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Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Duty of Law Professors to "Change Sh*t" -- Part One

The Wire, as I've noted, is a critically-acclaimed, now completed HBO television series that explored the interconnected relationship between the drug trade, law enforcement, political establishment, public schools, and media in Baltimore, Maryland.  The series exists as compelling commentary on how institutions reinforce and perpetuate social problems in the city, and relatedly how difficult it is to achieve meaningful reform given these entrenched systems and interests.

Academics are among the social agents woven into The Wire’s depiction of the status quo and comment on the improbability of progress.  In season four of the series, Dr. David Parenti, a sociology professor, teams up with Howard “Bunny” Colvin, a former Baltimore police commander, to develop a pilot program on behaviorally disruptive middle-school students.  The two seek to understand why certain youth become “corner kids,” those who will endure lives of drugs and violence to the extent they are not jailed or killed, rather than “stoop kids,” those who generally give way to social order.

In a telling moment in the series, Dr. Parenti and Colvin discuss the premature end of their pilot program.  Dr. Parenti looks forward to the possibility that his research from the program will turn heads in the scholarly community.  “What we publish on this is going to get a lot of attention” from “other researchers and academics,” he anticipates with excitement.  Colvin is despondent.  He responds incredulously: “Academics? What, they gonna’ study your study?”  Shaking his head, Colvin wonders out loud, “When do this sh*t change?”

This scene suggests that academics are more than subjects portrayed in The Wire, but are among the targets in the series’ broader critique of those who spin their wheels in rarefied spaces while the marginalized continue to languish below.  More specifically, the exchange appears to suggest that professors generally are content with examining societal problems with one another, within the confines of the academy, irrespective of whether such analyses lead to tangible advancements in social welfare beyond the university gates.  If so, this paints a rather dim portrait of professors’ interests or regard for those on fringe of American society.

This exchange, though fictional, reflects an ongoing debate regarding the social relevance of scholarship and the proper role of professors in our society more generally. Similarly, law professors have been criticized for engaging in intellectual activities designed only for their own consumption and for being too far removed from the “real world.” Colvin – and those behind The Wire – would seem to share these assessments that professors, including law professors, are talking to each other and not effectively serving those outside of the academy.

The exchange between Dr. Parenti and Colvin also triggers a meta-inquiry about the law professors, myself included, who are interested in The Wire.  On this site, a law professor called The Wire a “spectacular, devastating, unbelievable, gritty epic masterpiece.”   He added, “It’s truly television at its best.  It’s television that has informed me and changed me.”  Also here, a law professor noted that, of the television shows he’s watched regularly, The Wire boasts “three of the greatest, most unique and memorable characters in television history” and “is probably the best in terms of quality of any show[.]”  On Volokh Conspiracy, another law professor wrote that The Wire was “simply the best cop show I had ever seen on television.”  In addition, law professors have explored the series in law review articles and the series also has formed the basis for courses at law schools. 

The question becomes whether us law professors who have paid attention to The Wire in academic writings or in the classroom setting are failing to touch or even marginally mitigate the very social pathologies that were depicted in the series.  In other words, are we giving life to and validating the concerns Colvin seemingly had with Dr. Parenti and academics at large?  If so, the irony is as clear as it is depressing: law professors are comfortable with focusing only on scholarship and academic activities even when the underlying subject matter is the harsh realities of drugs, crime, and civic decay that desperately call out for meaningful solutions, and even when they are apparently tipped off -- through this scene -- that academics are engaging in work that matters only to them but not on the ground.

In subsequent posts, I will examine the proper role of law professors in society through the lens of this scene, and whether those of us law professors who are actively drawing from The Wire in academic circles are simply proving the scene’s point, namely that professors merely talk to one another without enlarging social welfare in America’s most neglected or otherwise underserved parts.

Posted by Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu on September 3, 2011 at 01:31 PM in Teaching Law, Television | Permalink


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Ditto what Andrew Siegel said. And happy Labor Day, everybody!

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 5, 2011 12:03:21 PM

I'm not that interested in the debate between Dave and Larry, but I am really curious why Paul seems to equate interest in data collection and empirical evidence with the Waiting for Superman side of the debate when, as far as I read the data, the Randi Weingarten side appearsnto be well ahead on points.

Posted by: Andrew Siegel | Sep 4, 2011 11:25:15 PM

I look forwarding to reading the next installment of Prof. Sidhu’s exploration. Without prejudging, it strikes me as odd to expect law professors to be committed to social change in the real world (as opposed to social change as a genre of intramural rhetoric within the professoriate).

Becoming a law professor takes many years of dutifully racking up top grades, status seeking, and “checking the boxes” on the way to tenure. (And the number of boxes is increasing.) The current formula emphasizes having little or no practical experience, having academic pieces published while still a student or VAP, and being a professional writer whose audience is other academics (who themselves write for other academics, and so on). Achieving tenure means living in a protected market peopled by members of the upper strata of socio-economic status. It means free riding off of students’ debt, and it typically involves a de facto commitment to a reactive, conservative battle against progressive reform of the law school structure itself.

I’m hoping that Professor Sidhu will address why, exactly, we’d expect those sorts of people to be committed to real world change, given that their lives have been spent clinging to, and replicating, the status quo. (As for those people having a purely rhetorical commitment to social change, I understand that completely.)

Posted by: Brek | Sep 4, 2011 5:10:56 PM

Professor Rosenthal, thanks again for your comment. To clarify, and as noted in my previous comment, I am interested in what *this scene* seems to say about the proper role of professors in society. Through this scene, David Simon and those behind The Wire appear to be suggesting that professors are content in simply "studying each other's studies," though academics should be doing something more. And, as noted above, I am also interested in whether those of us who are dedicating time as professors to The Wire are validating this sentiment apparently held by Simon and The Wire's writers. It is in this context that I wrote that, if this is the case, one may conclude that "law professors are comfortable with focusing only on scholarship and academic activities even when the underlying subject matter is the harsh realities of drugs, crime, and civic decay...." I am not making this claim as an original matter. I am trying, by contrast, to understand *what Simon and his colleagues* think about academics by way of this scene. As their view of other social actors (e.g., politicians, journalists) has been considered valuable, my limited ambition is to understand what The Wire may be saying about our profession. I hope this clarifies where I am coming from.

Posted by: Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu | Sep 4, 2011 1:10:56 PM

Apology accepted, Paul. In my own defense, permit me to say that at least to this reader, the post presents a narrative that is fairly contestable. It claims that "law professors are comfortable with focusing only on scholarship and academic activities even when the underlying subject matter is the harsh realities of drugs, crime, and civic decay . . . ." This assumes, of course, that there is a market for academics' contributions, if only the academics were willing. I see a quite different problem. Criminal procedure scholarship, for example, treats extensively with urban crime, but the picture it paints is predominantly one of racist and abusive police as the primary problem facing high-crime minority communities. For only a small sampling of this literature, see notes 7 and 304 in the paper mentioned in my earlier comment. Try to find, however, any mayor or local elected official who sees the problem this way. It is not the police, after all, who are killing the residents of these communities. Local officials, who if nothing else are subject to fairly intense processes of political accountability, focus on what works, and the data shows that New York's approach -- roundly condemned in the academy and roundly applauded in the world of politics -- is successful. In my view, Professor Sidhu's post mistakes cause and effect. While I am happy to agree that there is much legal scholarship that is of no real interest outside the academy, there is also much scholarship for which there is no market in the real world because it is so wedded to the prevalent ideological biases in the academy that it offer the real world nothing of value.

The Harvard Crimson, reporting on a speech by Professor Daryl Levinson, once made the point quite nicely. Speaking of the qualities law schools seek when hiring faculty, the Crimson reported that according to Professor Levinson, "practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, 'is pretty nearly disqualifying.' Levinson pointed out that today's younger professors have no significant practical experience, and that if they tried to become involved in the world, 'the world would probably recoil in horror.'"


Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Sep 4, 2011 2:12:31 AM

I should say that my reply to Larry is far more sharp-tongued than it needed to be. I should always avoid posting when I'm in physical pain; it strips away some of my better judgment. My apologies.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 3, 2011 7:32:31 PM

I should say parenthetically -- again, without prejudging anyone's position! -- that, in possible contrast to both Larry, based on prior discussions, and Dave, I am not clear that the statement that "professors merely talk to one another without enlarging social welfare in America’s most neglected or otherwise underserved parts" should be treated as an obvious negative; I think that position has to be argued and that there are good reasons to oppose it. Or, to put it differently, I think there are genuine debates to be had about what the professor's vocation and duty is, and that the position captured in the scene from The Wire is not always correct. It may depend, among other things, on the particular discipline and on a variety of factors. I hope that Dave will consider that side of the equation too, which is reasonably well represented by Stanley Fish's writing on the particular duty of an academic to be "academic." I'm not endorsing everything Fish says, but it's worth pointing out that the proper role of academics may simply be to engage in academic work and, to some extent, put the question of "enlarging social welfare" to one side.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 3, 2011 5:45:53 PM

Larry, with respect, I think you should judge Professor Sidhu's posts on their merits as he publishes them rather than rush to express your fears about them before you've read them. As it turns out, I seem, oddly enough, to be personally acquainted with many liberal law professors who are both aware of crime control in New York and perfectly supportive of it. There are, after all, many liberals of the TNR/Waiting for Superman persuasion, not just of the Mother Jones/Randi Weingarten persuasion, if I may engage in a quick stereotype that doesn't do proper justice to either group, and many of those kinds of liberals are all in favor of broken windows policing, data collection, and so on. I gather that there are even folks out there, liberal *and* conservative, who favor these things but think they are as subject to ongoing monitoring, empirical research, reform and refinement, and criticism as any other set of policies, lest these or any other policies harden into mere dogma. In any event, even if I were dead wrong about everything in the last few sentences, I think the first sentence remains: let's just read what Professor Sidhu has to say first. Why trouble yourself with fear of an outcome when we'll be perfectly able to see what actually happens soon enough?

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 3, 2011 5:40:18 PM

Professor Rosenthal, thank you for your comment! I very much appreciate your interest in this post. Whether "liberal" professors overlook or minimize tactics and approaches successfully used in New York is far beyond the scope of these posts, which is to understand what this particular scene says about the role of law professors, and to ascertain whether those of us who use finite academic resources to discuss or teach The Wire are validating one interpretation of the scene: that professors are satisfied in talking to each other, irrespective of whether the situation on the ground improves. I encourage anyone interested in the specific tactics and approaches employed in New York to review your article. With respect to giving credit to law professors for their efforts in urban areas, you may be pleasantly surprised by my take. Stay tuned.

Posted by: Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu | Sep 3, 2011 5:36:27 PM

Interestingly enough, there is a city in which government has enjoyed remarkable success in curbing the kind of violent crime depicted in The Wire. It is called New York. For an exhaustive review of the data, see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1645436 There is, in fact, a fairly large body of legal scholarship on urban crime, which nevertheless assiduously ignores or minimizes the evidence from New York, presumably because the policies followed there do not conform with the well-documented liberal views of the professoriate. This phenomenon, of course, is called confirmation bias, and I fear that this aspect of the inability of law professors to make a useful contribution to the real world will not be much in evidence in Professor Sidhu's series of posts.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Sep 3, 2011 2:47:46 PM

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