Thursday, May 09, 2013
Reflections on the Rhythm of Academic Life
Apologies for showing up a bit late to the Prawfs party, and many thanks to Dan for inviting me back again. Like many of you, no doubt, I am overwhelmed at the moment with grading and administrative responsibilities, so the most I can muster here today is a post about academic life. I hope to provide more substantive posts later in the month.
I often find myself reflecting about the rhythm of academic life at this time of year, when the day-to-teach teaching routine of the regular semester seemingly grinds to a halt and my day is suddenly filled with stacks of papers and exams, along with the accompanying tedium of assessing them with a grade.
I remember thinking long ago that an appealing part of becoming a professor would be the up-and-down rhythm of each academic year: first, the intensity of the semester with regular teaching, student and colleague interactions, meetings, and—squeezed in between those—some writing and conferences; then, the slow, lazy pace of summers, with lots of time for reading and reflection combined with intensive writing in large, uninterrupted chunks. Although the summers have not usually turned out quite as relaxed as I had imagined, and although other fields (litigation, for example), do offer a similar up-and-down rhythm, I have found that I appreciate this rhythm for more than just the intermittent respite and constant variety it provides.
I find that the (often frantically) present-focused pace of the semester, together with the mundane, if not frankly mind-numbing, task of grading exams, actually stimulates creativity and original thought. There is nothing that makes me itch to get back to writing like a stack of 80 exams, all answering the same three issue-spotter questions, to slog through while painstakingly allocating point values to each issue discussed. There’s nothing that sends my mind off on tangents like trying to force it to focus on one narrow set of doctrinal questions. (And at the same time, there is nothing that builds excitement for getting back in the classroom like a summer spent navel-gazing in the form of a lengthy law review article.) But the creative power of disciplining oneself to do non-creative work is something that I have come to value greatly, and I might even dare to say that I am in some sense more productive (though perhaps not in the pages-written-per-day sense) when I am most busy with other things. How about you?
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Excuse me while I vomit. You overpaid 'professors' and your whining about having to grade exams make me want to puke.
Posted by: greg | May 9, 2013 11:10:45 PM
This was a very disheartening thing to read, especially as I study for finals. I'm sorry that us students are such a chore for you. But consider how much many of us pay for the privilege of taking those exams. Maybe this kind of apathy is common as Case Western. I hope it is not at my institution.
Enjoy your summer.
Posted by: justastudent | May 10, 2013 2:51:41 AM
One of my favorite professors at U.Va. was fond of saying that he wrote articles and taught class for the sheer pleasure of it, but was paid to grade exams. Given that grading is serious, responsible but sometimes difficult and unexciting work, it seems unremarkable to me that an honest law professor would acknowledge that to be the case. It's not like Professor Hill indicated in any way that the task of grading was not to be taken seriously or responsibly.
I would understand a student getting worked up if a teacher was irresponsible about grading. I don't see why they get worked up when a professor acknowledge the obvious - it can be hard, repetitive going to read 90 answers to the same question.
Posted by: Ray Campbell | May 10, 2013 4:06:21 AM
I'm also frankly baffled by greg's and justastudent's responses. I wasn't whining, but actually showing appreciation for the job and its overall variety. Virtually every professor will acknowledge that grading, especially for large classes, is tedious and the least enjoyable part of the job, but every job has tedious aspects. I don't see why acknowledging that makes me seem apathetic or disinterested in my students.
Posted by: Jessie Hill | May 10, 2013 6:33:06 AM
The ups and downs of life...There is a certain cadence in life that makes us all appreciate the blessings and realize the pitfalls are only temporary. For you, its twice a year at the end of the semester. For me, I'm still trying to figure that out. With 200k in law school debt, a 25 year payment plan and a salary that doesn't come close to helping me put a dent in it, the future looks pretty bleak.
Posted by: noobesq | May 10, 2013 7:23:47 AM
I don't think it was exclusively your comments about grading that inflamed greg and justastudent, but perhaps your assertion that your professional life during a semester is frantic, or even busy. Given the light teaching loads law professors carry, it is difficult for many people to envision professors as being as busy as you suggest you are during a semester--or busy at all, for that matter. Moreover, comments about disciplining yourself to do non-creative work strike practicing lawyers, under-employed and unemployed lawyers, and stressed law students as elitist and out-of-touch. For those reasons, any comment you make about the less pleasant aspects of your job--such as grading--is bound to anger some people. That may be unfair, but resentment of law schools and their deans and faculty seems to be a regular feature on the current legal education and legal profession landscapes. Of course, no matter what anonymous commenters say, anyone who has ever graded law school exams knows that it is hard work, and that responsible teachers worry about the validity of their exam questions and the fairness of the grades they assign to students.
Posted by: Doug Richmond | May 10, 2013 8:06:57 AM
I'm baffled that you're baffled.
You must be very insulated from the rage of current students and recent grads (not to mention not-so-recent grads in highly saturated and quickly shrinking market), who are being crushed by a bleak employment situation and staggering amounts of nondischargeable student loan debt, to be "baffled" that your post would rub them the wrong way. Really, as an actual lawyer, I'm stunned that you (and other law professors) are still so out of touch about the reality of the legal profession.
Posted by: LaVonna | May 10, 2013 11:18:14 AM
Imagine, Professor, that students were clients. That they paid a lot for your services. And that the products they received from you were teaching and grades.
Now imagine that on a public forum you say, hey clients, I really hate doing this work for you. It's tedious. I have to "slog" through it, and not even that, when I do it, I think about other, more fun things. But don't worry, I assure you that I pay the utmost attention to your boring work when I day dream.
How many clients would you have after such a post?
Can you image a Partner at a NYC V10 going online, and telling the JP Morgans of the world: "You know what, I just really hate reading M&A agreements. They are tedious. Long. I prefer to think about the finer things in life. But hey, don't forget to pay my bill at the end of the month--because my pronounced dislike for reading M&A agreements should not worry you. It surely will not impact the quality of my work."
No. You cannot image that because it would be a ludicrous thing for a self-respecting professional to do. Maybe do it in private. But at least don't let your clients (or students) know. Let me be clear: not stating it aloud does not make it better. But it at least shows less disrespect.
Mr. Richmond: Do you think anonymous grading detracts from the value of a written exam? Then anonymous posting should not detract from the validity of what anyone says. Second, do not put words in my mouth. I know plenty of extremely busy Professors who I greatly admire and respect. I also do not resent law schools or Professors. I have enjoyed my time here, and look forward to my career. But the audacity of this post amazes me, and I said, I hope that Professors at other institutions, and in general, are more sensitive.
Posted by: justastudent | May 10, 2013 3:29:48 PM
In this era of 50% employment and 200K tuition bills, law professors need to be on their best behavior or they will draw the ire of Internet commenter waiting to strike. You are very fortunate to be a law professor. Do not complain.
Posted by: Steven | May 10, 2013 5:12:41 PM
OK Jessie, as a new professor I will give you a straight answer: I found that teaching stimulates my desire to write, as working through issues with engaged students leads me to focus on areas of the law that are internally contradictory, needlessly complex, unpredictable, etc. Grading, on the other hand, stimulates my desire to get back in the classroom and improve my teaching, as it exposes students' pockets of misunderstanding and confusion that I know I could have clarified had I only realized sooner what they were! I gave a midterm this semester and I appreciated the opportunity to really gauge students' understanding while I still had plenty of time to course-correct.
Posted by: vaptastic! | May 11, 2013 2:17:20 AM