Take The Classroom Back

Newberry College in Columbia, South Carolina, will offer a major in social media.

The college, for its part, explains that this is one of the first interdisciplinary social media majors. It says it blends graphic design, communications, business, marketing, psychology, and statistics, and that social media is such a vital part of marketing and other business habits that it’ll be a valuable qualification with a likely career path ahead of it. One way students will learn mobile marketing, the college says (via Fox 57), is by designing QR codes, “those little black and white scanners you use with your smartphone.” Apparently this is the “hot new way” to do marketing with mobile phones.

So…last time we looked, the QR code was frowned upon by almost everyone, everywhere (though it does linger in the U.S.). And surely one worry is that by the time students graduate in 2017, with the course starting in 2013, the rocket-speed development of social media itself will have outpaced their education.

No, this isn’t from the Onion, but from educators who are trying to become relevant in a young person’s world by getting ahead of the curve, even though there is neither a chance of success nor a need to turn culture into coursework, and cater to the interests of children.

What teenager wouldn’t be enticed by a major in Facebook with a minor in Pinterest?  Of course, if they offered this a decade ago, the major would have been Netscape and they would be working the counter at Dairy Queen today, if they were lucky.

What type of educator panders to youth culture in this way?  All types, actually.

Having taken lawprofs to task for the  inexcusable failure rate on the bar exam, it’s worthwhile to consider what has gone terribly wrong in the classroom. It’s not that lawprofs aren’t smart enough to adequately educate law students, though their interest in pedagogy as compared to indulgent scholarship is in question. But, from what I know of law professors in general, they want to teach students well, even if it’s not their primary focus.

So if it isn’t their capability to teach or knowledge of the law, then what?

My surmise is that a core problem is that lawprofs have allowed the inmates to take over the asylum. Law students today have a very different perspective of their relative worth. They believe their opinions are important. Stemming from an excess of unwarranted self-esteem and entitlement, borne of years of coddling, they view themselves as peers of their professors.

They have questions, and demand not only prompt answers, but answers that validate them. The will not tolerate the Socratic Method, as it belittles them and reflects a lack of respect.  There are no longer wrong answers in law school, but just answers not as right as they could have been. And when a student disagrees, asserting that his answer is every bit as good as the one the professor “suggests,” they have no qualms about informing the professor of her error.

What does not happen anymore is a professor informing a law student that they are wrong. Dead, completely wrong. Totally wrong. There is no Kingsfield to hand Hart a dime.  Any lawprof foolish enough to do so would learn that he was “condescending and disrespectful.”

And why, an old lawyer wonders, would any lawprof care what a law student thought of him? The dark side of empiricism, evaluations. I asked a lawprof for whom I have enormous respect what drives lawprofs to give a damn about evaluations. This is what I was told:

Deans probably give popular teachers a bit more money in salary, although it’s hard to know for sure and varies Dean to Dean. Bad teaching evals can make a lateral move less likely and tenure harder, too, although that’s probably only if the evaluations are really bad.   But I suspect the real reason professors care is that everyone wants to be popular, and to feel like their work is valued.  And for professors, evaluations are like their grades, and professors tend to be Type A people who are competitive and want to get high grades.

This is a shocking and deeply disturbing explanation.  A law professor cannot, by definition, be “condescending” to a law student. There is a reason why one is the teacher and the other the student. The teacher possesses superior knowledge. The student is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with the teacher’s knowledge.  At least that was the old concept, before they needed the permission and approval of students to teach them.

Plus, law students tend to be a pretty nice people, and it’s natural to want the nice people you work with to like you back.

Law professors do not “work with” law students. They teach law students. Or at least they used to, and many of us thought that was still the job.

Even though practicing lawyers may not know what happens in the classroom these days, we can see the attitude on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., where law students are so bold as to school us on the law. One of my favorite examples was on Twitter, where a law student would twit her opinions on the law to me, which were ignorant and juvenile, and I told her so and explained why.  She was outraged that I didn’t respect her views, at my snide, arrogant and condescending attitude.

I responded that the fact that I acknowledged her existence at all was a demonstration of respect far beyond what she deserved. In what universe does a law student get to demand the attention of an experienced lawyer?  In her universe, I was told. In her universe, she was entitled to demand my attention and respect, and my failure to comply with her demands, and in the manner she demanded, made me unworthy.

Dear Lawprofs:  Take back your classroom.  These are not your peers, your colleagues. Perhaps one day they will be, but not now. When you seek their approval, you forfeit your authority to teach them.  If they are wrong, someone must tell them they are wrong. If they lack the capacity to become a lawyer, someone must give them a dime and tell them to call their mother.

But they won’t like you?  Too bad. Your job is not to be liked, but to teach blobs of clay to become lawyers. You do not need any more permission than the fact they sit in your classroom.  They disagree with what you say? Too bad. They are students. They know nothing. That’s why they’re there.  Their feelings will be hurt if you don’t apologize for anything less than glowing validation of their every thought, and they will take it out on you in their evaluations?

That’s why they pay you the big bucks.

The expectation of students is that you will honor and respect them, no matter what.  They can be wrong, yet you will find something positive to say because they cannot handle the slightest hint of criticism. They are fragile. They are delicate. They are special.  And since you want them to like you, you pander to their demands.

As the bar exam results prove, this hasn’t helped them to meet the minimal level of competency to become a lawyer. As unemployment rates prove, they are about to learn what real disappointment means. And as their skill in the representation of clients proves, real life will not be nearly as kind to their fragile self-esteem as you were.

You have done them no favors. You have not done your job. Perhaps they are now your dearest pals, but they didn’t need a friend. They needed a teacher.

As I pay attention to what lawprofs say and do, I also pay attention to what law students and new lawyers say and do. Some are remarkably astute. Some are mind-bogglingly misguided. They hate me for telling them when they are wrong. They call me snide, arrogant and condescending. And I don’t give a damn. They are not my peers, but children in dire need of guidance that no one else is willing to give them.

Of course, they won’t listen to me. I don’t coddle them and rub their little tummies. So as long as you concern yourselves more with sweet words on their evaluations, law students will continue to emerge from your classrooms incapable of the rigors of law and unsafe for clients. But who cares, as long as they like you.

This is the pedagogy you’ve created and perpetuated. If you have any balls at all, take back your classroom and teach your students well.  Hurt their feelings whenever their feelings need to be hurt. That may be the most important lesson you can ever teach them.  And stop caring more about your validation than what these ignorant, entitled misfits will do to clients some day.

31 thoughts on “Take The Classroom Back

  1. Jordan Rushie

    If anything, it’s going to get worse.

    The word is out that a law degree “isn’t a good investment” among those who went to law school simply to get a biglaw job. Many who are not in the top 10% after 1L are dropping out now.

    The law schools need to find a way to keep the seats filled, and those professors’ salaries paid. The way to do that is to make law school a fun, pleasurable experience where children can avoid the real world for a few more years…

  2. Keith Lee

    I agree with Jordan, it’s only going to get worse.

    And law schools are only going to change when they’re pushed to the brink. Even then, it will be incremental, reactive change. Not sure what the solution is, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

  3. Jordan Rushie

    Why would anyone want to do that? Law used to be a profession reserved for the elite – it was a privilege to get into law school and admitted to the bar. Back then the law schools didn’t need to worry about recruiting and retaining students. Now, not so much.

    Thanks in large part to the ABA, anyone with a few dollars can enroll in Cooley, take a bar prep course, and become a lawyer. For Christ’s sake, you can get an ABA accredited law degree online now! I’m not even joking.

    If we want law schools to stop acting like nursery schools, we need to close down about half of them, and turn them into places where law students cater to the schools – not the other way around. In the current market, law students have all the leverage.

    But closing law schools and revoking accreditation would mean many poor law professors without jobs, and that anyone who can pick up a pencil can get admitted to practice, which would be like so unfair…

  4. SB

    Ever the cheery optimist.

    I would put some of the blame on the contempt the academy seems to have for the practice of law, particularly small firm/solo practice. Few of these professors are willing to believe that their failures are key contributors to the inevitable ruin of families and lives.

  5. SHG

    I am a cheery optimist. You should see what I write when I’m down.

    One of the reasons I write about the myriad factors affecting what I call the legal ecosystem is that they’re all interconnected, and there is fault enough for everyone.

  6. SB

    Certainly, and its interconnected nature makes the whole thing incredibly resistant to reform.

    This post just tweaked a (possibly damaged) part of my brain that clearly remembers the classroom experience in law school. I benefited greatly from adjunct professors occasionally scaring the living daylights out of me. Well, at least I thought the prospect of public humiliation and an F was scary.
    Then I became a lawyer and went to court.

  7. SHG

    That first time in court, when they explain to the judge that he is not showing their opinion the respect it deserves and being condescending, can come as a bit of a shock.

  8. Andrew

    Mission accomplished!

    But no, I’m serious. It would have made no sense for me to get a graduate music degree from professors who had no real-world experience or who told me that things were great when they weren’t. Is law any different in that regard?

    I can understand why you might not want to undertake such a task, given the limitless possibilities for other, more fulfilling things you might do with your time. On the other hand, some of these law students could undoubtedly use your expertise and a serious dose of reality. Some will never “appreciate” you, but that’s their problem, not yours.

    I don’t know if there are any positions open, but you had a list of fifteen law schools and their bar passage rates a few days ago. Maybe one of them has students who could use a swift kick in the rear your expertise.

    Of course, you should teach Evidence, right? That is, if anyone is required to take it anymore.

  9. Adam

    Minor detail. Newberry College is located in Newberry, SC not Columbia. Still depressing no matter where it is located.

  10. SHG

    It’s not a one-off problem, and it doesn’t call for a one-off solution. It’s the nature of the teacher-student relationship in its entirety that must return to its roots. The idea that these special little snowflakes can enjoy professors who quiver at the idea of displeasing them will suddenly be capable of tolerating a teacher who doesn’t rub their tummy is inconceivable.

    Regardless of what they need, or whether they will benefit, they can be best budies with the prof in four classes and treated “condescendingly” in the fifth. It just won’t work that way.

  11. Marilou

    My G-d I love this post! This has to be my favorite of all of your blog posts, and I’ve read a number of them. After you read my e-mail, I will print and mail this blog post to any prof who is suggested to me by a lawyer whom I respect, with a personal letter, asking that he/she read and take note. The not-too-distant future of the profession depends on their compliance now, before it’s too late.

  12. SHG

    I hope they all see this post. In fact, I’ve done something I haven’t done in years. I cross-posted this at MoneyLaw, one of the prof-nerdiest of lawprof blogs. I’m awaiting the hate emails.

  13. Marilou

    Let’s hope they don’t expend all their energy hating on you. They need some left for stiffening their resolve to do their jobs.

  14. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Here’s my perspective on this . . .

    The Socratic Method of learning and thinking is superior to anything else I’ve ever come across . . .

    But, alas, I guess, you’ve gotta give the people what they want, so maybe they’d like the Greek Method proper better, if you know what I mean, even though they may feel a bit butthurt about it at first . . .

  15. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    OK, you want fresh ideas, I’ve got one for you . . .

    Law school re-imagined as the Legal Hunger Games . . .

    On day one of their first year, each student is charged with an actual felony, is sued civilly for millions of dollars, and has a petition for a “prenuptial divorce” filed against them (prenuptial, as the new and improved system assumes most L1’s aren’t married yet) . . .

    The charges against them, the type of lawsuits they’re defending against, and the circumstances of their divorce, plus all the facts surrounding their various predicaments are randomly assigned to them . . .

    They then get assigned repurposed and/or refurbished law professors as, in no particular order, asleep-at-the-wheel judges, crooked prosecutors, incompetent and overworked public defenders, dastardly and unethical opposing counsel, lying witnesses, corrupt cops, slick-talking expert witnesses, you name it — you know, the real world!! . . .

    Of course, by the luck of the draw, you might have some good guys on your side, but don’t count on it . . .

    Now here’s the real beauty to this whole model — the outcomes from each student’s defense of their own cases is real. They lose the criminal case, they go directly to jail, based on sentencing guidelines and/or the whims of their judge. They lose their civil case, they become judgement debtors for the rest of their lives. They lose their divorce, they are castrated or otherwise fixed so that they can never have kids (which would be very similar to losing all custody rights if they were actually married with children, while at the same time upgrading the gene pool) . . .

    Just think of the possibilities!! And, at the end of the day, imagine what fine attorneys the students who prevailed on all their cases, against all odds, would be . . .

    A prayer for relief, submitted for your consideration . . .

  16. John Burgess

    I recall when my university, circa 1970, introduced student evaluations of professors. I hated it then, seeing how open to abuse and the devaluation of quality teaching would be. Popularity does not and never has equaled quality.

    Forty years later, and firmly entrenched in Curmudgeon Land[TM], I’m sadden by how correct I was.

  17. SHG

    I can’t recall whether there were evals when I went to law school, but I also can’t imagine my profs would have given a damn.  I remember some of the whacky things classmates said, and their getting ripped a new one for having done so. In retrospect, every insult probably saved a client’s life.

  18. Kathleen Casey

    Imagine what fine attorneys the students would be who could not or at least did not beat the odds, but went down fighting for their lives. On one or more of their cases, or all them. Losing is a valuable lesson. Can be.

  19. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    So now you’re calling me odd?? You have hurt my tender feelings and I will sue you civilly (or not so civilly) for defamation of character and win millions of $$$$ (my own version of the New York Lottery)!! . . .

    Next, I will lobby the legislature to reinstate criminal defamation statutes so that I can have you thrown in the federal penitentiary for your libelous and outrageous crimes against me . . .

    Finally, we, working together as a team (and remember, there is no “I” in “TEAM”, just “ME”), must push to bring back debtor prisons so that, after you stiff me on the big, ol’ money judgment, I can have you locked away, regardless (or irregardless, as you wish) of the outcome of the criminal case against you . . .

    You’re toast, I declare, burnt toast!! (and yes, I’m knowledgeable enough to know you have a very weak Anti-SLAPP statute in NY, so you’ll get no help from the First Amendment in defending against the indefensible) . . .

    May G-d have mercy on your mortal sole, brother . . .

  20. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    So I take it you are willing to stipulate to the fact that you are a sole brother?? Cuz unless, and until, you have walked a mile in my shoes, you will never truly understand me . . .

  21. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    In the new paradigm, the first losers would indeed probably make very fine jailhouse lawyers or, at a minimum, great eunuchs . . .

  22. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    But I am SPECIAL. Barney told me so!! He testified to the fact (though I’m not sure he was under oath at the time) . . .

    See, here’s the transcript:

    “You are special, you’re the only one
    You’re the only one like you
    There isn’t another in the whole wide world
    Who can do the things you do

    Oh, you are special, special, everyone is special
    Everyone in his or her own way
    Oh, you are special, special, everyone is special
    Everyone in his or her own way

    You’re important, oh, you really are
    You’re the only one of you
    The world is better just because you’re here
    You should know that we love you

    Oh, you are special, special, everyone is special
    Everyone in his or her own way
    Oh, you are special, special, everyone is special
    Everyone in his or her own way
    Everyone in his or her own way . . .”

    You see Greenfield, I am a special needs adult – I needs to be special . . .

    And I owe it all to Barney, the purple dinosaur!! . . .

  23. SHG

    Normally, I wouldn’t post a comment like this, but from you, it’s appreciated. And you’re absolutely right, time for the special snowflakes to toughen up (a point made often here).

Comments are closed.