Law in Contemporary Society
*note- I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say with my previous topic, so this is something completely different.

Conspicuous Consumption in the Classroom


In our discussion of Theory of the Leisure Class, it was emphasized that Veblen is purportedly not making value judgments about what things people choose to consume, but proposing a framework for analyzing which social institutions survive and what they have in common. One institution that we’ve been particularly concerned with is the law school. Several aspects of the current system (the aura of competition discouraging collaboration and the grading curve for example) can possibly be seen as elements that do little to promote education, but persist because they serve as pathways through which students can seek and demonstrate prestige. We haven’t explored in quite as much detail the consumption of another participant in the institution – the professor. Looking at what professors consume can help clarify how their interests are not well aligned with those of the students and identify ways in which that mismatch can be corrected.

Professors are inclined to consume the “wrong” things

It is a harsh reality that from college onwards, teachers are not judged primarily on the progress of their students. While I am no expert on the hiring policies of universities and graduate schools, it seems that professors are most sought after for their accomplishments outside of the classroom- publications, prior practice history, notoriety. If these are the characteristics most highly prized by schools in employing professors, it makes sense that they would concentrate the bulk of their effort towards improving those attributes. Unfortunately having the most citations in a journal or being an advisor to the largest corporation likely does little to improve the ability to educate well. In any case, if the goal is a better learning environment, pursuing greater prestige is almost certainly less efficient than spending some time studying effective teaching methods.

While too much time may be spent chasing exterior status, the effort that goes to pursuing esteem within the classroom is often misplaced. Professors want to signal their teaching prowess to their immediate peers and their pupils, but the means by which they do so is not likely to help students much. The size of classes, emphasis (at least in 1L classes) on learning specific abstract doctrine, and anonymous grading requirement combine to mean that professors often have little idea about how one particular student is faring. Since they cannot concentrate on the individual, they attempt to appeal to the group as a whole. This often takes the form of focusing on preparing the best one and half hour presentation rather than the best facilitation of learning. Students are complicit in this as well- when asking for reasons why a certain professor is “popular” the response usually includes that they keep class entertaining. While holding the attention of the class is an important part of teaching, it should be a tool to get students to think rather than a goal in and of itself.

The structure of the system masks possibilities for “correct” consumption

Despite the possibility that their priorities with respect to teaching may be less than ideal, professors do in fact care about their students. No doubt the faculty at Columbia could succeed in any number of legal capacities and a large part of the reason why they are here is because they actually enjoy teaching. However, within the confines of the current system it can be difficult to find an outlet to express this because markers of student improvement are so ill-defined. Students can clamor for more feedback and personalized attention, but certain aspects of the system intrinsically prevent this from occurring.

As previously mentioned, the grading curve and the anonymity requirement completely detach individual growth and response to teacher input from the evaluation process. Furthermore, the curriculums and syllabi are designed with the primary objective of covering certain required materials, which doesn’t lend itself to adapting to how students are performing. While this is not a difficulty endemic to law school, it is particularly concerning in the legal setting where non-quantitative goals like learning how to approach legal questions and how to “think like a lawyer” are at least as important as memorizing doctrine. Unless some of these systemic restrictions are removed, it is difficult to even say what we would like professors to do differently

Possibilities for changing professor consumption

In order to improve the system, we should: 1) create incentives whereby the performance of a professor’s students is directly linked to their prestige and 2) rework the system’s overall structure to better facilitate professors to pursue those incentives.

The steps needed to fulfill the second goal are clearer and easier/more likely to be taken than those for the first. An immediate drastic overhaul is neither necessary nor realistic. While the curve and letter grades seem firmly entrenched, there are other possibilities for loosening the restraints. Smaller changes like having half your grade be determined from assignments given over the course of the semester or requiring that some group work be a part of the evaluation are already in place in some courses/clinics available through the school and are generally praised as being conducive to learning. It would not be too much of a stretch to apply these changes to larger survey-type courses. Baby steps like these need not even be implemented across the school and would send the message that both the students and the faculty are at least thinking about ways to enhance the system.

The first problem is more complicated and would seem to require a more fundamental shift in approach by both teachers and students. It would take acknowledgement from both that the relationship should extend beyond the current class and subject matter and that success could likely only be recognized a few years down the road. An evaluation system that looked at the future career satisfaction could provide good information, but would be difficult to make work. Ideally, recognition and discussion of the issue would lead to changes without the addition of any major carrots or sticks.

* Veblen didn't help here. Your points are straightforward and not very interesting, even to you, but trying to dress them up as though they came from The Theory of the Leisure Class doesn't help. If you are interested in what Thorstein Veblen thought about these issues, you might want to look at his book The Higher Learning in America (1919).

  • So far as your argument here is concerned, you have married a statement that is true (whatever teaching effectiveness is, teaching effectiveness is not the primary objective of Columbia's law professors), with the unactionable proposition that it should be different, and the practical claim that "the grading curve and the anonymity requirement completely detach individual growth and response to teacher input from the evaluation process," which is false. Taken together, the result of the analysis is a few petty suggestions that you don't even suppose could be uniformly implemented. It doesn't come to much.

  • Getting the details realistically right perhaps doesn't matter. Anonymous grading is a fiction here, because once it is announced that class participation counts, teachers can and must review the roster before grades are released. So it's not the so-called "anonymity" that produces the decoupling, it's an issue of individual instructor behavior. The curve, for reasons I have already given too many times, is a paper tiger hollow army charming fiction complete irrelevance student bogeyman utter bullshit. But in the end, you're really only making a couple of unquestionably sensible proposals about how to change the way large courses work, and in doing so you're only asking for a few hours of instructor time to be reallocated. This would be a sensible thing to ask within the context of an individual course, in the construction of each semester's workflow with each teacher. In particular, because I am already offering you that sort of workflow, you would think it would have made sense to take advantage of it by writing and learning something about law, rather than doing more complaining about law school.


Webs Webs

r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:08:16 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM