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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

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

The Wire comments on a number of social actors, including police department heads, city officials, and journalists. In my first post, I indicated my interest in exploring what The Wire may have to say about our profession.  A scene involving characters “Bunny” Colvin (a former Baltimore police major) and Dr. David Parenti (a University of Maryland sociology professor) appears to offer the best insights into the view that David Simon and others behind The Wire may have of academics.  The scene suggests that professors are content in 'studying each other’s studies' without regard to whether academic work dismantles entrenched social problems or improves the lives of those in marginalized communities or neighborhoods.  Professor Kareem Crayton agrees that this scene “says a lot about the disjunction between the academy and policy.”  What it seems to say is not too flattering.

I am also interested in addressing a second, related question: whether those of us who have dedicated finite time as law professors to The Wire are validating this apparent comment about the insular priorities and limited concerns of professors.  The factual predicate for this critical judgment exists, as academics – myself included – have held events, based scholarship, and taught classes on the series. 

For assistance with my meditation on the meaning of this scene and whether law professors are proving in real life the scene’s apparent point, I turned to these law professors and others, including a central cast member from the series.  After the jump, I summarize their responses and interpretive reactions to the exchange between Dr. Parenti and Colvin.

As a threshold matter, there was no quarrel with the notion that “studying,” though characterized sarcastically by Colvin, represents a quintessential role of a law professor.   The first-order responsibilities of a member of a law school faculty include engaging in research and scholarship. 

Relatedly, we seemed to agree that The Wire itself is a legitimate object of academic focus.  PrawfsBlawg's own Professor Howard Wasserman stated that, “legal academics have seized on The Wire because it shows (in the most realistic and accurate way possible) the public the judicial and political systems . . . that most of the public never sees or experiences first-hand.”  The series acts as “a visual aide that brings the conversation to life,” he adds.  Indeed, Professor Richard Esenberg has invoked The Wire in his writings in the way “one might quote Shakespeare for his poignant observations on the human condition.”

Similarly, Professor Randy Barnett explained that, “As a former criminal prosecutor in Chicago, I find The Wire to be the most accurate depiction to date of the criminal justice system, at least in big cities.”  Previous representations of the criminal justice system missed the mark, according to Professor Barnett, “That is, until The Wire.”  For law students, the series is an “entrée into the world with which district attorneys and police departments must intimately interact,” he states.  For these reasons, he says, the series is “good training to be in the criminal justice system today.”  Accordingly, it may be argued that for law professors to include The Wire in the classroom or in writing is for law professors to perform their traditional, primary roles. 

While teaching and scholarship may be the principal responsibilities of law professors, and while The Wire may form a legitimate basis for both, this may not explain Colvin’s disappointment in speaking with Dr. Parenti.  With his “academics?” quip, perhaps Colvin was displeased that the intended audience of Dr. Parenti’s research was limited to his academic colleagues.  The Wire’s depiction of institutions and how they interact suggests, at least implicitly, that scholarship should take into account other institutional actors for it to have a practical chance of leading to reform.  “It is one thing for me to write articles that propose reforms to the law,” said Professor Bennett Capers, told me.  “But unless I also attend to how such a reform will play out among various (and often warring) institutions (police departments, prosecutor’s offices, the bench, legislators, the school system, the media, the voters), I haven’t really thought through my proposal.”  Professor Capers believes that, if professors think through these relationships as part of their scholarship, “we really can make a difference.”

For Professor Wasserman, audience may not necessarily be the issue for Colvin -- the problem lies not with Dr. Parenti (and by extension other academics), but others who ignore the findings and recommendations contained in academic work.  Professor Wasserman noted that “the job of academics is to think and write about the potential, . . . to consider grand ideas and solutions that may not be politically feasible or realistic[.]”  From Professor Wasserman’s perspective, Colvin’s response to Dr. Parenti “can be read less as an indictment of academics as an indictment of the political system’s inability or unwillingness to try new and experimental ideas.”

Under this theory, academics generate proposals and effectively trigger the responsibility of policymakers to review and endorse the proposals.  “Dr. Parenti properly recognizes the importance of academics and researchers having a conversation about change, so that the conversation at least occurs.  And we hope the political system catches up,” says Professor Wasserman.  Hannah K. Gordon, who invoked The Wire in a legal article, similarly said to me that, “The struggle to overcome the disconnect [between studying behavior and influencing behavior] does not invalidate the value of research, which can be a first step in tackling societal problems.”  The next steps, it would seem, are where other institutions come in to advance and execute the proposals created in the academic laboratory of ideas.

That said, Colvin may not find appealing or satisfactory the view that first, professors are fully performing their societal functions by engaging in teaching and scholarship, and second, that it is up to others in the system to consider or adopt the thoughtful analysis or proposals put forth by academics.  It is unclear whether Colvin’s rhetorical question as to when “sh*t” would change is meant exclusively for the latter category of social players who fail to do their part once academics do theirs.  Some additional cue would be helpful or needed to clarify whether Colvin accepts this roughly split system of reform and the circumscribed roles of the agents within it.  The absence of such an express indication permits the impression that it is academics with whom Colvin is let down in this particular scene.  

Accordingly, we may be left wondering, in the words of Professor Esenberg, “if Bunny Colvin’s remarks are not properly directed to legal academics as a general matter.  When, indeed, ‘do this sh*t change?’ Whatever that ‘sh*t’ is, does anything that we do affect it all?”

The third post in this series will present the remainder of the professors’ responses and conclude. 


Posted by Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu on September 7, 2011 at 02:43 AM in Television | Permalink


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