Wednesday, March 01, 2006

why are law professors so edgy?

A friend of mine has come up with a novel explanation as to why law professors, who would seem to have a pretty privileged life, are so persistently uneasy. According to my friend, the totality of human activities can be located along three axes, which for simplicity's sake may be labeled competitive vs. noncompetitive, personal vs. group endeavors, and objective vs. subjective modes of evaluation. Professional golf, for example, would be highly competitive and individualistic, but would have a relatively objective mode of evaluation, while professional football would share its competitive and (for the most part) objective characteristics, but lean toward the group rather than individual side of the equation. High school teaching, or parenting, would be tend to have more subjective standards but would also (for most people) be somewhat less competitive, and fall somewhere in the middle on the individual vs. group activity axis. As a general rule, the more competitive activities would be expected, over time, to develop more objective standards for success and failure, especially for individualistic endeavors in which any unfavorable results could not be blamed on the shortcomings of a larger group.

What distinguishes academics is not any one of these factors, but the combination of them. For the professorate, according to my friend, is one of the few activities that is (a) very competitive, (b) primarily personal (that is, noncooperative) in nature, and (c) almost entirely devoid of objective standards that might be used to measure success or failure in the activity. Competitive, both because of the kind of people who go into it and the endless run of tenure, promotions, offers at supposedly better institutions or publications, and so forth. Individual, because our teaching and scholarship is with very limited exceptions done alone. But almost entirely subjective, because beyond the sheer volume of articles or citations, no one has ever come close to a rigorous system for evaluating academic performance or even what such a system would try to measure. The situation is, one suspects, even worse for law teaching than (say) physics or sociology, where there is at least some accepted body of materials one is expected to have read and a more or less established system of peer review for books, articles, and other publications. In law, anything goes.

Like Einstein's theory of relativity, my friend's insight is deceptively simple but has enormous explanatory power. I have often marvelled at how a group of people with nearly 100 percent job security, writing articles that have no discernible impact on the world outside academia, both work so hard and are so obsessively worried about their standing in the pecking order. The answer is provided by the theory: they behave in this manner because they are doomed to compete, without anyone else to share the responsbility, in an activity in which they can never know whether they have succeeded or even what succeeding might mean. Like musicians singing to an empty hall, or athletes playing in an abandoned stadium, they have only themselves and a few ephemeral signposts--a good law review cover, a visit at a nominally "prestige" law school, what have you--to signal that they are advancing in their quest. It is a bitter fate indeed, although presumably someone has to do it.

As it happens, my friend writes a lot about organizational structures, and had she stayed longer the conversation would not doubt have turned to corrective measures. Tenure, for example, which would no longer be seen as a form of protectionism for incompetent academics, but a necessary countermeasure to prevent the suffering from becoming still more pronounced. Numerical rankings, which do little to relieve the anxiety or loneliness of teaching, but at least purport to restore a measure of objectivity, assuming (a pretty big assumption) one can agree what the criteria should be. (I was used as a ranker by one prominent survey, which should give you some idea of its accuracy.) And, of course, higher salaries, the market's inevitable response to the difficulty of attracting people to this odd combination of high anxiety and limited, or at least impossible to measure, impact. Wait, I feel an article coming on . . .


At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Craig Oren said...

I am not sure that being a law professor qualifies as a very competitive activity. After all, no one can fire us. I think what is more important is that, like everyone else, legal academics look for evidence that their work is valuable. Given the lack of objective measure, academics become desperate for any indication of the value of their work. Thus legal academics worry about what may be trival differences in compensation or status.

Perhaps this simply restates what your friend said in a different way.

At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Qualia3 said...

I am a law professor so I can make people's lives better, and so I can teach students how to think clearly, write well, and understand the law.

If my articles influence for the better some health or IP policy, I'll be happy. I can work to promote the ideas, but there's no way to understand whatever "influence" I happen to attain on some numerical scale.

It should be satisfaction enough that one tries hard, works at least 50-60 hours a week (given our privileged position I consider this an essential part of the bargain), and constantly tries to improve one's writing and teaching.

You can put ideas before the public, and students, as skillfully as possible, but you can't make them think.

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You suggest one solution: rank everybody along some dimension to provide score-keeping for professor/competitors. Good luck on that one.

Another solution: ignore those who would turn this privileged life into a rat race. We all know profs who obsess over who is moving where, whose article got accepted where, what so and so is paid, what name is on your badge at AALS, and so on. These people let their happiness and sense of fulfillment depend on the decisions of hiring committees and second-year law students. Anyone who has sat on such committees, if he paid attention, should be well aware of their capriciousness. All of us could tell stories of their absurdity.

Laugh at these profs, turn away, refuse to compete with them along the dimension they have created. Just do your work, enjoy the students who are in front of you, and write to say what you feel important, in the mode you feel best expresses that view.

And don't miscast me: I'm not a dropout. I've published in numerous top l.rev.'s, visited around, the whole nine yards. I just refuse to create anxiety about career stuff, for me or my colleagues.

A veteran law prof

At 2:20 PM, Blogger jose said...

Your friend's analysis is BRILLIANT. There is a whole symposium issue in it.




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