Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy Law Professors and the Matrix

I have followed the law professor unhappiness posts hoping to find some empirical evidence that it is true or not true. So far no luck and I think most seem quite happy. In fact, even though I am oft times unhappy, it is not for any of the three reasons Paul lists. Plus, I am not that unhappy now that I know that there is the possibility that others feel unhappy. I just have not met any of those people. Of course there is a fair amount of whining but I think most of it is strategic. Part of the law professor negotiation schitk is never to say “I am happy with that” because then you cannot claim to be disappointed later. This is closely related to the volunteer maneuver.

So what accounts for the happiness? For one thing, look at the job description – do what you want, when you want, if you want to. At least most of the time.

I think the real explanation for the happiness is taking “the pill.” I do not mean Prozac or birth control. I mean the pill like in the movie “The Matrix.” This is the pill that allows you to suspend your disbelieve. You know, the dilemma posed by writers from Descartes to Nozick. Do take the happy pill that mean escaping reality?

If you do not take the pill then you have to contend with many things. First is the writing most of which will make utterly no difference in terms of improving the quality of anything. Much of it is hamster on a wheel writing – it goes no where but enables one to stay in place. And the then there is the teaching. I do not mean the personal interactions and relationships with the students which for me make up the most rewarding part of the job. I mean the information that is being passed from generation to generation. What is it about? Largely it is about protecting the interests of those with property and wealth. That is why law exists, right? I know some of you may think you are teaching about rights and morality and ADR and that you fancy yourself subversive but, come on. You are part of the machine. Your presence in the profession legitimizes the system that, at bottom, is about preserving the status quo. Think I am overstating it? Take a look at what the vast majority of your students do (those who can find jobs, that is). Can you handle the truth? They cannot afford to put into action the things that you teach that help you justify your role in preserving the status quo.

If most law teacher are who they thing they are (Who? Who they think they are! With apologies to Dennis Green) they have to take the pill that allows them to avoid reality. The pill, in this case, is the tacit agreement by each person to play his or her role in a epic production. Sometimes people are so good at the role they seem to actually believe it. Now that's scary!

Is there any good news other than my New Year’s resolution to be “Mr. Positive” lasted a full 12 hours (Ok, Ok, only 4 waking hours)? Yes there is -- it’s a really good job. As I said, do what you want, when you want, if you want. If you are at all into ideas, it can be a wonderful way to spend a life. And it beats virtually any other job that most law professors are cut out to do.


Anonymous Greg Newburn said...

I think if I heard a tenured law professor complain about his or her job, I'd scream. You folks get to teach people who actually want to learn, who show up for class (well, most of them, anyway), who do the assigned readings (well, most of them, anyway), and who participate in class discussions. It was evident you enjoyed the actual classroom instruction time/discussions (and that, besides the interesting material, is the reason our friend group wanted to take your upper level classes). But it's also clear that not all professors like the actual teaching part of their jobs.

To those folks, if you ever feel the "poor me" mentality taking over, I invite you to come out to Newberry High School, just west of Gainesville. Give teaching a try out there for a few days; it just might help you appreciate your job a little more.

And even if you hate teaching, you still get to WRITE--FOR YOUR JOB. Even if no one reads your articles, you still get to write them. Which means you get to do the research, think of cool and interesting ideas, and then kick them around and flesh out their implications with very smart colleagues from all over the country anytime you want.

However you slice it, that's pretty damn cool, and to think that there might be some subset of the law professor population dissatisfied with their lot in life is really, really irritating.

Of course, if they're really unhappy, I'd be happy to trade jobs with them. We don't grade on curves, and you can write as many multiple choice exams as you'd like...

1/02/2008 1:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

It is the best job. As I said, for me it is the freedom to deal with ideas and to interact with the students that make it that way. Still most people would like to feel they are doing something that will have an impact. They go home at night tired but satisfied. I hear that high school teaching is tough but I would say that most high school teachers have a greater right to go home at night and feel that they have done something useful than most law professors.

I think most complaints by law professor are generated by two ideas. One is not that the job is not a problem in an absolute sense but that it could be so much better. So, it is relative to some ideal. This probably seem silly but happiness is almost always a function of comparison.

Second, it is not the job but the environment. Even flipping burgers must be easier to handle if the customes are happy, coworkers cheerful, etc.

For law professor who do not like the actual job, I'd say get a different one. Unfortunately, tenure allows those who do not like the job to just do as little as possible by not writing, teaching the bare minimum, giving multiple choice exams, and showing up infrequently.

1/02/2008 9:35 AM  
Anonymous Greg Newburn said...

Teaching is rewarding, and like you I enjoy the actual class time and building relationships with the kids (I especially like it when the kids leave saying a class "blew their minds today." Such days make me happy).

It's frustrating, of course. It's frustrating to spend two weeks teaching a class that demand curves slope downward, and then seeing a dozen upward sloping curves on a test. But at the same time, it's nice to know that last August, none of those kids had ever given a single thought to economics (we call it catallactics in my class), and would have sat stone-faced if asked to draw a S/D curve.

Now, some of my kids draw them when they get bored in other classes, or explain the Coase Theorem as a means of avoiding punishment when they come in after curfew (true story!).

Law professors should be proud that, largely because of their efforts, students are impressing parents all over the state when they explain, say, the elements of K formation or the eggshell plaintiff rule. And, in what I think is a meaningful sense, that is changing the world.

1/02/2008 1:49 PM  

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