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Friday, August 10, 2018

Failure, It Turns Out, is an Option, and a Pretty Good One Sometimes

Image.ashxIn my last post, I promised to talk about fear not just in the horse but in the rider.  The point, of course, has to do with the relationship of fear to learning. Kaci Bishop's (North Carolina) recently posted article, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom, provides a nice segue.  (H/T Paul Caron.) Failing, at least in the micro, is learning, and I agree with Professor Bishop's bottom line that academic and practicing lawyers tend not to be very good at connecting the subject and the predicate in those three words.

I have four very vivid memories of the subject of failure - in the abstract - coming up during my education and career.  I'm paraphrasing most of it.  The first was when I watched the moot court competition finals at Stanford.  The esteemed federal Third Circuit judge A. Leon Higginbotham was a member of the panel.  During the post-argument comments, he said something like "a well-prepared advocate can never lose; the client may not win, but the advocate never loses."  The second was when I was interviewing for my first job out of law school (the Dykema firm in Detroit).  One of the litigation partners said to me, "One of the things we have to do here is train people how to lose."  The third was when I left the firm to join the law department at what was then AlliedSignal (now Honeywell). One of the recruiting documents I received was the 1991 annual report, which contained CEO Larry Bossidy's first letter to shareholders (he had just come over from General Electric where he was second in command to Jack Welch).  The piece I remember most was about leadership and it went like this:  "Of course there will always have to be leaders who make the final decision, but the tyrant in the corner office, the guy with all the answers, need not apply here." (This much appealed to me because, in 13+ years at the law firm, both as associate and partner, I rarely felt that I had any answers to much of anything.)  The last was an interview with Steve Kerr, who had just been installed as GE's first Chief Learning Officer, on the tension between failure and Jack Welch's famous (or infamous) "stretch goals": namely, that if you set ambitious goals for people, you can't punish them if they fail to meet them.

At the risk of TMI, I'm sixty-four years old and still have the standard dreams about failure - for example, the one about missing the entire semester of a math class that met early on Tuesday mornings and now having to take the final.  I started as a litigator, and it became clear that it was easier to give Judge Higginbotham's advice (particularly if you were the judge) than to take it.  I took losing very personally.  Looking back, and then considering what I internalized as failure even in the deal-making or business context, I see it as an illusion (or delusion) of one's own ability to control circumstances.  You can't eliminate the fear; you have to learn to cabin it or manage it (and I think that is one of the points Professor Bishop is making).

I had a couple reactions that I'll talk about after the break.

First, I do agree that failing, in the micro sense, is integral to learning.  I also think that Professor Bishop is correct in incorporating Carol Dweck's distinction between the fixed and the growth mindset.  As I interpret it, it's the difference in the affective orientation to learning that precedes any learning.  If you want to learn, you learn.  If you don't want to learn, you don't.  The fixed mindset is one that has given up on learning; the growth mindset invites it.

Second, Professor Bishop mentions classroom "failures" (i.e. that "law students have as a primary goal not embarrassing themselves in the classroom") but doesn't center her arguments on what I think is a particular aspect of law school culture: the difference between private failure and public failure.  The fear of public failure is what I recall most vividly from the very first class on the very first day of law school forty-two years ago.  It wasn't so much that I read the first case in the Dawson & Harvey contracts casebook (Groves v. John Wunder & Co.) and was mystified; it was that from the opening bell others in my 25-student small section appeared to understand it so well (yes, Robert Weisberg and Douglas Baird, I'm talking to you).

Dealing with public failure if you run a moderately interactive law school classroom is a challenge.  It is hard to be nurturing when a significant aspect of the job is the theatrics of it all.  If you believe in the non-paternalistic classroom, then you ought also to believe that your job as professor is to make the experience more compelling than what is available by way of internet, text, or Angry Birds. Nor is it easy.  Some things students say or ask in class are misplaced or wrong or distractions.  For each student that you try to accommodate gently, there's another one thinking you should have been more brutal.

My quibble, if I have one, with Professor Bishop's piece is that her focus on mindset is confined solely to that of the student.  Just as psychoanalysts need to experience their own analysis to be able to guide anybody else, I don't see how there's going to be much change in the classroom if the fixed mindset is in the mind that is behind the podium.  Over the years, one of the ways I have tried to put myself in the position of a fearful student has been to make myself learn in environments that are not my natural habitat.  The three things I've tried to pick up over the last ten years are playing the piano (I never learned to play any musical instrument) and two athletic endeavors.

All my piano failures are private and relatively trivial, ego-wise.  Not so the athletics.  To put it bluntly, I think I'm pretty agile mentally, but I really, really suck as an athlete.  My joke over the years is that I engage in athletic endeavors (golf, for example) for the massive doses of humility I get.  I think, more seriously, that the activities I've selected in the last couple years force me to confront not only fear of failure, but physical fear, and, more importantly, the delusion of control.  When you ride a horse in an indoor ring with other riders present, you are dealing with a thousand pound sentient being with a point of view, and one that often is not aligned with your own.  Several years ago I decided to start taking fencing lessons (epee).  I'm really bad.  And your opponent is waving a long thin sword around, trying to jab you with it.  Even with all the equipment, it can hurt.  Every one of my opponents' touches is a public failure, but also a learning experience.  Particularly when the opponent is a thirteen year old young woman who wins 10-2.  It's really hard to learn when you are afraid!

Even with all of this, the performance art of teaching law students causes me, unfortunately, to get in touch more often than I should with my inner smart ass and outer stand up comic. (One only need look at some of the things some students say about me in their evaluations to know that I am no paragon of virtue when it comes to making students comfortable with "failure" in class discussion.) Fear has to have its source in evolutionarily adaptive instincts that get housed deep, deep in the reptilian and pre-reptilian parts of our brains.  And, of course, what we are doing in class is the polar opposite. As the Carnegie Report observed,“[a]t a deep, largely uncritical level, the students come to understand the law as a formal and rational system, however much its doctrines and rules may diverge from the common sense understandings of the lay person.”  They are doing that because that is what we are teaching them to do!

I should conclude by observing that, contrary to some popular memes, the vast majority of law professors I've met in the last fourteen years care very deeply about the quality and effectiveness of their teaching.  Wanting to be better, wanting to learn, comes from the inside.  And there are external sources of fear.  Before tenure, there are student evaluations and classroom visits from tenured faculty that bear significantly on your career.  Even after tenure, getting lousy evaluations is like being criticized as a corporate board member from the shareholder activists.  It may not make a lot of difference, but it doesn't feel very good.

Perhaps the lesson from Professor Bishop's piece, at least for me, is to think about the failures that occur from my side of the podium.  One of those might be the failure to heed at least two tenets of Kant's Categorical Imperative: (a) to act in every instance in way that you would legislate the rule of your action as a universal rule (for you aspiring legal philosophers, the source of Rawls's "veil of ignorance" as the basis for justice), and (b) to see every other person as an end rather than a means.  To return to a theme of an earlier post, think about what that says about cold-calling on one student as a means of teaching another student!

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on August 10, 2018 at 09:09 AM in Article Spotlight, Lipshaw, Teaching Law | Permalink

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SSRN is down right now, but this paper is also available at UNC Law's Digital Repository: https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/working_papers/2/

Posted by: Alexa Chew | Aug 10, 2018 5:45:36 PM

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