passing it along for a second time. I'd like to report that my law school's risk factors have improved significantly!)

It's the beginning of the year and time to take an inventory of your law school's health. Give your school a "5" if the description is dead on and a "0" if it is completely inapplicable.

1. There is a critical mass of faculty for whom the ends nearly always justify the means. The “ends” can be anything from personnel to program decisions.

2. The convenience of faculty is always an important consideration in faculty votes and administrative decision making, sometimes to the detriment of stakeholders (students, donors and taxpayers).

3. It is difficult to discontinue or even to objectively evaluate existing programs without it becoming "personal."

4. There is a great deal of gossip. It comes to you even if you are not a “carrier.”

5. There is a solid core of “Making Nice, Knowing Better, Doing Nothing” people. These are the colleagues who express the right ideas – when they express at all – but are AWOL when critical decision points arise that could send the school in a more positive direction.

6. Your administration, when it is internally active at all, is principally concerned with putting out fires but only those that threaten the administration itself.

7. There are few if any norms about making up missed classes, rigor in the classroom, publication goals, testing practices, availability to students, etc.

8. Your dean would rather delay a hard decision or pass it onto the faculty knowing that that the School will suffer as a result. See Chen, Three Deans.

9. Tenured faculty frequently discuss controversial questions with untenured faculty and while doing so make clear their own opinions and what their expectations are.

10. Faculty tend to teach the same courses from the same books for years, maybe careers.

Add up your score.

40-50 points. Go to the Law School ER immediately. Not for your school. It left the world of the living some time ago. You, however, have a pulse. Save yourself by writing and teaching your very best and finding a hobby.

30-39 points. Your School is in critical condition but there is a chance of survival. It will be very tricky. Retirements, hiring stealth candidates, and a courageous dean are needed. Guerilla action maybe in order.

20-29 points. You have an elevated risk of law school death but it can be controlled by diet and exercise. Do not let the opportunity slip away.

10-19 points. Enjoy your law school’s good health.

0-9 points. See a physician immediately. You are delusional.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Blindness of Law School Hiring Committees

Although the details are not evident from this short article, the idea seems to be that the grades a law student makes in school are more important than the school attended in determining career success. I mention this because I have seen first hand hiring committee's turn their noses up at a top ten grad from, say, Minnesota, in favor of a bottom of the top third or even lower -- much lower- Harvard grad. There is no way to put it other than it is an empirically unsound way to make the hiring decision. Why do they do that. Not to bore you for the 10th time, but for the most part the committees are composed of elitists and the hiring is self-referential -- they are hiring themselves or what they wannabe. So each year another batch of elite grads roles into a profession that has grown terribly stale and humorless. Plus, they are not that well educated. In fact, when I consider the interests of, let's say, an Exeter, Princeton, Harvard grad (the most elitist combo I can think of right now) I wonder what is going in in the classroom.

Could we test this. Not really. A few years ago I compared publications by elitist school grads with those of non elite schools. The problem was that once you get out of the second tier of Law Schools you are hard pressed to find any non elite grads to make the study meaningful.

Really, I think Harvard and Yale could start producing the Yugo car and half the law professors in the US would salivate to have one (especially if it came with a Harvard vanity plate). Why do I believe that? Because they already produce Yugo grads and the profs salivate.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Revisiting Caterina

This Italian movie has a wonderful and dead center take on class that repeatedly plays out in law schools. As the title suggests, it is about a young girl's problems when moving to the city. She is torn between the lefties and the righties at school. (This all takes place in Rome.) Two characters are parents of two of her school chums -- one left one right. One parent is a lefty intellectual and the other a right wing politician. At one point there is a conflict at the school and the parents are gathered together. Caterina's father, a pathetic lower middle class character who craves being recognized by the privileged, is there too. He best scene of the movie shows his awakening when he sees how close the two other parents are even though publicly they are arch enemies. What he realizes that that they are united by privilege and privilege is stronger than any professed convictions.

It is good to remember this in higher education and legal education in particular. The self anointed liberals (there are no lefties) may from time to time find conservatives to argue with. But where they are rock solid united is in their rejection of non elitists. Do not let their battles fool you. When faced with non elitists they will close ranks faster than you can say hypocrite.