« Solving the Procedural Puzzles of the Texas Heartbeat Act, Part II | Main | An experiment »

Friday, April 15, 2022

Tear Down This "Wall?"

Today's NYU Law controversy has something in common with earlier and by now routine Yale Law School controversies. That common feature doesn't seem to have gotten the attention it deserves.* That is the presence and role of a student listserv or "Wall" (as I gather the Yale student listserv is called) and the contribution that such spaces make to real or apparent controversies and unpleasantness at such institutions. 

I imagine that different schools run their student listservs different ways and have different reasons or justifications for having one at all. Of course one can imagine many ostensible justifications for having a student listserv and many of them are no doubt sound. (Others might be sound in some ways but not others: for instance, seeing it as a kind of consumer feature or customer service.) But one also imagines that ostensible purposes are not always actual purposes, that in many cases these spaces just sort of happened and then became taken for granted parts of the institutional landscape, that some of the justifications offered for them are rather post hoc,** and that in many cases, whatever the original justification was, such as making it easier to communicate news of upcoming events, their actual use now differs substantially.

Your institutional mileage may vary, but I suspect that what takes place on these listservs or walls is invisible to most professors. If anyone sees them at all, it may be only or mostly administrators. Some of my best friends are administrators, but there is no guarantee that they always make the right call about the function or value of communications in such places, or communicate what they hear to the faculty in a timely fashion. In other schools, professors may be part of the listserv but may or may not pay any attention to it.

It's also unclear to me how many students pay attention to the communications or fights on student listservs. As with other social media, however, it may be that the loudest voices are not necessarily the soundest or sanest ones, with the result that some small number of students drive controversy and disagreement while a larger number of students react by disengaging altogether. (Law professors who participate in subject-matter listervs, in which most people stop reading them while five or ten people regale themselves with repetitive and unpleasant debate and grandstanding, have no shortage of experience with this phenomenon.) As some of the Yale controversies suggest, these spaces may also encourage an unhealthy culture in which, again, some number of students actively scour the written record for evidence to use against their fellow students, while a larger number, for this very reason, stop saying anything at all. And all this is just about the political issues. On topics like exams, course selection, and other matters more relevant to the day to day life of the institution, they may drive up anxiety and bad information instead of calming it.

We seem to take student listservs or walls for granted. I don't see why we should. Not all communication is good communication and, even if we adopt the general view that more speech is better, not all communication structures are designed or managed in a way that achieves that goal well. Peer-to-peer communication is not always better than top-down, one-to-many communication. I generally favor cheaper speech, but clearly it has bugs or side-effects as well as positive features. There is something to be said, sometimes, for making it more costly and difficult not only to say the first thing that comes to mind, but to broadcast it instantly to a wide audience. There is lots of value in forcing reflection or delay before communication, or simply treating some forums as having a limited purpose rather than serving as open forums for general discussion.

That's especially true for institutions, and schools are institutions, with specific institutional goals and purposes, however much they may prefer the language of "community" or, worse, "family." And it must be said that nothing about these issues is unique to law schools or universities. They affect (or afflict) other institutions as well. Full many a New York Times staffer, to name just one prominent example, must rue the day they first heard of the "Slack app" or "Slack channel"; conversely, some staffers may love those spaces, but not necessarily the right people or for the right reasons. It seems to me that far from serving the institution and its purposes, sometimes these spaces serve those who have no particular interest in institutions, including their own, but instead think that every space, including institutional spaces, should be a space in which they can and should discuss and push on every issue of interest to them.

The discussion around these controversies generally dives immediately into either the substance of the debate or the usual arguments around "cancel culture," "hate speech," and so on. It is rarer for the discussion to start by asking about the structures that facilitated or enflamed the controversy in the first place. Perhaps when such controversies arise, and we find that a good deal of the controversy has to do with or takes place in a particular communicative context hosted or facilitated by the institution, such as a listserv or Slack channel or "wall," we might ask some prior questions, such as: Why the hell do we have such a space in the first place? Is it still serving the purpose--if any--for which we introduced it, or has it become more a source of trouble than a useful feature? Is it serving the entire population equally well, or is it disserving or driving away a larger percentage of the institutional population than the few for whom it is, apparently, a hobby or obsession? Why not get rid of it, or at least significantly alter the way it works? To be clear, I don't know what the right answer is. But it seems reasonable to me to ask the questions, rather than take the current setup for granted. It would be especially useful if all this were a faculty discussion, not one confined to and addressed by a few administrators, who might or might not be making the right call on these questions.      

*David Lat has commented at various times about the effects of the Yale Wall and the ways in which current students seem to use it differently and in, to use an awful contemporary word, a more "weaponized" fashion compared to his own time at that school.  

**Thus, one perfectly reasonable argument for keeping a law school listserv or its equivalent, or for concluding that whether one does or not is unimportant, is that students will do it themselves anyway. A friend or two have written to suggest that student connectivity is ubiquitous at every school regardless of the official setup. I have no reason to doubt that. But I'm not sure it's the reason the listservs were established in the first place, and I should think the chronology suggests otherwise. It seems to me, strictly anecdotally, that more of the public controversies involving fights on and evidence taken from listservs have involved official rather than unofficial sites, but I could be quite mistaken. (They also seem more often than not to involve the elite law schools. I assume the reason for this is not that these students are any better or worse than anyone else, although I could certainly imagine that there are some schools where students are too busy seeking jobs and learning practical skills to spend much time issuing statements and counter-statements. Rather, I imagine it has to do with these schools' visibility, their students' media savviness, the interconnectedness and shared social capital of American elites, and the odd shared view of elites and others, both within and outside these institutions, that what goes on in these places is somehow particularly significant.) If I'm not wrong about this, it would be worth asking why that is; perhaps it's the easy and/or automatic universality of the official site. In any event, in light of my view of institutions and their duties, I'm not crazy about futility arguments of this sort. The fact that nasty free-for-alls might erupt somewhere else is not much of a reason for an institution to host a site of its own for such free-for-alls. But I should certainly acknowledge that what law schools and other institutions do with their own resources will not prevent their members from doing unwise and intemperate things elsewhere.  


Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 15, 2022 at 12:41 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.