Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Time for a change?

As suggested earlier, changes in the legal industry may create a need for changes in the legal education system as we know it. Let me propose one such sweeping change: abandoning the rigid adherence to “publish or perish.” Academia, in general, places a premium on publication; the legal academy, however, is particularly fixated on publication. Indeed, hiring, retention and advancement all depend on publication—the extent to which one is published, as well as the journals one is published in are almost certainly the most important factors utilized in determining who gets to teach the next generation of lawyers.

But why place so much emphasis on publication? The purpose of law school, as we are constantly told, is to “learn how to think like a lawyer.” Ostensibly, classroom performance—how engaging the professor is, whether the professor can relate to the students, and whether the professor inspires his or her students to work hard—is a better barometer by which we can gauge a professor’s capacity to impart these (crucial) skills. In fact, it is probably the best means to do so. I have never selected a class or thought to select a class based on a professor’s publication pedigree; I, like almost all of my peers, pick classes based on the professor’s ability to teach.

The focus on publication is a fixture of legal academia, and some 918 journals have sprung up to facilitate it. Perhaps a change in priorities is in order?

18 comments:

  1. Uh...okay, so we should just let morons off the street teach because they're good at teaching? Horrible idea. That would demean the profession, and the prestige of academia itself.

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  2. From what I read, it doesn't appear to me that Craig is proposing that morons off the street be hired solely because "they're good at teaching." (And, your notion that morons off the street would excel at teaching the law is preposterous.) Instead, I think he is simply questioning the emphasis law schools currently put on publication.
    And, further, why does academia have to be about prestige? Isn't the point of law school to prepare you for legal practice? Or is law school meant to provide students with an inflated ego regarding how "prestigious" their education supposedly is?

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  3. I think that Josh is right here. The point of Craig's post--and really mine as well--is that a lot of emphasis is placed on prestige and not practicality.

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  4. How would this change be effectuated? Will a critical mass of up and coming legal academics desperately seeking tenure track positions decide to eschew research and re-focus on developing teaching skills, even if they agree with your call for change?

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  5. The author is not arguing that no premium should be placed on publishing; merely that there should be more of a focus on teaching ability. Academics will still research and comment, but schools should, I think, try to focus on effectively teaching their students.

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  7. @ 3:08 --

    That's up to them, naturally. What would differ is the hiring criteria applied. And that would make a big difference.

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  8. The problem with relying upon this "top-down" approach to change is that law schools will no longer have a metric by which to differentiate themselves from other law schools (or more bluntly, how to make themselves look better). What's the new metric? Student reviews?

    I am not at all against your normative argument for a reevaluation of the current hiring and retention system of law professors. There certainly should be more of a balance between publications and quality of teaching. I am just pondering aloud how such a change would come about.

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  9. @ 3:25 --

    As noted, it would come about by schools changing their focus. That part is easy.

    I think you overstate the importance of schools differentiating themselves based on faculty. There are a lot of objective criterion by which law schools can be distinguished: quality of students, size of library, number of journals, externships, etc.

    Do you believe the interest in distinguishing itself is intrinsically useful for the school or does your concern relate to drawing the "best" students, faculty or something else?

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  10. this is an intersting post. i don't understand how we could judge professors without having a position to teach. 3:25 I think is right that, as a threshold matter, there is not an objective criteria to judge the ability of a professor to teach--at least as a matter of first hiring. so, publications are maybe all we have

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  11. @ 5:19 --

    High school teachers are not expected to publish. A high premium is placed on their teaching ability. There are ways to objectively assess a professor's teaching ability before awarding tenure. That is a large cut of the point.

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  12. @ 5:19 --

    I agree with what Nima said; while it's not entirely objective, one could determine teaching ability prior to hiring.

    As an aside, a friend directed me to an interesting article relating to this topic in another academic context:

    http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/guest-column-letting-scientists-off-the-leash/

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  14. Teaching ability is much more difficult to quantify and evaluate than a prospective candidate's scholarly publications. Also, the effort a professor puts into his classroom time may change after obtaining tenure. Would a performance based system like this post is advocating require a modification of the current system of tenure?

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  15. @ Ipse --

    First, I want to make clear that I don't think publication is devoid of all value in determining faculty appointments; it's certainly something to be considered. I just do not think the current approach--which more or less places it at a premium at the expense of all else--is fundamentally flawed.

    Second, as far as I know, schools are stuck with professors once they give them tenure. So, to the extent that the concern relates to professors "giving up" on what the school wants them to accomplish, your concern applies equally with respect to the current approach of favoring publication at the expense of everything else. That is, a professor under the current system could stop putting effort into publication after receiving tenure.

    Of course, my whole point is that the overemphasis on publication is unwarranted, and that schools need to vigorously pursue "better" classroom performance. Teaching ability is, so far as I am concerned, far more important. Viewed in this light, your point is well taken; the prospect of a professor deciding to be lazy after obtaining tenure would be considerably worse where tenure was granted for teaching ability rather than publication because, at least as far as my argument presumes, the latter is less important the former.

    Ideally, one would hope that professionalism would prevail, and that tenured professors would not (at least deliberately) change their approaches. Maybe it would not be so bad to hedge against this phenomena by giving tenured faculty less of a carte blanche to do whatever they want? While taboo in academia, accountability is not necessarily a bad thing--at least as I see it.

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  16. what if we added a requirement that all professors have to meet a minimum rating level every year in order to stay on tenure track??? Think about it....

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  17. @ 1:03 --

    I don't think that would be bad at all; but, again, I'm not sure we'd necessarily need to go to such lengths.

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