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Friday, October 14, 2005

Against "Brilliant" Teaching Candidates?

Matt's right: writing about the job process is indeed a Prawfsblawg perennial.  In the nature of things, perhaps our thoughts will one day turn to how to obtain tenure (or why blogging hurts one's tenure chances), how to get an endowed chair, why chairs aggravate one's back problems, why they don't make teaching candidates like they used to, and the law and economics of blogging in one's retirement.  For now, though, we are sufficiently close to the process to offer some advice.  I do hope, though, that hiring committee members are also reading these posts.

One thing I'd recommend is that hiring committees read, every year, Martha Nussbaum's article, "Cooking for a Job: The Law School Hiring Process," 1 Green Bag 2d 253 (1998).  Not all her thoughts are relevant to the meat market process, since they are in part directed at the shadow hiring process at the top law schools.  But some of her thoughts are very relevant indeed.  She writes, in part, that some prospects flunk "lunch" with the appointments committee -- although we could define "lunch" to include such parts of the process as the AALS interview itself.  She says:

"Aggressiveness, a certain supple glibness, these are the things that get you through, though of course you have to know something too....[H]aving something to say is usually (not always) a necessary condition of passing lunch, but by no means sufficient.  The other necessary conditions are well stated by Plato: one must be a 'brave manly soul, bold and clever in approaching people.'  I tend to thing that these rhetorical qualities are not necessary for the equipment of a legal scholar, and that a process that gives them so much weight is flawd, even vis a vis the needs of a legal academy.  But even schools that see these problems have a hard time bucking the trend, since everyone operates in more or less the same way."  At the job talk, Nussbaum similarly suggests, "although the skills of argument are displayed and assessed, rhetorical cookery is all too frequently in evidence.  Candidates seem to think that quickness, glibness, and aggressiveness are virtues, and that reflectiveness, quietness, and uncertainty are vices.  And so it frequently turns out."

I think that, allowing for exceptions and differences of degree, Nussbaum is basically right (and she also puts me in mind of Dan Farber's writing on the role of the "play of brilliance" in constitutional scholarship -- not to mention the nature of blogging!).  I won't adduce all the evidence; but I will note that a number of folks I've talked to have described a perennial experience -- so much for learning from the past! -- in which they select quick, confident, and bright interviewees to come back for a full job-talk, only to be disappointed by the candidate's scholarship itself.  And the line "so it frequently turns out" speaks volumes as well: even if, among those sometimes underwhelming "bright" prospects, the underwhelmed faculty does choose someone with real promise, think how many glib prospects made it back to campus for the job talk and how many quiet scholars didn't.  I truly wish hiring committees were forced to read this paper every October.

What do folks think?  Is Nussbaum right?  Have you any anecdotal experience to share, either as current/former candidates or as hiring committee members?  Is this a problem?  And why does it occur?  Is it selection bias?  A lawyerly overemphasis on rhetorical skill?  A legal scholarly confusion about how to evaluate good scholars?  Or just plain stubborn reliance on doin' it like we did it the year before, ad infinitum?

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 14, 2005 at 01:36 PM in Article Spotlight, Teaching Law | Permalink


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» Catch-22? from Discourse.net
Dan Solove gives what seems to be an excellent distillation of the current wisdom on how aspiring law professors should approach their screening interviews at the AALS. And then comes Paul Horwitz to warn us law professors not to be fooled by the peopl... [Read More]

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