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Friday, September 15, 2006

Too Cool for School? High Culture, Low Culture and the Academy

A few years ago, as a graduate student, there were often times when I would find myself in the minority as someone who likes pop culture, enjoys Hollywood, loves HBO sitcoms, gazes at Vanity Fair, Vogue, and needs the occasional guilty pleasure fix of a People’s magazine, especially when stranded in airports after a long academic conference. I remember one particular moment when I was having lunch with my fellow fellows at Center for Ethics and Professions. I mentioned a new TV show I watched the night before, and several of my friends, indeed most of the people at the table proclaimed that they don’t own a TV. That’s right – not that they didn’t watch the show or that don’t watch a lot of television, but that they never ever get near the lowly technology. The Center was a fabulous experience, probably one of the most intellectually fulfilling years I had in Cambridge and the people there were amazing. Yet, I found myself wondering whether the strict separation between high culture and low culture was an essential feature of great academic environments. Was there indeed a strong presumption in North East institutions that applied ethics and light entertainment didn’t mesh?

Recently, here in California, I discovered something shocking about a fellow young prawf (FYP). The conversation went something like this:

[FYP: something about changing norms of adoption]

Me: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt contributed to this shift.

FYP: Who?

Me: Brangelina!

FYP: Pitt – is he an actor? what was he in? who is the other one?

Me: Speechless.

So here is my contention: we work in an ivory tower, yes. We have the immense good fortune to be able to spend our worklives thinking about ideas, thinking about thinking, developing ourselves intellectually. If we cut ourselves completely from popular culture, we are missing out in various ways. We loose one lifeline to what captures most people’s imagination; images, smokes, mirrors, and fantasies. We also loose ways to relate to our students, who are mostly younger and cooler. Being a professor in a professional school already presents deep challenges because of the positioning gap between teachers and students. There really is no need to widen the gap by becoming oblivious to anything that isn’t printed by a university press, SSRN, NPR or the front page of the NY Times. Another reason to reject this high/low production boundary is that there happens to be a lot of good stuff out there that gives one insights to social issues and legal debates. And finally, I am convinced, and I am sure cutting edge neuroscience studies will confirm, that it is useful to give your mind a break by watching Entourage or Curb Your Enthusiasm. You can end up with better scholarly work (and live longer) if you allow yourself some heart laughs.

Posted by Orly Lobel on September 15, 2006 at 02:16 AM in Orly Lobel | Permalink


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As a scholar in Brazil, I feel the same. Certainly this distinction contributes in mantaining the pit between the academy and the rest of the world.
PS: Loved your article in HLR, "the paradox of extralegal activism".

Posted by: Guilherme | Jan 24, 2008 1:59:43 PM

I immediately thought of this post when I read the following:

from the incomparable Bill Simmons, at http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/061006 :

(Random note No. 1: Peter King is my favorite football writer because of lines like, "You know you're getting old when the host and musical guest on the first 'Saturday Night Live' of the season are Dane Cook and the Killers, respectively, and you've never heard of either." When somebody is so committed to covering a sport that they don't know the hottest comic in the country and the hottest band in the country, you know you're in the right hands. Do you think he's heard of Angelina Jolie?)

Posted by: Bart Motes | Oct 9, 2006 11:15:50 AM

Thanks for the lecture Professor Litvak.

I know what the subject of the thread WAS, which hardly assures that this is what the subject will remain: threads come unraveled, go in hither and thither, and so forth.

Re: 'point was that that a law professor who watches TV is rather pitiful because he credibly demonstrates that he views all his other alternatives as less attractive. What drives him into watching TV – love for a particular show, desire to talk about it with colleagues tomorrow, laziness, belief that the show is “educational” – is completely irrelevant to the point. Because whatever his motivations, watching the show still demonstrates that he views all his other alternatives as less attractive.' This remarks suggests to me a recalcitrant behaviorism of a vicious sort immune to counter examples and a plethora of evidence in the literature to the contrary. As I thought was rather clear, the inference from the behavior, 'Watching TV,' to the conclusion: 'he views all his other alternatives as less attractive,' is unwarranted, arguable, contestable. A conflicted self, as illustrated above, may not simply and plainly view 'all his other alternatives as less attractive,' he may view working on that paper as, literally, more attractive, having succumbed, for the moment, to weakness of will, self-deception, what have you. One way to help make such a determination is to look at his choices over a period of time, an examination that may indeed reveal, as Goethe said, that 'Two souls, alas, do dwell within his breast.' Thus behavioral inconsistencies of the sort, 'choosing A over B, B over C and C over A,' inform us that the judgement 'all his other alternatives are less attractive,' may be rather myopic, or simply not true. The self that gets his way, i.e., opts to watch TV, may not be the second-order self who fancies higher order intentions about other selves and thus does not, as I said, allow us to read off his behavior 'that he views all his other alternatives as less attractive.' An individual succumbing to weakness of will, and thus highly discounting the future, may prefer the immediate pleasure of watching TV over the delayed gratification that comes from working on that paper, but with, for instance, regret and the attempt to distance oneself from the earlier choice, i.e., the smaller and immediate pleasure, we see that this individual truly did not, at T-1 view 'all his other alternatives as less attractive,' a conclusion we arrive at by looking at T-2, the point in time in which the individual expresses regret, reveals his 'higher' self, and expresses his true preference, namely, to work on that paper. The hedonic man of homo economicus has given way to the man goverened by moral and social norms, to homo sociologicus. The akratic action may be the result of this or that behavioral habit, and thus, once more, not a accurate snapshot of what the person views as attractive in any more than a trivial sense (tautological hedonism or utilitarianism: a definition of pleasure or utility that allows for no other explanation of the behavior described, thereby giving de facto preference for one sort of motivational description, effectively and summarily dismissing any other possible motivational description). Satisfactions and prima facie preferences do not give us a readymade explanation of a person's desires in a manner that warrants the inference from the behavior: watching TV, to the conclusion: views all other alternatives as less attractive. Or, and at the risk of courting the charge of irrelevance yet again, consider the following scenario form from Amelie Oksenberg Rorty:

'[S]omeone might behave as if he were devoted to his family or to his teaching [hence shunning TV for those other things]: he may take himself to be the sort of person who gives these commitments first priority [we infer from his behavior that he views the alternatives as less attractive, to use your terminology]. But a closer observation can belie that story. While overtly he gives priority to his family and to his teaching, he does so in a that actually undermines those projects. The manner of his actions undermines their apparent direction and intent. He takes his children to the zoo, but in such a way as to make it all go wrong. He devotes himself to his students, but in such a way as to damage their real development. Of course he might be conflicted or mistaken about his priorities. But there can be overwhelming behavioral evidence the he recognizes what he denies.'

Here, a finer grained description of behavior may reveal preferences utterly missed at the coarser level of description, one that makes inferences and generalizations at T-1, but ignores not only T-2, T-3, etc. but T-1a, T-1aa, etc. So, in our case, it SEEMS he views all his other alternatives as less attractive, but a finer grained description of behavior may yet reveal otherwise....

Well, enough said, I leave the last word to you.

Best wishes,

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 18, 2006 9:45:39 AM

Patrick: as a general genre of blogs, people reply to other people's comments with relevant points, not with random citations to academic theories they happen to have heard. So, when I briefly (notice the “briefly” point) mentioned the revealed preferences thing, I did it because it clarified the point. I didn't do it because I have nothing better to do than cite random economics articles, and I didn’t claim it was an exhaustive treatment of the issue.

Now, if you'd like to respond within the same genre of blog comments, you could say, "in short, here is why your econ point is much too brief, and here is why it matters for the subject of our discussion". So far, you've produced nothing but citations to random papers with no relevance to the topic. When challenged, you announced that tying your random summaries to the subject of this thread is "too tedious." The "other specific cases" that you've discussed in your second-to-last comment had nothing to do with the subject of this thread. The subject is (see the title again) whether a law professor should be spending time keeping up with TV and Brangelina. The subject is not whether a battered woman fully understands that battery is bad. And the subject is not what Martha Nassbaum thinks about oppressed peoples of the world.

Your most recent attempt to tie your general theorizing to the point of this tread is no more impressive. Again, the point was that that a law professor who watches TV is rather pitiful because he credibly demonstrates that he views all his other alternatives as less attractive. What drives him into watching TV – love for a particular show, desire to talk about it with colleagues tomorrow, laziness, belief that the show is “educational” – is completely irrelevant to the point. Because whatever his motivations, watching the show still demonstrates that he views all his other alternatives as less attractive.

Nice try with complaining about "condescension". You didn't bother to disclose your affiliation, so I don't know whether you are a law student, a law professor, a hugely successful practicing attorney, a US senator from Nebraska, or a 15-year-old girl from China. I can’t be condescending to an imaginary person who might well be more senior and accomplished. So, please spare me this complaint.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 18, 2006 6:03:53 AM

BTW: You score debating points for 'Reminds me of the good old law-student trick of citing every existing case hoping that at least something will turn out to be relevant…' Is such condescension a professional affliction or revealing as to your rhetorical preferences?

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 18, 2006 4:14:56 AM


You raised the topic of revealed preferences from economics, so I assumed a discussion of same had some relevance. It's rather tedious to spell it out. You proceed from some specific cases to economic generalizations and I went from economic generalizations to some OTHER specific cases in which such economic propositions are not illuminating. Perhaps you don't want to be taken seriously after all. Watching TV may reveal a first-order preference but conflict with a second- or higher order preference (to be working on that paper) such that describing the act of watching television is not at all 'the best way to tell what someone really wants,' for perhaps what they REALLY want to do is work on that paper, at any rate, we can't be sure, for at any moment the TV may be abandoned in favor of working on that paper: was the first choice revealing as to the true preference or the latter choice? Our self at its weaker willed moments may appear to prefer watching TV, but the self we choose to identify with, our other or true self, forgoes the TV in favor of working on that paper. I may know in my heart of hearts that watching the football game is not the best use of my time but do so anyway: does my television watching necessarily signal to others my true preference? [I prefer to leave Orly and Paul out of this] What if my wife says, 'you know Patrick, you really should be working on that paper, not watching the game,' and, prompted by guilt or ashamed of my procrastination or momentary weakness of will, I turn off the TV and go back to that paper. How does one talk about revealed preferences here? You, after all, claimed 'the best way to tell what someone really wants is to look at what she does, rather than listen to what she says.' Here and above I'm suggesting that this is not necessarily the case, that we might be much more skeptical than you are about such matters, apart from 'what Orly and Paul and the rest of the pack' have said [and here the law profs close ranks?]. A bit disingenuous to invoke what Orly and Paul think and say after having just asserted that what counts is what they in fact do. Perhaps you only want to claim revealed preferences are in fact revealing in their case, in this rather exclusive circle of law profs. (in which case the the plausibility of the assumption does not easily extend beyond those you know and trust).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 18, 2006 4:03:01 AM

Patrick: how is any of this relevant to our discussion? Is it common for a law professor to be coerced into watching TV? Or to be coerced into not spending time with the kids, but instead watch TV? Is it likely that a law professor doesn't know that it's perfectly legal to have friends over for dinner instead of watching TV? How many of the TV-watching law professors do so because of oppression? Reminds me of the good old law-student trick of citing every existing case hoping that at least something will turn out to be relevant…

(I am waiting for you to say that Orly and Paul and the rest of the pack are just too damn stupid to realize that when they think they want to watch TV, they are mistaken: they actually don’t want to watch TV, but are manipulated into wanting to do so, sort of like battered women... and then, they are also manipulated into wanting to spend time with their children, to volunteer, to write, to have any interests whatsoever… how can something so hilarious be so inevitable?).

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 18, 2006 3:10:08 AM


Changing and inconsistent preferences, a distinction between 'first-order' and 'second-order' preferences, as well as possible conflicts between preferences, be they between different first-order preferences or between first- and second-order preferences, suggests we we should not put too much stock in revealed preferences as reliable signaling mechanisms (or about the same amount of stock we place in psychological behaviorism, which has long been abandoned by psychologists). In short, revealed preferences violate basic axioms of rationality, such as transitivity and consistency. What is more, 'people may have particular preferences because of previous coercion or manipulation, or they may come to prefer things as a result of problematic psychological mechanisms.' Hausman and McPherson give a nice illustration of why reliance on revealed preferences might be singularly unavailing:

'For example, women who are systematically denied roles in public life or equal shares of consumption goods may learn not to want these things. [....] Women who have been systematically oppressed may not have strong preferences for individual liberties, the same wages that men earn, or even for protection from domestic violence. But liberties, high wages, and protection from domestic violence may make them better off than giving them what they prefer. Satisfying preferences that result from coercion, manipulation, or "perverse" preference formation mechanisms may not make people better off.'

If one proceeds to argue that well-being amounts to the 'satisfaction of suitably "laundered" self-interested preferences,' we're confronted with 'the problem of determining what people prefer, [for] the economist now needs to determine which of these preferences are "rational,' "self-interested," and "well-informed."' Etc., etc. For more discussion of the myriad problems associated with the economist's notion of preference, please see Daniel N. Hausman and Michael S. McPherson, Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996). [I believe a new ed. is available]

As Martha Nussbaum has written, utilitarian preference-based approaches to filling out fundamental political principles, like those intrinsic to libertarianism, are 'unable to conduct a critical scrutiny of preference and desire that would reveal the many ways in which habit, fear, low expectations and unjust background conditions deform people's choices and even their wishes for their own lives.' Revealed preferences are no less subject to that sort of 'preference deformation [that] has become central in mainstream economic and political thought, in the writings of people as otherwise diverse as Amartya Sen, Jon Elster, and Gary Becker.' See, in general, Nussbaum's discussion, 'Adaptive Preferences and Women's Options,' in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Camrbidge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 111-166. Amartya Sen's work suggest we retain some role for individual preferences for social choice theory, but the methodological and theoretical strictures or conditions are such that it seems parsimony is abandoned as an explanatory desideratum or virtue.

In sum, it may very well be the case that the best way to tell what someone REALLY wants is NOT to presume that we will find it by looking at what she does....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 18, 2006 1:46:39 AM

Paul and others: here is another useful economic concept – revealed preferences. The idea is: the best way to tell what someone really wants is to look at what she does, rather than listen to what she says. If you are spending an hour watching a TV program about a movie star’s marriage, you are credibly signaling that you think that watching that program is the best use of your time. You show that you treat all alternative uses of that time – playing with your kids, reading a book, dancing, volunteering, talking to your spouse, learning Mandarin Chinese, hanging out with friends – as less attractive than watching the show. So, I don’t need to know whether someone has kids and how much she cares about them. All I need to know is how a person spends her discretionary time. Actions speak louder than words.

Which is why, by the way, I’ve never said that people who watch TV are stupid. I said they have low opportunity cost of time. This might be because they don’t have good alternative uses for their time (no kids, no friends, no hobbies, no interests) – or because they don’t value alternative uses of their time as highly as they value the joy of planting themselves into a couch and immersing into the stories of love and heartbreak of royal Hollywooders.

Of course, as a real libertarian, I have no problem whatsoever with the latter choice. But I do retain the right to roll my eyes.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 18, 2006 12:25:45 AM


Point well taken: I was hoping to see a few contributions to the current canon topic, 'evidence'.... (I did comment on several posts today, although perhaps my comments are of a different order than is expected, being on the outside looking in as it were).

As to the TV thing, perhaps our (sounds like we're about the same age) comparative judgment is skewed here a bit owing to cable and the sheer number of channels on offer (although there are still only a handful of things I find worth watching--apart from sports programming).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 16, 2006 10:47:45 PM

Kate's harshness aside, it is interesting how many of us rushed to post on this as compared to the other topics on tap today. Now dating myself a little, I do think TV today is much smarter, much more diverse, and better executed than it was in the 70s -- and yet still something you absolutely do not have to think about while doing. (It's also still a nice way to have something in common at the water cooler.)

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Sep 16, 2006 9:41:14 PM

Of course there are other alternatives to TV besides work, and however sharply and characteristically Kate makes her point, I actually would have thought it would find more fertile ground here, given the not infrequent discussions we've had on this blog about the extent to which family commitments weigh more heavily on women professors or professionals than on men. So one reason Orly's lower costs might be nothing to brag about, compared to her colleague, would be if that colleague bore a disproportionate share of child-rearing and other household obligations, such that watching TV was just not a viable option (even if that person's spouse somehow found time to watch TV; I speak here from semi-guilty personal experience, and I doubt I'm the only one). Another reason, picking up on my earlier post about health, would be if the colleague was forced to devote more time to dealing with some physical ailment; to take a hypothetical example, the colleague is out having dialysis while Orly is scoping out Defamer. In other words, there are some perfectly reasonable, and perfectly politically conscious, points, behind Kate's statement, if that's what she had in mind.

On the other hand, I seem to recall that Orly is a parent, and it may well be that her domestic costs are no lower than her colleague. And the physical illness example is purely hypothetical. Maybe, in short, Orly's costs are roughly similar to those of her colleague. In that case, doesn't she have something to brag about? Maybe she's in a position to boast, "I'm so smart that I can turn out superb legal scholarship AND watch Dancing With the Stars." Not that she would boast in that way; she's the soul of graciousness. But wouldn't it be boastworthy?

Unless Kate is saying that keeping informed about Brangelina and watching shows like, to take my own faves, House or Veronica Mars, are nothing to brag about in and of themselves. In which case, obviously, she's mistaken.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 16, 2006 12:11:54 PM

How does the opportunity cost of watching television compare to the opportunity cost of commenting on blog posts about watching television? Just curious.

Posted by: anon1L | Sep 16, 2006 11:52:07 AM

I'm going to take a moment away from doing the Saturday morning New York Times crossword puzzle to give the definitive answer here. This, like following FA Cup football when you are NOT British, qualifies as an AALS-certified SPIT ("Suitably Pompous Intellectual Trifle"). I don't think we've had enough discussion yet of the revolutionary impact of multi-tasking on any of the traditional economic models: rational choice (I'm pretty sure I calculated the utility I receive from doing what I'm doing, and modeling it would have predicted that I would have done exactly what I did); Pareto-optimality (if I stop doing what I'm doing and do something else, have I decreased my net happiness?), or game theory (the Saturday errands have to be done - I can either do them or the crossword; my wife can either do them or go to Pilates, let's see, if I choice crossword and she chooses Pilates, the payoff will be. . . .)

But multi-tasking revolutionizes everything, and makes all the models obsolete. Rational choice? I don't have to choose. Pareto-optimality? I don't have to stop. Game theory? It's not zero-sum!

Oh, somebody wants the Stairmaster. Have to go.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Sep 16, 2006 8:48:46 AM

Dickens' Gradgrind lives! Sen's 'rational fool' flourishes!

Thanks Professor Berman, your comment made my day, and it's only 5:30am PST.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 16, 2006 8:33:53 AM

Kate, can you help us all out with a general cost/benefit analysis for the average law professor of activities like TV-watching, SSRN-reading, sports-obsessing, blog-commenting, article-writing, family-engaging, class-prepping, food-consuming, Leiter-reading?

I am sure that I have many inefficiencies in my life, but I lack the rigorous economics training that seems essential to figure out what they are and how I can lead my life in a Pareto optimal way. Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 16, 2006 7:02:20 AM

"Kate's point would have more bite if it weren't expressed in the comments to a blog post."

Hehe. Hilarious. Like the town drunk telling others not to drink.

Posted by: andy | Sep 16, 2006 2:22:40 AM

Folks, if you are not entirely sure what the concept of opportunity costs mean, look it up. Hint: I never said the only alternative to TV is work. Are your lives really so impoverished that the TV-versus-work dichotomy is the only thing you can think of?

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 16, 2006 2:11:23 AM

Kate's point would have more bite if it weren't expressed in the comments to a blog post.

Posted by: Thomas | Sep 16, 2006 12:58:39 AM

It's true that some academics make a big show of disavowing popular culture, but others do just the opposite by making it the subject of their work. There's no shortage of writing about pop culture from the perspective of IP law, and when I was in college cultural studies was all the rage. The latter obviously touches on more than just pop culture but one of its big contributions was that high and low forms of entertainment were worthy subjects of academic inquiry. I could never take seriously articles like "Hegelian Dialectics in M*A*S*H" or "The Radical Sadomasochism of Beverly Hills 90210", so it's a good thing I didn't go the lit crit route.

As for me, if watching TV is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 15, 2006 5:50:00 PM

When I was in graduate school, at University of Chicago, most of my friends thought I was odd because I watched TV regularly. Then, on a visit to my sister in New York, I discovered just how sheltered from popular culture I'd been myself. My sister mentioned something about Cindy Crawford; I had no idea who she was, and assumed she must be someone we'd gone to high school with. When I got back to Hyde Park, I asked around, and nobody there had heard of her either.

Posted by: The Continental Op | Sep 15, 2006 5:45:26 PM

"Opportunity costs"

"Damn, Kate! I don't think I've ever seen a harsher interpersonal comparison of utility."


In my view, work gets in the way of drinking beer and watching football, NOT the other way around. The football fan who finds time for "scholarship" is the one with low opportunity costs (guess his team must be losing this year...sucker), NOT the scholar who finds time for football.

Posted by: andy | Sep 15, 2006 3:55:03 PM

It's not at all "evident" to me that the poster's opportunity costs are lower than for FYP. The claim being made was that there may be benefits (particular to adoption or otherwise) of which the FYP was unaware -- not a ridiculous prospect, given the FYP's ignorance of the topic at hand.

That claim may be exaggerated, and it may be that varying opportunity costs were/would be decisive. But presuming that ignorance is rational is a bit much (however much I personally benefit from that assumption).

P.S. Alternatively, we could presume that the answer to the question, "Ever heard of a concept called 'opportunity costs'?" is "If I haven't or have lost sight of it, it has to have been with good reason, and you should have assumed the same reasons inhibit my benefiting from your comment."

Posted by: Ed | Sep 15, 2006 12:09:19 PM

This discussion brings to mind Steven Johnson's book, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. His point is that the complexity of modern pop culture ripens the mind. (Have you tried to play an adventure video game recently? It's a long way from Pong.) I have yet to read the book, but it would seem to be on point. (Of course, it might be considered too mid-brow for a scholar who only has time for scholarly works.)

I, for one, spent my childhood watching hours of television everyday. I don't think it was necessarily good for me. But I don't think I'm too much worse for wear now. My verbal and writing skills didn't really take off until I fell in love with reading in my late teens. At the same time, when social conversation turns to 70s and 80s pop culture, I am adept while my wife is struck dumb. Obviously, being the life of the party is not everything, but it is something. There's something to be said for laughing. And the brain needs recharging. The problem is people who take silly low culture too seriously. But I certainly see nothing wrong with appreciating it with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

That said, I wouldn't even stamp things like "Curb Your Enthusiasm", "The Office" (British version), or "The Larry Sanders Show" as low culture just because they're on TV. They're brilliant. It's funny that people class these programs differently than, say, "Annie Hall," or the book, "Catch-22." All are well-written and hilarious. And of value.

Posted by: Josh Bowers | Sep 15, 2006 12:00:28 PM

Orly, I think your FYP either does not eat or has someone else do the groceries, because if you are like most people who like to read (ie, most academics) and spent your youth reading the cereal box at breakfast, you can't help but know who Brad and Angelina are just by going to the grocery store. And there is no opportunity cost there - I consider it a productive use of my time in the grocery line to peruse the latest news on (a) Brangelina, (b) who is being reincarnated in the soaps, and (c) how to walk off 10 pounds a week while still eating as much chocolate as I want. After all, how else would I know that Camilla Parker-Bowles is being persecuted by the National Inquirer and that this may have implications for the succession in the British monarchy?

But seriously, what I don't understand is why an earlier post on this blawg site about who should be MVP for the baseball season generated a series of on-point responses with a genuine discussion about who should be the MVP, while any suggestion that academics participate in general life by watching - gasp - tv that isn't sports - is treated as shocking. Why is sports somehow more worthy than Entourage?

It's probably all just tied in to the general panaroia that surrounds any profession. In ours, we have to prove our intellectual worth. In others, people might brag about cars or watches. In others, it's a genuine disadvantage not to know the latest sports results and/or play golf. So we're all just caught up in our own private world of having to prove ourselves.

Posted by: Annecoos Wiersema | Sep 15, 2006 11:40:18 AM

Great post! I somehow don't think though that many people insulate themselves from all forms of "low culture." There are just alternative forms and some watch t.v., some read trashy novels and some spend endless time surfing the net reading odd blogs, visiting strange websites or looking for inconsequential stuff to buy. I think that if you dig deep enough even those who appear to be very isolated in their ivory tower, actually have their "trashy" side.

Posted by: Gaia | Sep 15, 2006 11:32:33 AM

Damn, Kate! I don't think I've ever seen a harsher interpersonal comparison of utility.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 15, 2006 11:09:54 AM

Yes, the onion article is funny. But I don't claim to be morally superior for having no TV, and obviously (as my posting here should show) it's not the case that I spend all my time on serious things. But it's also absurd to imply that those who don't watch TV are clearly missing out on something great, perhaps even being professionally irresponsible. I rather like some nature shows on TV, for example, but since to get those I'd have to pay for a lot of what seems like grabage to me I'd just rather not have it.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 15, 2006 11:07:01 AM


Guess your post touched a nerve! I am totally with you, though. Pop culture references are extremely useful for teaching purposes. I am teaching family law for the first time and movies and TV shows are fabulous sources of shared images of families. But I don't just watch HBO and any stupid movie with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson because it helps me teach more effectively.

I doubt that any one of us (Kate, you can prove me wrong) really has the capacity to spend all of our waking hours pursuing scholarly activities. Spending 1/2 hour or an hour a few times a week watching HBO seems eminently worthwhile to me. Entourage is both hilarious and a great entree into young male culture. The Wire is Dickens on TV with the addition of race and sexual orientation. To describe fully all that is worthwhile about Deadwood is beyond a comment. Of course, many of my fellow law profs may have no idea what I am talking about because this is all beneath them. Your loss, I think.

Toni Morrison was quoted that she loved watching Law and Order because its symmetry was relaxing to her brain and helped her rejuvenate her imagination. If it's good enough for her . . .

Posted by: Rachel Godsil | Sep 15, 2006 11:02:14 AM

I was reminded of this classic Onion article:

Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn't Own A Television

CHAPEL HILL, NC–Area resident Jonathan Green does not own a television, a fact he repeatedly points out to friends, family, and coworkers–as well as to his mailman, neighborhood convenience-store clerks, and the man who cleans the hallways in his apartment building.

"I, personally, would rather spend my time doing something useful than watch television," Green told a random woman Monday at the Suds 'N' Duds Laundromat, noticing the establishment's wall-mounted TV. "I don't even own one."

The rest is here: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28694.

Posted by: Matt M. | Sep 15, 2006 10:44:42 AM

Orly, you are not alone. I know many junior lawprofs who watch tv and follow popular culture avidly (myself included). I grew up in one of those "we don't watch tv" households, and, bragging rights aside, it grows tiresome relatively quickly. Not to mention that referencing popular television shows in your classroom quickly bonds you to your students....

Posted by: Laura | Sep 15, 2006 10:38:45 AM

I've not owned a TV that gets reception for about 8 years (I have one that I use to watch DVDs but it doesn't get a signal.) I've not missed it at all. But, that's not so much what I'm interested in here. Rather, I wonder if it's really the case that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie helped change norms relating to adoption. I know as much about them as I might want to from those helpful gossipe rags placed near the checkout at my local CVS. But, doesn't it seem more likely that they are symtematic of changing norms rather than a cause of it, even if they did draw more attention to the change? I mean, I don't think they've been in the news for this long enough to make a change. I rather suspect they are just the most salient case and so seem like they are making a big contribution to changing norms while they are in fact just going along with them, and that it's their celerbrity that causes the confusion.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 15, 2006 10:31:20 AM

Ever heard of a concept called "opportunity costs"?

Evidently, these costs are lower for you than for your unnamed colleague, and I see nothing particularly worthy of bragging here.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 15, 2006 10:17:30 AM

Here it is: the intellectual fearlessness of a profession that dares to ask, "Mom? Is it OK if I watch TV?".

I find myself wishing that Fred Rodell were still alive, and editing Entertainment Weekly.

Posted by: Thomas R. Bruce | Sep 15, 2006 6:40:50 AM

Much of interest here...but, while neuroscience informs us quite a bit about 'the brain,' it has nothing whatsoever to tell us about our minds, that is, unless we identify the brain with the mind, conflate brain and mind questions, reduce the mind to the brain: cf., for instance, the arguments in M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003) [other literature might be cited here as well] In short, while a 'materialist orthodoxy...reigns in modern philosophy of mind' (William Seager), such mind/brain identity is arguable, to put it mildly: ask Wittgenstein, Vincent Descombes, Daniel D. Hutto, Derek Melser, and the recent editors and contributors of a volume just reviewed in NDPR, Mind and Its Place in the World: Non-Reductionist Approaches to the Ontology of Consciousness (2006). Existential and Humanist Psychologies, as well as wise counsel from such traditions as Taoism and Buddhism, have much to offer by way of what it means to 'give your mind a break,' which of course does not rule out watching King of Queens, Gilmore Girls, or any number of college football games or Dodgers baseball, especially if Vin Scully is doing the game (our daughter keeps us abreast of the latest in pop culture, much of which I happen to find mind-numbing: however, not Jewel or the Red Hot Chili Peppers!). We might endeavor to know about pop culture, about the cultural tastes and proclivities of the hoi polloi, without ourselves wallowing in it, vicariously or not. So, in spite of my democratic sensiblities, and against a strong current, I suppose I would maintain something like a high/low culture distinction, although where one draws the lines may widely vary (hence be highly contestable), the boundaries may be a bit fuzzy and at times without importance, and there may be some upward and downward movement such that what counts as 'low' and one time and place may, through transvaluation of sorts, count as 'high' at another time and place.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 15, 2006 3:07:09 AM

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