Thursday, February 28, 2013
The Law School Crisis Continues; ITLSS Does Not
Paul Campos has announced that "the time has come" for him "to move on" from his Inside the Law School Scam blog. I wanted to announce that: whether one liked his blog or not, it was a big voice on law school crisis issues, and ignoring its demise would seem to me the equivalent of trying to sweep it under the rug. I didn't intend to say much more than that. But perhaps a couple more words are necessary in light of rather harsh comments in a blog post by Brian Leiter and in the comments on a post on TaxProf.
Early on, I was a critic of various aspects of Campos's blog, although not of the existence of the blog itself or of the existence of a blog devoted to problems with law schools. Some of my early posts speculated about Campos's motives. I think that was a mistake; I've never met him, after all. My later position was simpler and I hope fairer; there was much I found distasteful about the blog, but I had promised to read it and I did, every post, and I occasionally linked to discussions I found useful or important, basically skipping questions of motives, style, etc. There were one or two exceptions along the way where I thought he had said something especially silly, but quite few. While it's fine to discount if one distrusts a source, one should take information about an important topic where one can find it, and appreciate it. I posted less from the blog as time went by, largely because ITLSS became highly repetitive--something I don't view as a big reason for criticism; it's tough to write that much that often on a single topic--and often provided more commentary (of variable quality) than facts, and also because the quality of dialogue one gets on these topics from commenters tends to be mixed.
But, if I was not the fan of the blog that others were, I think it still had definite value. Campos seems to me to be essentially a journalist moonlighting as a law professor, and perhaps without some of the professional norms I would expect from a full-time journalist. But he offered a fair amount of good journalism along the way: a lot of digging up and examination of data that I hadn't seen elsewhere and that, good or bad interpretations of it aside, provided a useful and often distressing basis for analysis. That's a genuine contribution, for which I'm grateful; certainly, although I have written about these issues for quite some time, I didn't do the digging he did.
The "style," although I mean more than just writing style, was another matter. Many of his fans loved his writing style. I found it repetitive (how many times do you need to use the same quote from Upton Sinclair before it gets old?), self-indulgent, evasive and squirrelly, preening, and finally tedious. His analysis of the useful data he provided was often correct, in my view. But he seemed rarely content to make a basic point that would have been sufficiently devastating in itself, if the opportunity presented itself to make a far more tendentious de-haut-en-bas observation about some "big truth" that everyone but himself lacked the courage and acuity to recognize. A vivid style is one element of good writing; but so is self-restraint. Campos was much stronger on the former than the latter. Now, your mileage may vary. Clearly many people loved his writing, although of course I think my criticisms of that writing are entirely on point.
But I do think there was a relationship between style and substance here. As I said above and am happy to repeat, in my view his best contributions were those posts that provided lots of data, and at various times there were many of those posts. The more untethered his posts were from the data, however, the weaker they were, the more questionable or inconsistent or hard to pin down in their fundamental arguments. Both before and after he dropped the anonymity pose, he traded on his ostensible authority as an "insider" in various ways, by suggesting that he was sharing an insider's knowledge, or that the fact of his own quite human and understandable complicity in the system gave what he had to say extra authenticity. In the final analysis, though, what he provided was public knowledge, not private knowledge--in short, journalism. He simultaneously danced up to and shied away from saying anything meaningful about his own situation, although he might have offered some interesting thoughts about that. In doing so, he would say that the real issue was the system, not any one person in it. But that is really a mixed message: an effort to trumpet one's authority and insider status without actually drawing on it or discussing it honestly. That's what I mean by trading on authority, and it was a constant in his work; it is certainly a glaring feature of his final post. (If that's a flaw, I should note, it's not his alone; I've said much the same thing about amicus briefs by law professors, and no doubt it's often true of law professors' blog posts.)
In short, there were plenty of reasons to find aspects of his blog objectionable, and his suggestion in his final post that everyone who objected to what he wrote did so either because they were angry at his intrepid truth-telling or because of personal animus seems to me badly exaggerated and self-serving. The latter seems especially silly because, judged by his writing, Campos certainly has no objection to responding to others in a personal rather than a substantive way and drawing broad conclusions about the motives of others. (None of this, however, excuses some of the absurd defenses of the present law school regime I have read elsewhere in the last few months, or some of the dismissals-by-ad-hominem of accurate points that Campos made along the way.) But it should be said that his blog was never really aimed at law professors as a readership. Nor was there any obligation for him to do that. It was aimed at (understandably) dismayed, dispirited, disgruntled law students and graduates, for the most part. The Internet being what it is, it would be foolish to draw any conclusions about how representative of broader views or intensity of emotion his readership was. But suffice it to say he did find and indulge a genuine readership with genuine concerns and anger. That's an important fact, I think.
Let me repeat something I argued very early in my engagement with both the Campos blog and the question of law school crisis and reform in general. The arguments that much needs to be fixed about law schools, in terms of numbers of students and schools, tuition and debt, curriculum, hiring, and so on, seems to me unassailable. The lousy and perhaps permanently changing legal economy adds a powerful element to that; one of the best Campos posts, in my view, was one about halfway through his run emphasizing just how central the lack of jobs is to the current crisis. But reform would still be necessary regardless of current conditions. I wrote early on that the danger of a "crisis" footing is that it may lead us to be even more complacent if the economy improves and fewer students are moved to complain about outcomes. But the changes needed in law schools are not just about responding to immediate stimuli; they're about doing the right thing, for students, clients, and simply for its own sake and because it ought to be part of one's ongoing academic duty. That Campos's blog is ending doesn't mean the issues aren't ongoing. Even if its discontinuation ends up turning down the temperature a little, which I'm not sure it will, that does not change the obligation to deal with these issues. And, again, for all of what I found its evident flaws, I would say his blog, at its best, contributed importantly to the discussion along the way.
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