Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Be true to your school

KentuckyAfter almost exactly 52 weeks in Kentucky, I've learned a few things. To be a "real" Kentuckian, you need a home county. Besides Jefferson. Boone barely counts, but Boyd is bona fide. And to be a Louisvillian, you need the "right" answer to this question: "Where did you go to school?"

My answer doesn't appear on my curriculum vitae. That's because many Louisvillians, the vast majority of whom (hard as this may be for fellow legal academics to understand) do not work for the University of Louisville, aren't interested in my undergraduate, graduate, or professional credentials. So I answer the question exactly as it was asked: "I attended Clarkston High School, DeKalb County, Georgia."

It's an obnoxious answer, really. Not because it is untrue, but because it defeats the social purpose of asking. High school allegiances, at least in Louisville, expose a host of presumptions about race, class, religion, and every other badge of social status vel non.

Sacred HeartIn defense of my neighbors here in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the "school question" gives the asking party a quick way of assessing a new acquaintance's core allegiances. Dare I reveal that my favorite college football teams are Louisville, Georgia, and Notre Dame's opponents? If my dinner companion went to Sacred Heart Academy, I'll save that last item for some other time and probably some other conversational partner.

And here in the legal academy, or at least in that corner covered by MoneyLaw, some readers have questioned my admitted assumption that J.D./Ph.D. types, ceteris paribus, are less likely than their strictly legal counterparts to be dedicated to teaching the core law school curriculum and to teaching it well. No, I haven't conducted any rigorous empirical test of the proposition. It's based on a dangerously casual assessment of patterns I think I've observed, bolstered by this little insight drawn from the dismal science: Comparative advantage applies to people as well as countries. Sure, a moral philosopher could cover criminal law, quite well at that, and an economist might well become this recruiting year's best pick in corporate law. And for a substantial boost in salary relative to other university departments where this philosopher and this economist might find work, these scholars have every incentive to add the Model Penal Code and the Delaware Corporation Code to their bedside tables. But no shift in primary intellectual allegiance comes free of cost, either to the person reinventing herself as a law professor or to the law school that would appoint her to its faculty.

Smiling pugSo here's the question. Imagine yourself a member of the hippest clique in today's legal academy, doubly credentialed interdisciplinarians. You are attending a conference with equal numbers of professors in law and in your nonlegal discipline. A friendly stranger approaches and asks, "Say, don't I know you? Where did you go to school?"

For the love of God, think fast. What pops up first? Your J.D. program or your Ph.D. program? Where your mind turns first is where your heart rests best. Within an academic setting where costs matter and faculty salaries cost more than anything else, this cost-conscious dean would like to offer you a little career advice:
Be true to your school.


Anonymous Matt said...

Jim said, "my admitted assumption that J.D./Ph.D. types, ceteris paribus, are less likely than their strictly legal counterparts to be dedicated to teaching the core law school curriculum and to teaching it well"

I must say that I find this to be very week. Why do you think this? Do you have enough evidence to support it? I'm skeptical. Nearly all JD/PhDs teach "core" legal classes, after all. At Penn, where I was a law student, all of my first year classes were taught by professors that had advanced degrees other than a JD (not always a Phd- one MA and one MD as well) and all were as "well" taught as any other classes I had, and significatly better than others. And, the professors seemed to be sincerely interested in the subjects, again at least as much as any other professor. Now, your general point below, that hiring interdisiplinary scholars might be more expensive since (if these scholars want to sometimes teach more specialized classes) since a larger total faculty would be needed seems reasonable and sound (though I doubt too many schools fit into the example) but this part seems pretty much completely ungrounded and not to fit with a very large number of examples. (On a different point, doesn't this sort of intuitionistic approach go pretty strongly against the "money-ball" idea of being guided buy evidence? Given the goals of this blog there does seem to be a lot of this impresionistic sort of reasoning here.)

1/22/2008 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Curious said...

1. I hate to quibble, but I don't think it's actually quite so hip to be an interdisciplinarian, even these days. For startes, you still have to have an answer (and a non-defensive and non-contemptuous one at that) for the question, "Cute, but that does that have to do with law?" or "Why should I care if the Holy Roman Empire wasn't, legally, Holy or Roman or an Empire." The disciplines and their norms are often so different from those of law that one has to change what one does to qualify as doing what the legal academy considers actual interdisciplinary work, as opposed to pure X department work.

2. I am not sure that pure interdisciplinary-ism -- even if there is such a thing -- captures what's going on today. Many of us consider ourselves multi-disciplinary. We think sociologically, or historically, or economically, and those habits of mind inflect the way we approach the material we teach in doctrinal courses. And we get our jollies giving law students some of this perspective, which they'd be intellectually poorer without -- so much so, indeed, that we'd rather teach in law schools than have narrow niches in university departmnents. Plus, what is cooler than being able to write technical econometrics one year, and take the Supreme Court to task another year.

3. Be true to your school? Bah, school spirit sucks. There is, to be sure, a tension between the law school way and the grad school way. Some days it eats at me. But why does one have to choose, any more than one has to choose between being Jewish and being American. Moreover, it's often a productive tension, one that induces continuing intellectual growth and constant reexamination of ideas.

So perhaps we're best considered not interdisciplinary but hybrids; or (darker thought) should the worm turn, mutts.

1/22/2008 2:58 PM  
Blogger eric said...

For startes, you still have to have an answer (and a non-defensive and non-contemptuous one at that) for the question, "Cute, but that does that have to do with law?"

Not so long ago, I was telling a faculty member, at a highly elite law school that prides itself on having many cross-disciplinarians, about my plan to study professional networks and career patterns among union-side labor lawyers. The first, and only, question this person asked me was, "what's the legal angle?"

In any event, though my research interests are, unabashedly, socio-legal, by teaching is largely traditional. I very happily teach business associations and employment law. This spring, I'm also offering an elective on Social Research and Law. That course is really a hybrid -- part "sociology of law", which I agree is not directly useful for students facing traditional legal careers (though I do think it will be useful for them to have a better understanding of their own profession and work); part "social science evidence", which seems very practical, at least for students aiming to be trial lawyers or looking at state and local government (i.e. policy-making or implementing) work. As others have noted in this debate, the students will vote with their feet. If the class enrollment is too small, I'll take the hint. If enough students are interested, I'm glad to teach them.

1/23/2008 2:33 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Finally getting around to acknowledging Matt Lister's comment above ....

First, I think we have competing definitions of "interdisciplinarian." I don't count everyone who carries a Ph.D. into a law school classroom or the faculty meeting room. Nor do I count law professors, regardless of formal training, who toss other disciplines' approaches into their scholarship. Everyone does that.

I have in mind an economist or historian who suddenly realizes there are no jobs in her or his "real" calling and tacks on a J.D. in search of a living academic wage. There is a real difference relative to someone who truly wants to be a law professor, for all the right reasons, and tacks on a Ph.D. in order to get through the hiring process.

Matt's second point is broader: "doesn't this sort of intuitionistic approach go pretty strongly against the 'money-ball' idea of being guided by evidence? Given the goals of this blog there does seem to be a lot of this impressionistic sort of reasoning here." Yes, there is, Matt. And as Sam Kamin has explained, not even Michael Lewis tosses aside intuitions. It's uninformed intuition that I decry, especially blind loyalty to credentials -- once upon a time the Supreme Court clerkship, now the Ph.D. -- that have demonstrated no real connection to the job at hand.

1/23/2008 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jim. That's a more defensible position, of course, though it's not really what you said before. ("JD/PhD types", even with the "ceteris paribus" clause, are not equal, after all, to someone trying to find a job in a law school when he or should couldn't find one in his or her own discipline. Nothing else in your post seemed to point that way, either, and much away from it.) And of course it would be stupid to put having a PhD as a _requirement_ for hiring people, just as it would be to put having had a supreme court clerkship. One of those, though, is pretty clearly more closely connected with scholarship, one thing you did say you wanted to make sure hires produced. And of course "informed intuition" must be used, but I'm not sure there was any of this on display here in the "my assumption" part. Rather, we just had some anecdotes, ones that can be counted just as well by more.

1/23/2008 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Andy said...

First, I would be a little skeptical of a friendly stranger for whom the first and by implication most crucial piece of information is where I got my degree.

Second, as I have equally strong feelings about the schools I attended for my PhD & my JD, it's hard to see putting one before the other. I suppose at a conference in my PhD field, the person asking the question would be trying to figure out if we know anyone in common, so it would make sense to specify the school where I got my PhD, vice versa for a law conference.

You're right to say that "everyone" (on law faculties) tosses other disciplines' approaches into their scholarship, but the vast, vast majority of those without graduate training in the other field do it so incompetently that it would be laughable to people who teach in that field. Assuming that thse people think there is value in the kind of multidisplinary gesture they are feebly enacting, it seems to me that there's obviously more value in doing it well rather than dibble-dabbling. And while I quite agree that for some, teaching law is the cover story that allows them to pursue that other interest, it's also not unlikely that having training in another field (and training in how to do scholarship, which many law faculty lack) would produce better legal scholarship qua legal scholarship.

Conversely, some people who have only a law degree go into teaching not because they are dedicated to legal scholarship but to escape practice. So the disadvantages are present for "pure" lawyers just as they are for inter-disciplarians. I doubt there's a significant difference, in the aggregate, between law professors with these two profiles. That is, I doubt there is a significant difference in their commitment to studying what are conventionally characterized as legal issues.

1/29/2008 1:35 PM  

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