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Monday, October 19, 2009

Student Centered

CatMy University prides itself on being “student centered”.  For years, I taught here without giving much thought to the phrase.  I thought it was pretty meaningless – I mean, aren’t all schools student centered?

Well, no.  I learned, when I was participating in the University 10-year plan, that student centered meant, to our University anyway, (1) a commitment to small class sizes, and (2) in response to any issue, always asking first: “what solution would most benefit students?”.

Many law schools seem very faculty centered.  We teach three or (gasp!) four courses a year, meaning either that student tuition must be raised to hire more of us or that schools must outsource much of the teaching load to adjuncts.  We zealously guard a tenure system that, for too many of us, translates not into a freedom to engage in academic discourse, but into a freedom from engaging in academic discourse.  We jealously guard this tenure system from encroachment by skills teachers and clinicians and writing teachers, notwithstanding the fact that these teachers are teaching students the material often most directly relevant to the students’ future law practice.  (As an aside, I’ve noticed that many of the tenured folks who argue most vociferously against tenure for non-doctrinal teachers are also the weakest links in teaching, scholarship, and service – they need tenure to be exclusive to maintain their own stature, because their stature isn’t so impressive on merit alone.)

I’m a strong believer in scholarship, and I believe that tenure is appropriate for faculty who are appropriately fulfilling their responsibilities of teaching, scholarship, and service.  Tenure and scholarship are not necessarily inconsistent with being student centered.  But I’ve seen many instances in which faculty members, in response to an issue, ask first what’s best for faculty (or for themselves personally), then justify that outcome by arguing that it’s also best for students.  

Is your institution student centered?

Rick Bales

Posted by Workplace Prof on October 19, 2009 at 08:37 AM | Permalink


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Anon 3:17 pm, I take your point, and it's a good one. But I'm just saying that if you're interested in change, there are things that can be done that have better chance of success than trying to make law profs feel guilty or shameful. See my post today, for example, on one way to help. http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2009/10/us-news-surveys-out-info-available-here.html

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Oct 26, 2009 10:29:14 AM

anon from Oct 21, 2009 10:17:43 AM here.

I didnt say I disagreed with being interested in student outcomes, I just said that the word/phrase student centered is one that means too many things to too many people to have real effect. GO ask 10 professors or deans what student centered means, get 15 opinions. If so, then what are we talkign about? Perhaps instead of the buzzword, we use the terms that describe what we really mean: outcome focused, skills-oriented, practical application leaning, etc.

Posted by: anon | Oct 26, 2009 9:57:30 AM


I appreciate that the incentives are skewed as you indicate. But that, of course, does not mean that law teachers are passive participants in creating these incentives. How many faculty have collectively voted to evaluate candidates (either entry level or for tenure) based on the ability teach professional judgment (and, yes, the skills of lawyering), rather than how many law review articles the candidate has written and where they are placed? Few, I would suggest. Why? Because the current tenured faculty at most schools want things to remain as they are -- which again makes my point, that there is not much interest in doing what is right by students, ie, teaching them what they need to know to practice law.

Posted by: anon | Oct 25, 2009 1:29:20 PM

"Really, isn't it just that professors would rather write and discuss their writing than think about how to teach what students really need to be good lawyers?"

Anon, I agree with and appreciate most of your comment, but not this conclusion. Our earning power is determined by the quantity and quality of our scholarship, not how well we educate future lawyers. We're more or less rational maximizers, like anyone else. If folks want change, need to figure out how to change this basic labor market reality. Otherwise, tilting at windmills, imho. Griping at doctrinal faculty who are behaving quite rationally given existing incentives won't do it.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Oct 25, 2009 10:14:23 AM

If more doctrinal faculty took seriously their responsibility to students, they would acknowledge that the ratio of time spent on the job between scholarship and teaching meaningful material that students will need in practice is woefully skewed toward the former. I believe scholarship is important -- it deepens knowledge of the writer and in some limited circumstances actually helps in the law's development. But, it pales in comparison to the importance of teaching students well, and by this I mean teaching students how to be better lawyers. The most important attribute of a good lawyer is judgment. If you are not attempting to teach your students how to exercise judgment, which is best taught by using experiential teaching techniques where students learn by doing, then I feel that you are failing in your job. Yes, students who go to Yale may not need this type of education (although I believe they do), but most other students need to learn how to be good lawyers. I challenge any doctrinal professor who spends most of his/her time on scholarship to explain how their work is "student centered." My experience after a number of years in teaching is that most scholarship-focused faculty rationalize the ratio of their time spent on scholarship by claiming that it helps their school's rankings, which in the long run will benefit the school's students. That argument has always seemed to me to be another form of trickledown economics. Really, isn't it just that professors would rather write and discuss their writing than think about how to teach what students really need to be good lawyers?

Posted by: anon | Oct 24, 2009 3:17:47 PM

I hope the annonymous posting that "student-centeredness" might be devoid of meaning was done tounge in cheek. This is the kind of nonsense that self-centered faculty hide behind to ignore the harm that law school is doing to many students and to avoid having to imagine a world in which all law teachers feel a responsibility to become excellent educators who care about their students' education and well-being.

Posted by: Roy Stuckey | Oct 23, 2009 8:05:23 AM

This is one of those catch phrases that, due to the different meaning by everyone who uses it, means almost nothing. If definitions can go from "we're student centered, we teach them dont we" to "we're student centered, we do whatever they want", then maybe student-centeredness is devoid of meaning. Just my $0.02.

Posted by: anon | Oct 21, 2009 10:17:43 AM

There's an important question lurking there: What helps students?

Take an example. For a typical law student applicant, getting accepted to Yale would very helpful to them. By reputation, the school does not excel at teaching. But going to the school opens a lot of doors. So in that sense, going to Yale helps students a great deal, probably more than any other school, even if the education isn't very good. And of course we see this in the fact that so many students want to go there.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 20, 2009 12:52:58 AM

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