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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Creating Stumbling Blocks

Below, Paul has a critical comment on some of the interesting posts now swirling about at Concurring Opinions.  I've been enjoying them, too, and thought to remark on the following in Professor Rebecca Lee's post: "Although Brian Bix understandably wonders whether legal academics have the attributes and skills to best advance social justice causes, it seems to me that law professors, even if not especially activist-inclined, through their research and teaching help provide the building blocks for those who may be more so.  Legal scholars whose expertise tends to focus on deconstructing theories and unpacking doctrine certainly contribute by helping to light the spark for others who then reconstruct them toward change."

While I appreciate the thoughtfulness and the sentiment of the post, my own view is a little different.  I don't have a desire to create building blocks, whether for the actively or passively disposed.  I do have a desire to create stumbling blocks, inasmuch as I've found it to be educationally satisfying -- for my students and for me -- to chew and re-chew the problems and quirks of doctrine, legal institutions, and theory, with the explicit aim of ferreting out additional, unlooked-for, and (sometimes) surprising problems and obstacles.  As a writer, it seems to me that my ends are to think and express interesting and, as I see it, true things about law, or to react to the interesting thoughts of others.  As a teacher, my ends are to get my students to understand well and reflect on existing law, and to think their own interesting thoughts about law.  Often enough I fail: I think extremely boring or conventional thoughts, for example, and when I realize it I reproach myself (at times in a wretchedly melancholy state of splenetic ennui).  But my tasks have nothing overtly to do with inspiration (an altogether inexpedient and unpredictable thing to aim at) or block-building for the construction of an imagined edifice.  Of course, I would find it extremely congenial that my students themselves aimed to change the law in the direction of their choosing or instead aimed to make a good and fruitful practicing life within it.  Both of these paths, I should add, represent different possible active legal lives, although I will admit that I am unsure whether they are both "activist."  But those will be their aims, not mine.        

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on October 25, 2012 at 11:00 AM | Permalink


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Very well put, Marc. I must say I agree almost completely with the stumbling block metaphor, and it well captures my own approach. And I am very sympathetic to your final point, too, about students going on to live their own lives in the law. Hope the splenetic ennui is short-lived ;)

Posted by: Ian Bartrum | Oct 25, 2012 4:50:42 PM

Spoken like a younger but no less grumpy version of Stanley Fish. Well done:-)

Posted by: Dan Markel | Oct 25, 2012 9:51:09 PM

Your students are not even getting jobs in the law, let alone living lives within it. What is wrong with you people?

Posted by: Fred Smith | Oct 26, 2012 7:21:47 AM

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