Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dance Ten, Looks Three

Chorus line
Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person I don't know.
What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around, and here we go.
I need this job, oh God, I need this show.

"I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban, and music by Marvin Hamlisch.

Jeff laments that the best candidates systematically do not get the chance to teach law because their "looks" are lacking. Too tall, too round, not the right look -- out you go. Thank you. Next. Hundreds of people apply for every job. A few get to dance for a few minutes. The ones who are "right" -- well connected, polished, and with the Broadway look --get the job. The rest go home. Looks matter in the law teaching market. If your law degree is from Snowshoe U, you'll never be a Rockette, kid.

Jeff thinks that pervasive class bias in the legal academy is the culprit. We know that elite law school credentials do not necessarily correlate with valuable qualities in law teachers. Pedigree is not on the Money Law school audition sheet. Character is. Unlike a candidate's J.D. issuing institution, or last season's earned run average, character is hard to detect on a piece of paper or a thirty minute interview. Finding character in the pool of candidates, if we were serious about it, would be hugely expensive. Worse, it would be a powder keg for faculties who do not share common values. Law schools relegate faculty hiring to a committee and ultimately to the entire faculty. The faculties I have known take hiring seriously. No other governance issue has such potential to foment bitter dispute.

The culprit may not be invidious class bias as Jeff suspects. The limits of J.D. "looks" as a heuristic for quality are a price of pluralism. We use the relative eliteness of a candidates' J.D.'s because we cannot stomach the inevitable fight about what should count for quality. We make nice, know better and do nothing. We look to "looks" to avoid introspection.


Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Nice post, Mary. Thanks for thinking and writing about this. Hard to disagree and you may very well have a better perspective.

Some comments: I too believe faculties take hiring seriously but seriously in the interest of what? A great deal of the seriousness I see is, just beneath the surface, about the politics of the candidate, protecting or expanding turf, not wanting to lose face, settling old scores, etc. And, even if this does not account for a majority of the faculty, when most play by the rules and the rest pursue an agenda, the outcome is skewed. Of course my sample is quite small and the faculty here was recently ranked the worse on the campus as far as collegiality.

I am not sure I know what you mean by "The limits of JD "looks" as a heuristic for quality are a price of pluralism." To me pluralism is the price (what is lost) of continuing to rely on JD "looks." Could you explain?

Finally, I think more is going on than avoiding the conflict. If hiring goes along the lines of much of the scholarship done these days (and why wouldn't it), it is about carefully avoiding the dissonance of finding that your preconceptions or self-referential beliefs are wrong. On the other hand, it is just possible that elitist hiring committees and faculties know the truth and avoid non elites out of a fear of being out-performed by people who they have been taught are not to be permitted into the club.

My experience has been that it really pisses many of them off and the immediate response is to disparage or discount the work of those "less worthy." Indeed I recall the reaction of one of my privileged colleagues to an effort to hire a Florida grad who could, by the way, think and write circles around the collegue. He would criticise people for considering someone "the like of her." The difference between him and many others? He said it out loud.

Remember, the winners write history and they also get to decide what is true. The winners in legal education are the elitists and when they write history they say that the schools they attended produce the best law professors. This is so true, that it evidently makes little sense to examine the possibility that they are wrong. Isn't the unwillingness to be introspective a dead give away that a person is afraid of what might be found?

11/03/2007 10:28 PM  
Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

My point about the price of pluralism is simple. Law faculties prefer to make a collective decision about faculty hiring. Collective decisions are expensive. To make collective consensus workable and affordable, we use heuristics we all know are more or less bogus.

I feel your indignation about class bias in hiring. My point is that the problem is more complicated than just snobbery and self-congratulating power play. We are looking for the "good" in people. We disagree about what "good is. As a substitute for a real direct quest for "good," we agree on low cost devices to identify a fairly whack, watered down, smoothed out model of "excellent scholarly potential" that won't take too much energy and time to defend at the faculty meeting. If we want to make hiring decisions collectively, and there does seem to me to be value in that, we’ll have to expect imperfection and even irrationality in the heuristics we use to detect “quality.”

Jeff, my non-elite by very high quality parents named me Marie Therese with hope that my name would help me distinguish myself from the hoard of girls named Mary + [Saint's name] in my markedly non-elite South Side of Chicago neighborhood. Mary is a good name, but mine is Marie.

11/04/2007 1:53 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

You know what is interesting about that is that I typed Mary, realized instantly that it was wrong, and kept reminding myself as I droned on to go back and fix it. Evidently, I forget.

Back to the discussion, Marie. Is it just coincidence that when deciding on the collective, conflict-avoiding heuristic, the one selected is "people just like me?"

11/04/2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Dear Marie Therese: Hopefully, my last thought on this. I think if we took your view and mine and used Venn diagrams there would be an intersect. I do have a couple of other observations -- quite negative and stemming from the possibility that you may be right. Maybe there is nothing irrational going on at all. It is fiction designed to perpetuate the "collective" and the status quo. To me, if the collective needs the fiction to survive, it's not worth the effort.

If you are right, then, it is a far more hopeless situation than I had thought. My explanation leaves open the possibility that empirical efforts and some effort to find the "truth" could change things. Yours seems to suggest that law professors, almost knowingly, understand that they cannot go there.

11/04/2007 3:30 PM  
Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

Jeff, Absolutely no offense taken about the name stuff. As for our two points taken together snuffing out all hope of a better world -- I can't accept that.

Here's a cheery thought for both of us. I've been a lone or nearly lone dissenter on many, many faculty committees. I'm not discouraged and I haven't given up. I'm pretty sure I've changed the outcome over time from what it might have been had I stayed on the South Side and poured coffee for a living. I'm sure both of us, aggravating as we are to some colleagues who are deeply invested in the status quo, change the course of things.

This has been fun. Thanks for the conversation.

11/04/2007 4:55 PM  

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