Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The "bar course" obsession: a MoneyLaw poll

As I promised in my most recent MoneyLaw post, I have returned to the question of the correlation vel non between teaching and scholarship. Further thought on the question has pushed me to launch anouther technological innovation for the Jurisdynamics Network: an online poll. Before we get to the fun, though, I must provide some context. In exchange for your indulgence, I'll even propose two ideas for empirical research.
Update at 10 p.m., August 17: The poll now appears as an embedded part of this post. If you want to take the poll right away, please feel free to click this popup window.
The occasion for the latest renewal of the old debate over the relationship between teaching and scholarship is the posting of Benjamin Barton's new paper, Is There a Correlation Between Scholarly Productivity, Scholarly Influence and Teaching Effectiveness in American Law Schools?. As I noted here at MoneyLaw, much of the criticism of this paper -- both positive and negative -- has focused on Barton's reliance on a single measure of teaching effectiveness: student evaluations. Many questions in life defy quantitative analysis. Many others don't. The reliability of student evaluations of teaching belongs to the latter category.

Let me first take the long view. Whenever I think of student evaluations, I think of the punishment some of my very first students delivered to me, with ample justification but also with perhaps more delight than was healthy for their souls. The course? Legislation. In a recent post at Jurisdynamics, I have lamented the profession's collective failure to teach (and learn) statutory interpretation. My little reading list represents the slightest effort to ameliorating legal academia's greatest pedagogical oversight.

Now, if only I had a dollar for each students who have come to regret how they railed about that awful legislation course Minnesota used to require, I could buy -- well, an iPod. I'd load my new toy with testimonials about how that legislation course really came in handy the first time a statute came into the picture.

So here's my first serious suggestion for empirical research. My happy confession of personal bias on this score aside, I do think that student evaluations of teaching mean quite little in the short run. The true measure of teaching effectiveness comes in the long run, sometime after students actually put their law school training to work. Surely someone wishes to undertake a longitudinal study of law school graduates' retrospective regard for their erstwhile teachers. A future Jurisdynamic Idol, perhaps.

The second suggestion arises in connection with Paul Secunda's splendidly entertaining rant at PrawfsBlawg, Why Can't Labor and Employment Law Just Be on the Bar Exam?. Why indeed. If only Minnesota would ask a single bar exam question each year on the canons of construction or the use of legislative history. The possibilities are endless. I am told -- or perhaps I merely wish -- that Felix Frankfurter's class on public utilities law was the most popular of its time at Harvard. Very well. Minnesota's bar examiners, I beseech you. In exchange for putting public utility law on the bar exam, I will draft a question involving the regulation of entry and/or rates as long as I live in this jurisdiction.

I do have a serious suggestion in response to Paul Secunda's fantastic tirade. I strongly suspect that the marginal propensity of a law school's student population to treat the bar exam as a factor in course selection correlates very strongly with that school's perceived ranking. Identifying the precise causal vector can wait; it would just be nice to establish the correlation. Again, this is empirical research waiting to happen. So many ideas, so little time. Hélas.

While the world awaits the eager and thorough pursuit of these research ideas, I can offer a little entertainment. This MoneyLaw poll seeks to gauge the extent to which law students consider the bar exam in selecting courses. There is absolutely no scientific value in this poll, but I offer it in the name of amusement. Results will be posted shortly.


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