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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Law School Identity Vertigo

Just as the new semester is getting under way, I come across this passage from Ross & Nisbett’s The Person and the Situation:

The authors [Ross and Nisbett] know all too well the surprised, even shocked look on the faces of students who have caught them … slamming a racket after a missed volley on the tennis court, lining up for a ticket to a Grateful Dead concert, playing pinball at a hamburger joint, or shouting at their kids at the local Wal-Mart…

Ross and Nisbett mean to highlight the way we “confound” “person and situation.” Students who come to know professors primarily in the classroom may come to believe that those professors act “professorially” outside the classroom, not recognizing the degree to which the professor’s behavior at school is shaped by the professor’s role; likewise, professors who come to know students in the classroom may imagine that those students act student-like even when there are no professors around, forgetting how they themselves were once channeled and constrained by being students in the classroom.   

I’m not sure students and teachers are quite as shocked by seeing each other out of role as Ross and Nisbett suggest, but I do think the process by which we construct identities for each other is a mysterious one.  A very thoughtful student once asked me whether I have a brother who has a little boy.  She said she’d seen them walking past the law school on the weekend.  For a few seconds I was baffled, trying to imagine how she could possibly have come across Will, who was working 24/7 on a campaign 1500 miles away.  Then I realized, of course, that she hadn’t seen Will and a little boy at all, but me and Milo, stopping by school to pick up some papers on the weekend.  Seeing me out of role, she thought I was actually someone else – someone like me, but not me.  In the same vein, students have several times asked me questions that began, “When you were a prosecutor …”  Since I was not a prosecutor, and since I was in fact a pretty ardent defense lawyer, I’m always at least a little surprised by the question.  Are my efforts to “compensate” for my defense sympathies so effective that I now appear entirely unsympathetic?  Do students project their own sympathies over my own?  Whatever the process is, it produces a strange refraction of my own identity.  And, of course, it goes both ways.  Not long ago, I began to tell a student how difficult a certain teaching situation is; she nodded patiently while I said my piece, and then told me how she had handled similar situations over her own, lengthy teaching career.  Taking our current roles entirely for granted, I had overlooked the obvious possibility that she had more experience with teaching than I do.         

With a new semester getting under way, I take the Ross and Nisbett quote as a nice reminder about the quirky and not always reliable way teachers and students get to know each other, extrapolating whole persons from isolated shards of not-entirely-representative evidence.  It also gives me an opportunity to put these details on the record, at least to take the sting out: I, too, have thrown rackets on the ground in frustration about a missed volley, and I used to play the Earthshaker game at Tommy’s Lunch for hours at a time, back before they turned Tommy’s into a Pizza place.

Posted by Anders Kaye on January 24, 2007 at 12:44 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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» Reality and Student Evalutions from Legal Profession Blog
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw Anders Kaye (Thomas Jefferson, left) has posted a blogging instant classic over at PrawfsBlawg on preconceptions and the way they distort how professors and students perceive the reality of each other. It is not to be [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 24, 2007 4:07:12 AM

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I miss Tommy's - I always played Taxi, though, when it was pinball time...!

Posted by: Jeremy A. Blumenthal | Jan 31, 2007 3:41:23 PM

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