Sunday, November 02, 2008

False Applause

This poem by Donald Burness from his collection, Brutal Like All Olympics Are, makes my cynicism about legal academics look positively Pollyannaish.


gnathonic toads infesting fleas
this is the tribe of my enemies
joyless drones self-righteous frauds
they honor each other with false applause
jealous knaves consumed by hate
ever eager to extirpate
dull lifeless they cannot soar
on winds of dancing metaphors
what a paltry pathetic thing
to honor Mediocrity as your king
and when the king lets out a fart
they love the smell with all their heart
I wish them scrofulous days ahead
and may they rightly be remembered
as zeros when they're dead

The brush is a bit broad even for me but the phrases "false applause," strikes a chord. Just exactly what chord I am not sure. Is it that the applause is fake in that people do not mean it or is it false in the sense that the forms of praise really do not mean much. Maybe it does not matter since there seems to a fair amount of both. In the first case, are colleagues sincerely happy for you or are they saying one thing and thinking another.

It is the second version, though, that I think is more harmful. I have already written somewhere on this blog about the market for positive tenure and promotion letters. I've also questioned exactly was SSRN downloads signify and, specifically, what it means to be on one of the SSRN top ten lists. Needless to say, brand name school credentials also fit the profile. Accolades seem very cheap at times -- "false applause" in a sense.

I have also questioned the value of symposium articles and the applause their authors expect. This is sensitive and it should be. I am not saying that all or even most symposium articles are poor articles. I do think they are more likely than standard articles to rehash something already said. In fact, the authors are often selected because of what they are are expected to say and not because they they are particularly insightful or creative. In fact for those who complain about the "good ol boy" network, it is alive and well in the form of symposia efforts. Some people tell me they do not do them as a rule because they would like to move on to something new. I have tremedous respect for those people -- passing up a free resume line to do something riskier.

It can create an interesting one-two punch like the professors who arranged symposium appearances by junior faculty, then review the work and announced publicly that it is marvelous. It may be! But then again, do you think may law professors are going to arrange a symposium opportunity for a junior colleague and then concede it was a mistake?? That is, unless there has been a falling out of some other kind.

False applause is like the pill in the the Matrix, it makes you feel good but keeps you from knowing if you actually are "good."


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