Law in Contemporary Society

The Relative Wisdom of Tough Love Pedagogy

Consider the following hypothetical:

Imagine a student in our class who has followed the Ivy League track his whole life. He probably chose Moglen’s class because his first semester of law school scared the crap out of him and he heard rumors that there was no final. The class catches him off guard and turns his world upside down; he’s reading stuff he’s never read before and thinking in ways he’s rarely thought before. In the back of his mind, doubts begin to form: What if the goal that has propelled him forward for the past decade will ultimately not be all that fulfilling? What, then, is the meaning of his life? Why has he been pushing himself so hard to achieve a goal that is rapidly appearing less and less appealing? This guy feels totally conned – by life, by his parents, by society. He writes an essay about it to see if the ice will hold. It is a big step. But instead of constructive criticism and reassurance that he’s on the right track, he is told that the insight that shattered his reality is old news around here. When accused of beating a dead horse by a professor he wants to see as a mentor, how does he react?

My sense is that the “tough love” approach leaves a lot of students out in the cold. Some of us – myself included – would probably benefit from more carrots and less of the stick. Thoughts?

-- AnjaHavedal? - 07 Apr 2009

I don't know if you're referring to a specific person/essay, but this is an interesting hypothetical regardless and definitely relates to some conversations I've had about the class.

There seem to be many of our classmates who, while finding the class to be stimulating, don't really buy the presumptions. I doubt that the individuals in the class who came in with a well-formed intent to, for example, work for Skadden will be leaving the class planning on working for Mom & Pop's Country Law Firm. More doubt may enter into their calculation, but my experiences with other 1L's have shown me that the potential security and prosperity that they sought when entering law school are not easily discarded in favor of what they view as a more risky approach. Some individuals are also concerned with the credibility of certain claims made by the Professor, regarding the job market we are entering. Those of us already inclined against a BigLaw career may embrace the statistics regarding the increasing difficulty of entering the field, but others seem to view the information as suspect.

For those of us who entered the class with other expectations of what our careers will be, I think it may be useful to have the criticism that Professor Moglen has given some of our papers. I find myself seeking some public interest job, ill-defined in my mind, which I imagine will be given to me on a platter if I jump through enough hoops provided for me by the law school. This class has increasingly made me realize that I will need to do a lot of legwork on my own if I want to find something that I will enjoy and is a realistic possibility. Further, the Professor's criticism of my essay has caused me to want to improve on ideas which are close to my heart, and which I would like to be able to formulate more effectively and persuasively.

-- WalkerNewell - 07 Apr 2009

While I am certainly not an expert in educational techniques, I'd imagine that "tough love" might not be the best strategy in your hypothetical. Coupling "tough love" with a dramatic realization might produce adverse results.

However, every teacher in the current setting has numerous students. I would like to believe if the student in your hypo went to office hours, spoke personally with Eben about his realizations, etc., he might receive the "right" kind of feedback. I don't mean to suggest that he is to "blame" for receiving ineffective treatment, but rather a little effort on the student's part might go a long way to ensuring a positive experience. (Note: I do realize I have expanded on the facts in your hypothetical a bit. I hope I don't get a B- !).

-- KeithEdelman - 07 Apr 2009

My sense is that the “tough love” approach leaves a lot of students out in the cold.

I agree with you that the tough approach is not an effective way to teach everyone. I disagree with what appears to be your underlying assumption that everybody gets a tough approach in this class. I read almost all of the paper comments that were posted over the last several weeks, and found most of them to be reasonable on the verge of downright gentle. The papers that featured more red pen than others were generally authored by people who seem to have a relationship with Professor Moglen that would warrant Eben's assumption that "they could take it," or that such criticism would motivate them more than general soft platitudes.

As I've mentioned before, the "tough love" given to Theo in HowToFixHealthcare was intimidating to me. However, Eben's explanation for that approach in class made sense, in that his responses were geared towars Theo. As Theo said in BaitSwitch:

For all the contrast, conflict creates creativity. I have learned a lot about various healthcare models and have thought about it more than before; resulting in my revising a post which was originally sub par.I think Professor Moglen likes to stir things up and make you rethink your basic assumptions. As do I, which has contributed to a positive feedback loop.

The flaw in the approach was that the comments could be read by all of us, many of whom had not received feedback yet and were concerned that the same approach would be used for us, shattering our fragile psyche (as in your hypothetical). I suspect that concern is somewhat minimized now, after we have discussed this topic in class at great length and have received some feedback. Even for those of us who got negative feedback, I wonder if it was as bad or worse as anyone expected.

If I may ask, was this hypothetical meant to reflect your own feelings, Anja, or was it really a hypo? You strike me was one of the people who have engaged with Professor Moglen on a level that would suggest that you are comfortable with the tough love.

-- MolissaFarber - 07 Apr 2009

Molissa - it was a hypo, indeed, based on some of the papers I have read and a variety of class interactions. I sometimes find myself concerned that in moments of vulnerability the tough love approach is not the most effective way to really make people think harder. Yesterday, for example, someone was talking about being afraid of making certain decisions out of fear that his future self would disapprove - and Moglen said "fuck your future self." Now, I thought that was both true and funny, but if I were the one worrying about the future, I would probably not have laughed. Is tough love productive? Did it lead this student to really start questioning the wisdom of prioritizing the future over the present? Or would that goal have been better served by a more nuanced discussion of the topic, perhaps combined with some reading recommendations? I am asking these questions - and I framed my original post as a hypo - because I recognize that I may be completely off here. I grew up in a society that holds you under the armpits and avoids conflict at all cost, so this tough love approach is completely new to me. And yes, I kind of like it and I have had heated discussions with Prof Moglen, but I would be lying if I did not admit that I, too, was pretty distraught by his comments on a paper I had put so much mental effort and time into. In my experience, criticism is always more effective when balanced with recognition of hard work.

-- AnjaHavedal? - 08 Apr 2009

Personally, I enrolled in this class expecting (or perhaps even looking for) a stick. I've followed a certain path in life that has given me many carrots, and I've learned what works and doesn't work in life, school, etc. through a lot of positive reinforcement. Most of my life I've sought more and more carrots and they've served me well. At this point, however, I'm ready for Eben's tough love because I think that's what is going to make me a better lawyer. Don't get me wrong - I still like carrots and am looking for them in all my other classes. It’s just that I feel more comfortable getting some tough love from Eben than I would from any other professor I've had here. I think it has something to do with the candid discussion that goes on in our class, as well as the fact that I don't think that critical feedback from Eben means that he will think less of me. I think it means he's pushing me further because he knows I can do better. So in my case, at least, I expect to learn more from Eben’s tough love approach than I would learn if he sugar-coated his feedback for me.

Nonetheless, I hope posting this doesn’t mean I’m going to feel the stick on my transcript at the end of the semester. But as Eben has proposed to the class, would that really make me less of a lawyer if it were to happen? Probably not.

Thank you so much for your suggestion, Molissa. I've changed the language. I hadn't thought of the reference at all and am very glad you said something! -CE

-- CarolineElkin - 08 Apr 2009

Anja: Imagine that your hypothetical student doesn't take this class. Let's say he learns to speak law very quickly, does quite well in all his classes, and goes to work somewhere prestigious (firm/clerk/govt/"public interest" is really irrelevant). He writes something and is told by his immediate supervisor that it is inadequate. (Because it is -- inevitably, it will be). Won't he just break down then?

I am not sure that people who have gone through the gauntlet of high-powered schools have never been challenged or criticized harshly (twenty years ago I was regularly reduced to tears by teachers at a supposedly high-powered high school). At some point we need to learn that someone who challenges us is asking us to do something better, not telling us we have failed. We will all learn this someday; it was the unstated reason for the Paper Chase-style humiliation that no longer goes on. We all, after all, have something to learn.

-- AndrewCase - 08 Apr 2009

I tried posting something similar this yesterday morning and it did not work; forgive me if this ends up posted twice--

Walker’s comments reminded me of a conversation I had,

An uppeclassman friend recommended that I take this class. She is, as the hypo describes, Ivy League, through and through. She is also a self-described corporate sell-out, and was before she got here. She took this class in a previous year, and, as Anja would predict, is now heading off to an “important” law firm, unshaken from the role she brought with her to law school.

We, like drunks with lamp-posts, may use this class for support as well as illumination. Most of us are firmly ensconced in our own roles, and only looking for evidence that we are playing our roles well. However, those who are in a transition between roles – questioning their prior values, as in the hypo – are probably vulnerable and feel they are far out a limb. Tough pedagogy might be bad for them.

I do not think that is who the tough-love education is for, however. The “tough love pedagogy” might be directed at shaking us hard enough that the limb looks a little better. I think tough love as a pedagogical style probably becomes dangerous only when a professor cannot discern whether she is dealing with a student hanging to a lamp-post or out on a limb. If for no other reason, this makes me glad we are proceeding with our third paper as we began.

-- AndrewMcCormick - 09 Apr 2009

Whether or not "tough love" is productive depends (among other things) on the level of trust between the person doling out the tough love and the person getting it. It's not just a factor of the recipient's personal psychology, vulnerabilities, thickness of skin, etc.

Personally I'm pretty skeptical of claims to "tough love" as a general rule. Often it just seems like an excuse for a person in power (especially a petty position of power, like a professor or teacher) to vent his or her spleen on someone who can't do anything about it. For tough love to be effective, the recipient has to believe the following things: (1) the doler-out has the recipient's best interests at heart, (2) the doler-out has some sort of fair, coherent system s/he uses as a basis for criticism, i.e. s/he is not just criticizing because breakfast that day was unpleasant, or out of some generalized anger at the world, and (3) the criticism is useful, and the recipient can take it and do something with it.

In those circumstances, yes, tough love is great. The question for us is, does this class meet those standards?

-- AnjaliBhat - 09 Apr 2009

I just wanted to respond to the Professor's contention that some of us jumped in to defend his teaching style after Anja's post. I can honestly say that I wasn't being toadying. I had never been to office hours in my entire college and law school career before today. I went to Moglen's because I thought I would get something useful out of it and not be bullshitted. I'm not sure whether this class couldn't be just as effective without the tough-love approach, but if its part of the package, its not a deal-breaker for me.

-- WalkerNewell - 09 Apr 2009

AnjaHavedalSecondPaper is an extended version of this hypo, and the last section is what I regard as an alternative to the tough love approach.

-- AnjaHavedal? - 10 Apr 2009

I appreciate the candor on this post regarding "tough love pedagogy", but I think it might be more useful to have an open dialogue about whether or not YOU found it effective. Anja and Walker's comments address the point more directly, but I don't think there's a need to have the conversation in the abstract after a semester's worth of classes and a bit of time to reflect on the course.

I'll go first. I found that Eben's style was helpful for me (and I hope for others) because I want someone to take the time to evaluate my skill set, then instruct me accordingly. As a youngster, I would always get yelled at by my H.S. basketball coach more than others, because "everyone gets treated fairly, but not every one gets treated the same." I became a more capable player as a result. In full disclosure, having gone to graduate school education (where your ideas may be mercilessly beaten) probably prepared me for this type of learning environment more than some.

In any event, I'm not sure that all of us will judge the class in the same way now as we would next year or five or ten years down the road. Nonetheless, strong writing, using language carefully, and the willingness (and ability) to engage in frank, meaningful debate are valuable in any field, but especially so in the legal profession. I think those skills are most fully developed in a relative adversarial context, and Eben's individual stylistic shortcomings or strong suits are only important at the margins. No other course honed the aforementioned skills as much as this class did.

Without struggle, there is no progress.


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r23 - 07 Jan 2010 - 23:03:12 - IanSullivan
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