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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Privileged cluelessness on the internet and in the classroom: How context destroys empathy

I’ve been in the teaching business now for close to two decades (since 1994). Teaching has been, for me, an extraordinary privilege for which I am extraordinarily grateful to my students who pay both attention to, and hefty tuition for, my words. I hope that I re-pay the debt for this privilege by being a good teacher. But I confess that, over the last 18 years of teaching, I have made more remarks than I care to remember as a result of what I call “privileged cluelessness,” a term that I borrow from a post by Paul Campos properly lambasting me for an item that I posted and later deleted, and for which I apologized, here at Prawfsblawg last week.

My post that Paul attacked, the ensuing reaction – in particular, the reactions of anonymous commenters, here and elsewhere – moves me reflect on how my own and others’ privileged cluelessness, both professorial and non-academic, can result in disastrous words. As I shall suggest after the jump, both the privilege of being a tenured academic and the privilege of being anonymous commenter on the internet present a similar risk – the danger of loss of empathy (become “clueless”), because the ordinary social consequences of one’s words are removed by one’s social context. Oddly, one form of privileged cluelessness can be an antidote to the other. (I invite other suggestions for overcoming the cognitive limits imposed by privilege at the post’s end).


1. What do I mean by “privileged cluelessness”? “Privileged cluelessness” is the state of being oblivious about how one’s words or acts might affect others because of some privilege that one enjoys even as one forgets that one enjoys it. At its core, it is one’s loss of social empathy as a result of some advantage enjoyed over one’s audience.

2. How are legal academics afflicted by clueless privilege? It is no big surprise that professors are often guilty of privileged cluelessness. We hold the proverbial conch shell for so long in the classroom that we can easily forget that our position of perceived authority and actual power deprives us of useful feedback about the effects of our words and actions. Our “provocative” comments come off as pompous or arrogant; our lectures, riveting in our own minds, are, in reality, an opportunity for our students’ e-mailing checking or web browsing. Students are understandably cowed at providing feedback to such an authority figure, and professors can easily overlook how students’ sense of self-worth can be disrupted by the professors’ questions intended as provocative but coming across as humiliating. That ivory tower clueless privilege can become oppressive arrogance is so familiar a trope that it has spawned a literary genre of which Mamet’s “Oleanna” and Ionesco’s “The Lesson” are two of my favorite examples. Closer to law school home, Brian Tamanaha’s new book, Failing Law Schools, is a tough and coldly clinical examination of how law schools have become insulated from their students’ economic and professional reality.

Speaking just for myself, I can recall right now at least one instance in which, playing the caricatured role in the classroom of an advocate for one side of a legal position (as I recall, I was defending the right of public employees to strike against state laws forbidding such actions), I questioned a student in a way that made him feel I was making fun of his views. In that situation, I had the good fortune to have an unusually resilient student who, during office hours, told me how my words sounded from his end – as insulting mockery. Although I explained that my flamboyantly rhetorical attack on the anti-union position he espoused was pure show, meant to provoke more discussion (I was actually more sympathetic to his position than the one I defended), that intent did not come across, and my tone undermined my purpose: It squelched rather than provoked conversation. So disparate were my intentions from what I actually communicated that some of my student evaluations later complained that I was too biased in a Left-leaning direction – me, a conservative Republican! I was being simply clueless that baiting banter appropriate for the faculty lounge had to be tempered in the classroom.

In short, being a professor, especially a tenured professor, sometimes wraps one in such an amniotic bubble of cluelessness that, for reality to penetrate, one must take special precautions. What can one do to escape the bubble?

Here are some elementary precautions that I take in the classroom. I announce and follow a strict policy of basing all grades purely on blind-graded exams – class participation does not count at all – and of never asking follow-up questions of anyone who volunteers a question. I audio-record all of my classes and office hours and post the recordings on the course website, not only to help my students with note-taking but also to check myself for over-bearing or confusing remarks and deter them through the prospect of their being invoked later against me. I use “cold calls” frequently -- not as tests of my students’ ability or knowledge (hence, the ban on taking class participation into account in grading) but as informal polling to see if what I am saying or what I asked them to read is coherent. (I am planning on using a “clicker” for that purpose in the future). I make fun of my academic cluelessness frequently – no great challenge there! – and try to invite them to think of themselves as critical consumers of what I have to say.

And I use anonymous internet comments as well: My course website allows anonymous posts on the bulletin board to get them to open up without fear of retaliation or ridicule. Many students take advantage of the opportunity to ask me good questions that, I am sure, they would forego were their identity revealed. In short, sometimes one needs the privilege of anonymity to counteract the privilege of academia (more on that point below).

But my own privileged cluelessness nevertheless surfaces occasionally -- and never so egregiously as last week when I quoted an anonymous student’s e-mailed apology and asked whether the words suggested that “kids nowadays” “callow and immature” or whether I was a “hypersensitive curmudgeon.” In a ham-handed way, I was trying to suggest that either alternative was plausible (“kids nowadays” being a phrase that only a superannuated and grumpy codger would use). The anonymity of the quote was supposed to insure that no feelings were hurt or reputations, damaged.

But all of this was, in hindsight, truly colossal privileged cluelessness of an academic at its worst, as several fellow profs and lawyers pointed out (Thanks especially to Deborah Merritt and “twizzler,” a commenter on the post). Even assuming anonymity was absolutely secure, any student would likely read my treatment of their actual words a personal attack and could potentially feel devastated by the perception that a former professor held them in low regard. That I am largely immune to such feelings when other professors lay into me – as they do frequently – is obviously irrelevant: Students are more vulnerable than an ox-skinned prof who has been inured by two decades of academic streetfights into shrugging off most insults as either harmless or welcoming them as likely accurate feedback (and getting more accurate each year as I deteriorate in mind and body).

And, worst of all, as I ought to have realized, the student’s anonymity might not be secure (although thankfully it seems to have been maintained). It is one thing to engage in brusque raillery with another tenured prof or a lawyer: It is another thing altogether to make flippant remarks at a student’s expense in a forum where the remark might find its way into student gossip.

I have since personally apologized to the student in question for being such an ass; I deleted the offending post; and I posted an apology in its place. But the experience has left me with a nasty reminder that, even after 18 years in this business, I can still make some egregiously insensitive, indeed “immature and callow,” remarks by forgetting my role and social context. And that leaves me to ask two more questions about privileged cluelessness and its cures.

2. How does internet anonymity foster privileged cluelessness? Being anonymous on the internet is a little like being a tenured prof: Both circumstances can lead one into lack of empathy. The pathologies of “flaming” anonymous blog comments are pretty familiar: For a thoughtful description of the process, see this post by Jason Calcanis. One can don the avatar of an invisible commenter and spew venom as a cathartic release for one’s pent-up anger from long-nursed grievances, free from the usual shame and guilt that normally restrains such anti-social antics. The loss of empathy erodes the author’s self-critical power: The anonymous commenter believes that he or she is speaking truth to power but, to their audience, the comment simply sounds vile or deranged.

The self-defeatingly venomous reaction of some commentators – not on Prawfsblawg but on Paul Campos’ blog -- took my breath away. Paul (whom I knew long ago when I was a young lawyer in Boulder, CO) wrote a tough but, to my mind, spot-on attack on my post. I actually agree with 100% of the substance of his remarks, having only a few caveats about his personal characterizations of myself and my family that, after 20 years, cannot be expected to be very accurate. (For the record, my Dad’s name is “Roderick,” not “William.” My mom was never a politician and has never run for office: She has instead served as an appointed civil servant -- head of DOJ’s civil division, Secretary of HUD, and United States Trade Representative. Paul remembers me as “charming,” “bright” and “ambitious,” but I think that all three adjectives are just time playing tricks on Paul’s memory. Paul claims that C.U. Boulder tried to hire me as a prof: Actually, they turned me down flat, and I went with my family to University of Michigan, much to my regret as my wife had a tenure-track job as a historian at CU Boulder, and I was having fun with iconoclasts Steve Smith, Pierre Schlag, Bob Nagel, and others).

Paul’s worst mistake is to assume, for reasons unknown, that I somehow revel in being the son of famous parents -- “born on third base but thinks he hit a triple,” in his words. Actually, I am well aware that I was born on third base, but, if baseball analogies are apropos, I think that I was tagged out when trying to steal home plate on a pop-up fly.

Despite these minor inaccuracies, Paul is spot-on in how my post illustrated how the economic and psychological security of the professoriate can lead them into complete cluelessness about the economic and psychological travails of their students, and he was right to call me out on that point. (Paul’s wind-up about the tumbrils rolling towards the law school Bastille was a bit over the top, but, being a confirmed addict of gaudy rhetoric, I appreciated the touch).

But the anonymous comments that followed Paul’s post were parodies of the usual blog venom: They were such an echo chamber of rhetorical ineffectiveness that I suspected that they were secretly written by an anonymous friend of mine to discredit Paul’s otherwise darn good post. They were, in short, clueless and devoid of empathy – not just for me but, weirdly, for my students the rights of whom they claimed to be vindicating.

One commenter darkly warned of another Virginia Tech massacre induced by such blog posts as mine. Another – written by someone who purported to be a lawyer – insulted an anonymous commenter who described himself or herself as one of my former students and who came to my defense. The self-described student generously stated that, “Yeah, I thought he could barely see the ground from his ivory tower, but it didn't stop him from being a fantastic teacher and generally outstanding guy.” The commenter responded, presumably to drive home his point about the wrongfulness of being abusive to students, by…well, being abusive to an alleged student: “I suppose we all need heroes, dear,” the alleged lawyer sneered, mixing a weirdly sexist allusion (what’s the “dear” about, anyway?) with the absurdity of purporting to judge my teaching against the testimony of someone who claims to have sat through a term in my classroom.

If that commenter were any sort of advocate, then this would be a great opportunity to respond by saying something like, “well, you know more about how this guy teaches than I do, and I’m glad you think that you benefited from his course, but that does not mean that he has license to be a jerk with other students.” The little concession up front would make the following slap all the more painful by showing the generosity and impartiality of the responder. Instead, the commenter made himself into a clinical case study of the clueless flamer, attacking anyone who contradicted him, even when the attacks caused him to instantiate the very evil that he purported to attack. I suspect – I hope – that the alleged lawyer is a better advocate in front of a jury that he is as a commenter on Paul’s blog.

In short, like myself, those anonymous commenters were all perpetrators and (dare I say) victims of privileged cluelessness. Just as the amniotic bubble of being a professor insulates one from valuable feedback about how one comes across, so too, the bubble of anonymity shields these people from the self-correcting feedback provided by the decencies of civil conversation.

Which brings me to my final question…

3. Should I allow anonymous comments to this post? On one hand, such comments can be prone to the sort of privileged cluelessness I describe above. On the other, it can be an antidote to the sort of privileges that I enjoy, privileges that deter the sort of feedback that I need to be an effective teacher.

After reflecting for a bit, it seems that the benefits outweigh the costs, so I’ve decided to open the comments to anonymous posts. If anyone wants to decry my own teaching in particular, I’m happy to read what they have to say. But, given that I can read my own students’ anonymous course questionnaire responses here on NYU’s website, I am more interested in hearing how others counteract their own privileged cluelessness, have suffered from the privileged cluelessness of their profs, or have benefited from classroom devices designed to encourage feedback and unintimidated classroom discussion without fear of embarrassment or reprisal. If anonymity is what it takes to get you to speak up, then by all means post anonymously. And if you still want to let me have it for my last post, by all means wallop away: I find that I generally benefit from any words that knock me out of my comfortable academic shell, and sticks and stones, etc. (I suspect, however, that that last topic has been mined). But consider seriously foregoing the comforting privileges of anonymity -- as I do -- and instead write under your real name. You do not, after all, want to sound as clueless as the prof that you pillory.

And, please -- try to avoid the “Virginia Tech” references.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 22, 2012 at 07:37 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Oops. Above I meant Jeff Harrison not Bill Henderson. I encourage folks to check out his blog on class bias in higher education.

Posted by: Legalicious | May 24, 2012 2:45:51 PM

Great topic; everyone in education should be aware of how they are perceived and whether that perception is advancing or limiting their goals as an educator. Hark back to your high school or college days for memories of poor teachers, or teachers whose mannerisms inhibited effective learning. One problem, of course, in a classroom of any size is the sheer array of perspectives. This strikes me as something of a bell curve situation; even a fairly vanilla prof will be viewed as a curmudgeon by a few students and as a brilliant, dynamic lecturer by a few others. While you're correct that *some* students are more sensitive than an ox-skinned prof, don't forget that some (hopefully few) couldn't care less about your shrewd dissection of their hastily cobbled together answer to a cold-call. This is an unsupported empirical statement, but it may be that the lecturer simply has little *ability* to change the way he is perceived, a limited effect on how to shift the bell curve. This doesn't address motivation directly, of course, which is a question I'll leave alone for now.

In the spirit of walloping away, you should know that your numbering system in this post reads 1-2-2-3.

Posted by: Seth S. | May 23, 2012 3:46:57 PM

People post anonymously because they do not have tenure in life.

Posted by: hiding in the shadows | May 23, 2012 9:50:55 AM

OMG

Posted by: Jeff | May 22, 2012 10:21:41 PM

Thanks for the clicker tips, Deborah: I'm looking forward to the experiment. And I do not disagree, AnonAttorney, with any of your defense of anonymity. Like tenure, it has both its uses and dangers.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2012 9:24:56 PM

Terrific post! One confirmation of that is how many thoughtful comments you have generated. Thank you for doing this, and for contributing to thoughtful discussion on the internet.

I think you will enjoy clickers. I have been using them for several years in Evidence and find they work in at least three ways:

(1) To get responses from all students on the easy, warm-up hypotheticals that I might have previously asked a single student. Everyone gets engaged, the class rarely gets 100% correct (so I can identify misimpressions and reinforce the right approach readily), and this often takes less time than the initial cold call to introduce a case.

(2) To illustrate that there is no single correct answer to some questions. This seems like a paradoxical use of clickers, but I find that it works quite well. I'll pose an evidence hypo and ask the class how they would rule as district judges. After the results appear on the screen, I'll ask for rationales supporting the different positions. Once those are out on the table (and some of the "judges" may have argued back and forth a bit), I'll comment on how the classes' position might correspond to rulings from 100 judges in the real world. E.g., I might say "judges would also differ on this issue, but overall they'd probably be more generous to the prosecution than you have been." I find that students are more accepting of the idea that there is no single correct answer when they see percentages of their classmates who have voted different ways and I follow up with comments like that one.

(3) To poll the class on sensitive issues ("should we keep the rape shield rule?") where they might hesitate to speak up before knowing that other people share their position.

All that said, I rarely do more than 5 clicker questions per class--more than that can get tedious. A final technique, when I pose a clicker hypo that requires some thought (maybe combining two or three rules of evidence) is this: I encourage the students to consult with nearby classmates before voting on their clickers. They often find their way to the right result in groups of 2 or 3. Even for those who don't get all the way to the right answer, they've sorted through some of the issues by talking to seatmates and I can more easily coach all of us to the right answer.

Posted by: Deborah J Merritt | May 22, 2012 6:12:31 PM

Professor Hills:

I'm one of the attorney anonymice who was critical of you both at Prawfs and at Paul Campos' blog (albeit not one of the commenters whom you rightly indicate concern about on this post. I also don't think that you can accurately lump all of us who commented at Paul's blog anonymously into one category - there were a wide variety of posts and arguments made anonymously in the comments, some more substantive than others.) This incident was my first introduction to you, and I now think much more highly of you than last week. I agree with everyone who says that this post reflects an unusual degree of introspection and ability to take responsibility for one's actions, and I definitely think everyone should now move on from the original issue.

I also have several additional comments for you:

1. I disagree with your privilege analogy between tenured professors and anonymous commenters. Privilege refers to a (semi-)unusual, non-universal real-world power - e.g. based on race, class, employment, education, gender, etc. You are privileged as a professor, as you rightly point out, both due to perceived and actual authority - over your students and more generally (in your ability to speak freely and non-anonymously without suffering devastating employment consequences, as I set forth below). Anonymous commenters, on the other hand, are far from privileged. First, they/we wield no practical, real-world power: we are impotently making comments on the Internet. Indeed, we are constantly reminded (e.g. by the privileged profs at Prawfs) that our comments are of reduced weight relative to theirs because we are unable for practical, career-related reasons (see below) to sign our comments. Second, "privilege" must necessarily refer to something that is not universally shared - and anyone with an Internet connection has the ability to comment anonymously on the Internet, you included.

2. I respectfully submit to you that your status as a privileged tenured professor is keeping you from understanding why those of us in practice often CANNOT comment under our real names in discussions like this. Let me give you an example. I am a HYSCCN grad who, after a loan-paying stint in BigLaw, has moved to the public sector, where I would be content to spend the rest of my career if possible. I agree with your upthread remarks about the undesirability of BigLaw as a brass ring, and I would genuinely like to do so under my real name. Here's the problem: the public sector in my state is downsizing due to severe budget problems, and there is talk of significantly cutting back funding to my agency to save money. If I lose my job, despite my distaste for BigLaw, I may have to seek employment from private sector firms in my city. Given employers' tendency to investigate prospective employees' online fingerprints, I CANNOT have signed comments under my real name criticizing BigLaw and extolling the virtues of the public sector. If someday I am a tenured professor or federal judge with a lifetime appointment, however, I will be able to speak much more freely - under my real name - about the importance of public service and my desire for law schools actively to deemphasize biglaw and urge their graduates to pursue careers in the public interest directly. I simply cannot take the risk of doing so right now. That you (and other professors here, including certain Prawfs regulars) do not seem to appreciate the privilege you enjoy relative to your students and practicing attorneys in this regard is extremely disappointing. The extent of this privilege is illustrated by Paul Campos' continued employment despite the controversial, hyperbolic negative claims about his institution and others than he has made in his blog. Any practicing attorney who started a blog to make similar claims about their employer would be fired the day after their authorship was discovered.

3. I very much agree with your interest in NYU's collection of statistics 3-5 years after graduation and thereafter. Please continue with this project.

Posted by: AnonAttorney | May 22, 2012 4:06:22 PM

I had the privilege of having Prof. Hills for my admin law class several years ago, and he was very fair. Much more fair than a number of other professors, who actually did take the time to berate students on ideological grounds, rather than for laziness or errors.

I'm also convinced this whole kerfuffle wouldn't have blown up were it not for a terrible legal market. If this were the boom years, a student with high enough grades to be an RA her initial summer would also know she has a guaranteed BigLaw summer, and there would be no unknowns ex ante. Reneging on her promise would have been much more gauche in that case. But with all the uncertainty, I can hardly blame her. (I don't mean to beat a dead horse here).

That, more than anything else, seems to me to be the crux of the cluelessness.

As a side note, I do, however, take issue with Prof. Hills' self-identification as a "conservative Republican." A die-hard federalist does not a conservative make!

Posted by: AndyK | May 22, 2012 3:17:21 PM

Professor:

I totally agree with your comments about "BigLaw" and how getting one of these jobs is not the brass ring. However, (and NYU's LRAP aside) please keep in mind that Biglaw jobs are the only jobs that pay off the Big Debt acquired at law schools....NYU being one of the most expensive undergraduate and graduate schools in the land.

There are many other jobs that one could take in the legal profession. Unfortunately, they usually require some sort of forgiveness from the taxpayer in the form of IBR, ICR, or PSLF. These paths, because of the debt, are not easy for the borrower.

Finally, I like your idea about checking on graduates 3-5 years out. Most law schools don't do this because, in my opinion, they are afraid of the answers from the graduates. It has been my experience that many laid off attorneys wind up working as solos rather than taking a lateral hire at another firm. This is a hard life when you consider that the debt is usually 25 to life...er I mean 25-30 years.

Posted by: Rob | May 22, 2012 3:06:21 PM

This post reminded me of a comment in another recent thread that was bothering me:

http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2012/05/more-tests-please.html#comments

***
One other issue, for those of us who teach large classes. Unlike in undergraduate education, we have neither graders nor TAs to whom we can delegate significant responsibility. To add an additional significant grading assignment other than a multiple choice exam (which is an imperfect means of testing legal subjects) would require a significant commitment to grading during the semester. Putting aside its effects on research productivity, this would be a significant investment of time in classes of 30 or more, if the exam or paper is of any length and complexity.
***

That is some privileged cluelessness, right there. Even tenured professors in most undergraduate facing departments make significantly less than law professors and tend to have higher teaching loads. The situation for the army of non-tenured professors is far worse.

If grading assistants are really necessary to give the students the excellent pedagogical experience they deserve, then take a few thousand dollars from the multi-hundred thousand dollar salary the school is paying you and hire a grader.

Posted by: Brad | May 22, 2012 2:44:19 PM

For the foreseeable future, Rob, I'm through with "publicly blasting" anyone. But I'll make an inquiry (not out of "contrition" to my student who, being enrolled already at NYU, would not benefit from the data, but out of sheer curiosity).

I've been talking to our career services people informally for awhile now about a different sort of transparency -- surveying our graduates regularly (say, every five years) to see where they are in their career (or lack thereof). Ideally, such a survey would include questions not only about pay and firm size but also job satisfaction, family-work balance, and overall happiness. U. of Michigan, under the leadership of David Chambers, used to survey its grads regularly, and I think that the information so produced was helpful.

The initial job at "Big Law" employers is actually not the most important piece of information for our prospective students, because the great majority of our grads will only spend three years or so at such an employer even after they hook the position. The really interesting question is where they go 3-5 years after they graduate. Government? Non-profits? In-house counsel? Boutique firms? Who knows? We here at NYU sure don't -- and we should.

In general, I do not think that "big law" -- i.e., employment at a large and often over-"leveraged" law firm -- is the brass ring. Through a combination of loan assistance (we here at NYU Law have a decent LRAP), counseling, connections with alumni, and tailoring of our educational program to meet the practicing bar's needs, we should and, I hope, can get our alums into a great variety of satisfying careers. But we need the data on where they are going now and what they need when they get there. Post-grad surveys of alums, I think -- serious ones, with investment in follow-up to boost response rate -- are the right place to start.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2012 1:53:17 PM

This post is a remarkable act of introspection and self-interpretation. That someone in Rick Hills' position is willing to engage in it is itself a sign of real progress.

Posted by: Paul Campos | May 22, 2012 12:53:41 PM

Professor:

The bigger tragedy being overlooked here is how there are not enough jobs for law grads who are taking on nondischargeable debt. This does not stop law schools from pumping out graduate after graduate despite the dismal numbers. Law professors seem to be an out-of-touch group on this topic yet should be integral in helping to solve the problem. Whether you agree with the scope of Campos' blog or not, the guy makes some great points and has brought credibility to a situation that so many in your line of work seem to deny. Imagine if there were ten law professors standing shoulder to shoulder with Campos.

The student who turned down your RA job received an offer to work or a law firm. Keep in mind that her career was largely saved because had she not received that offer, her window into being able to pay off her debt would have closed.

Additionally, rather than focusing on your mistake we should all move forward. As an act of contrition, why don't you demand that your employer release the oh-so-coveted NALP report. They have been giving the folks at Law School Transparency the blow-off. If you publicly blasted NYU for failing to do so, I think it would show that you are truly the good guy that you appear to be. For background:

http://www.lawschooltransparency.com/2012/05/nyu-plays-hide-the-ball-with-employment-data/

Posted by: Rob | May 22, 2012 11:49:39 AM

Two things:
1. You're being way too hard on yourself regarding your initial post. It's not inconsistent to say that the student was right to take the firm job and wrong not to consult you first. She had made a commitment, on which you relied. Especially in light of the follow up email you sent -- which was perfect -- you have been treated far, far too harshly by the blogosphere, including by Prof. Campos. (I wonder, in light of his expressed views, how he self-justifies keeping his job, especially at a public school.)
2. It's "forgo." Not an error someone of your learning and accomplishment ought repeatedly to make. I mean the compliment sincerely.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 22, 2012 11:45:51 AM

Thanks for this. As an addition to the sources referenced above, I really like Ezra Rosser’s “On Becoming ‘Professor’” (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1423138). Particularly part II, in which he recounts, as he puts it, his journey from white trash to yuppie, which rings very true to me. Not too many things would had to have broken differently in my life for me to be four hours into a shift on a factory floor right now, rather than pausing to comment on a blog post before resuming my research for project that I got to choose for myself. Even as I recognize that, I still often catch myself acting in ways that the teenaged me would have regarded as appallingly entitled. I shudder to think of all that I don’t catch. None of us will be perfect, and few of us will even come close. But this sort of discussion is a nice step toward greater collective self-awareness.

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | May 22, 2012 11:17:23 AM

Prof. Hills, I know this is something of a self-criticism, but were I to identify an area not mentioned here which might be worth looking in here for self-improvement, it would be in familiarising yourself with the world of work as it stands today.

I think you'll be surprised by:

1) The ease with which many companies hire and fire.

2) The inequality of status between employers, employees, and job applicants.

3) The degree to which email has become the main route of communication, and the reasons why this is (first and foremost: its permanence, ease of delivery, and non-deniability).

Frankly, the conduct of the student in question was actually much better than SOP in many prominent firms, and not at all worthy of criticism on grounds of professionalism. I think the perception of a lack of awareness of modern practices was a major reason for the criticism you received.

However, I also think the matter should be considered closed from now on. In the grand scheme of things, a bit of intemperate criticism is not much of a muchness.

Posted by: Gilman Grundy (AKA FOARP) | May 22, 2012 11:11:01 AM

I really appreciate the tone of this post, and its spirit. I know my professors would never have gotten anywhere close to this level of self-reflection. I am also glad you apologized for calling that student names. That apology likely means more to her than you know.

The disconnect in the original post was that you forgot the entire point of law school is to place that student in exactly that job. So, yes, being an RA (even for you!) is a back-up, yes, she should keep looking, and, yes, she should take the job. If you disagree with these general assumptions, which are the norm of law school, then I think you should disclose it to potential RAs.

Posted by: anon | May 22, 2012 11:03:28 AM

Ah, I now have a plausible reason for why Dean Jim Chen brought me kicking and screaming into the legal blogosphere!!!

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 22, 2012 10:43:39 AM

Between the post and the comments (particularly noting Jim Chen and Bill Henderson, as well as the undue sensitivity of the slackoisie), this may be a breakthrough post. Maybe we're coming close to breaking through the wall that shields academics from facing the real world and moving toward more useful discussion?

Posted by: shg | May 22, 2012 10:40:23 AM

There is an unfortunate tendency for those who are most willing to accept criticism to be the ones that are most attacked. (See, e.g., scientists who rely on the scientific method are paradoxically more vulnerable to criticism than their psuedo-science counterparts.)

I am sure that it is painful for you to read such invective directed against you. But at the end of the day, there are millions of people out there with wrongheaded views. You can't make everyone happy all the time, and the fact that virtually everyone who has taken your class (myself included) considers you an outstanding professor ought to be comfort enough.

Posted by: Ed | May 22, 2012 10:16:32 AM

I admire the brutal self reflection of your post. As a law professor I think that this sort of self awareness and public humility would make my peers not only easier to like but more effective intellectuals. Too bad it is a rare sight. As Bill Henderson notes, along with privilege tends to come a lack of self-awareness and an inability to feel the shame that is necessary to truly appreciate the context of one's own conduct and experiences.

Posted by: Legalicious | May 22, 2012 9:58:15 AM

Re: "Many students regard any criticism as personal. This is the age of 5th grade graduations and trophies for last place teams and art work all of which shows promise. I find myself tending to agree with some of the most off-the-wall responses from students because I do not want to hurt their feelings or have their parents calling, which they do. All of the measures you take appear to be helpful but they are unlikely to change students' impressions."

I don't teach in a law school, but do want to wholeheartedly agree with the above sentiment (it speaks volumes, as we say). Any criticism, not matter how sensitively framed or expressed is on the order of narcissistic injury. And the sense of entitlement among students means: I come to class ('well, most of the time, and I may be routinely late, but hey, it's my time, not yours, and I'll do what I want with it') and thus you cannot dream of giving me less than a "B" for my "work."

I was once a student (and, at least in the beginning, not a very good one), and it's the vivid memory of _that_ which informs much of what I do in the classroom. Teachers cannot make up for the myriad systematic and enduring ways our students are harmed by their prior schooling, family history, class background, social milieu, and so forth (which doesn't mean some knowledge of same does not affect what we do). Perhaps the fact that I've not been a lifelong academic makes me more of a "hardass" about such things. Before I started teaching (part-time mind you, and well into my 40s), I worked in an amusement park, at a sign shop, as a delivery driver, an office furniture truck driver, a dishwasher, a cook's assistance, a security guard at a retirement home, a forest service trail maintenance worker and firefighter, a beekeeper's helper, a landscape laborer, a medical supplies driver, a bookstore clerk, a driver for the LA Summer Olympics, a construction laborer, and a finish carpenter (among other things). I don't feel privileged, clueless, authoritarian, or in an "amniotic bubble" or "academic shell," and I set the bar high for my students. Although those in charge of my institution often seem to subscribe to the pernicious idea that we (i.e., the teachers) are wholly or damn-near- wholly responsible for our students' success, that is far from being true: we do our part and students must do theirs. Perhaps I'm engaging in self-deception or prone to self-denial, but I feel confident that I'm doing "my part:" it's the appalling inability or refusal of many students to do their part that is my abiding concern, even if it means I'm incapable of doing much about that inability or refusal.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 22, 2012 9:55:02 AM

To anon: I ask follow-up questions, alright -- but never to volunteers. Instead, I ask 'em of the people sitting silent next to the volunteer who asked the initial question: It creates an incentive for shy people to volunteer a lot of questions, and they almost always have the most useful questions -- e.g., "can you repeat that last thing you said?"

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2012 9:45:09 AM

Yes, I took Charles Murray's "bubble test" when it first came out after the book. I had not thought of using it as a hiring criterion: Not a bad idea.

(Along the same lines, I recommend Alfred Lubrano, Limbo: Clue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (2004), a working-class guy's perspective on entering the professional middle-class as a journalist and observing their social norms).

But I think that the cluelessness to which I am referring transcends social class and is inculcated just by professional position: Nothing makes it seem natural to ask or even demand not being assigned to teach on Fridays, or teach in the early mornings, or teach big classes, or write model answers for their final exams, etc., than having a tenured and cushy berth.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2012 9:42:37 AM

It's good to reflect and self-correct, but I'm sorry to hear you don't do follow-up questions anymore. I'm a former student and I always found it invigorating to try and defend a position against your enthusiastic interrogation. I don't think I was ever successful, but learning to defend a legal position is part of law school. The bombastic rhetoric was never offensive - I just thought of it as a defensive measure against the soporific effects of commerce clause jurisprudence. (I kid - that stuff is riveting.) But maybe I misunderstood and you only curb follow-up questions to those who ask questions in class, not those who make comments, thus offering themselves up to be sacrificed? I hope so.

Posted by: anon | May 22, 2012 9:37:53 AM

Interesting question. I have a few comments. First, you may be taking the recent mishap too seriously. This particular blog is brimming with self-importance and a lack of humor. I'd play some Rick James music in your office and dance a bit. So you screwed up. Relax and just do better. Second, as someone in teaching longer than you, remember that law teaching is a different profession than it once was. Many students regard any criticism as personal. This is the age of 5th grade graduations and trophies for last place teams and art work all of which shows promise. I find myself tending to agree with some of the most off-the-wall responses from students because I do not want to hurt their feelings or have their parents calling, which they do. All of the measures you take appear to be helpful but they are unlikely to change students' impressions. Those, as studies point out, are formed from posture, micro expressions, and a variety of other traits that are generally not connected to actual teaching. As for overcoming priviledged cluelessness, I am not sure that people who were raised with a sense of entitlement can overcome it. I am tempted to say more empathy (how would I feel?) but empathy requires a capability that cannot be easily learned. One solution is not to hire so as to surround oneself with equally clueless people. People get away with their schtick because it goes unnoted. If you go over to the Moneylaw blog, by coincidence, Jim Chen has posted a test that measures relatively accurately how thick ones protective bubble is and how clueless he or she is. Give the test or something like it to candidates and hire the ones with high scores. They will provide the necessary therapy. Any schools that does not attempt to achieve this type of diversity is just not serious about addressing the problem you describe.

Posted by: Jeff | May 22, 2012 8:44:56 AM

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