Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Calling Ani Onomous

Editor's note: What follows is an open letter to Ani Onomous.

Okay, Mr./Ms. Onomous. Thanks for outing yourself. I so appreciated your commentary on my Adrian Peterson post that I was moved to write an entirely separate post on sports analogies. And now you've posted some fantastic new stuff, which I'll address in just a second. It's very clear that you have a nose for blogging on matters within MoneyLaw's mandate, even if you disagree with some / much / all of our analysis. Please write me. At a minimum, a guest pass to MoneyLaw will compensate you for your trouble.

For the benefit of our readership, I'll reproduce your most recent comments here on MoneyLaw's front page. First, you take issue with the entire Moneyball analogy:
I think you all have a deeper commitment to sports analogies than this suggests -- it's right there at the top -- and one I'm not sure is successful. . . . Moneyball . . . supposedly cured a problem on which you don't focus, and pursued a normative objective of a different kind. What was "unfair" was that some teams had much higher payrolls, and the A's and other smaller clubs were forced to compete against them. Moneyball techniques allowed them to do so (in the short term, one imagines). Beane did not actually care about this unfairness, nor do you (or we'd be hearing more about endowments); instead you care about fairness to mis-evaluated faculty members and, more important, to under-served students. That's as it should be, but qualifies the ability to extract lessons from Moneyball. I don't think Beane cared about total or average fan experiences, and can't see how his method would have succeeded on that score, save incidentally. . . .

Billy BeaneMoneyball's normative objective was winning by compiling, well, wins (falling a little short on the World Series, but exceeding expectations, anyway). I'm not so sure about what your shared objective is, or if there is one, but I would guess that it's better serving students. This poses two comparative problems. First, your objective is not so zero-sum as Beane's, which is the good part (though it is zero-sum to a degree). The bad part is that you are trying to establish the normative objective at the same time you're seeking to maximize it. What would Moneyball be like if Beane were to say, for example, "I want to create a team that brings real value for the fans, as I understand it?" Would he create the Cubs or the Yankees? Would he even stay in the majors? My point (if I have one) is that you need to identify clearly your objective here; once you do so, my guess is that it'll become plainer (assuming you secure agreement on it) that the analogy is misplaced. But I could be dead wrong!
And it is also worth reproducing your critique of Jeff Harrison's inventory of MoneyLaw techniques:
[I]t's all well and good to aid in the purging of bogus factors, but it looks like your targets here are some of the most objective and measurable indicia we have. Is the world you envision one in which wise, unbiased, and truth-dispensing faculty members (i.e., not those writing letters of recommendation) engage in close critical readings of scholarship, rather than relying on letters, elite credentials, interest from other schools, and review placement? If so, aren't you closer to the scouting world Billy Beane rebelled against than the system he developed? On the student front, I'm more confident that data superior to the USNWR can be developed.
Okay. In the interest of time, and in the belief that you will soon be posting your contrarian but provocative critique of this forum right on the front page, I'll respond with a series of short declarations:
  1. The purpose of MoneyLaw is indeed superior legal education, for the benefit of its real stakeholders. In declining order of importance, those stakeholders are students, graduates, the legal profession, businesses served or at least informed by legally trained professionals, and the abstract notion of law as an applied social science.

  2. Law school administrators and faculty are emphatically not stakeholders. They are employees. At best, they are trustees of the last and most abstract interest at stake: legal science. Even in that role, law professors owe their primary duty not to abstract knowledge, but to the people they serve through teaching and research. No thought in law is valuable unless it advances the system of justice in some material way.

  3. Our normative objective is one that has existed ever since more learned and experienced individuals undertook, for reasons transcending personal profit, to educate others. If it seems as though we spend enormous effort reasserting this objective -- and we do -- we do so only because this goal has disappeared within an academic culture that has come to prize many things besides the higher training and useful education of aspiring youth.

  4. The "objective and measurable indicia" you defend are precise in the scientific sense that they stand up to repeated inquiry and yield consistent, predictable data. But they are hardly accurate in the scientific sense of that word. Pedigree is a surrogate for performance. It can be traced, documented, and even quantified in ways that performance itself cannot. Yet it remains just that, a surrogate.

  5. We share your thirst for superior gauges of performance. Join us. Together, we may yet unlock the secrets of the academy and reveal them for the good of the academy's true beneficiaries.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part. Indeed, we know very little and we prophesy very poorly. We see but poor shadows of the truth, as reflections in a mirror; someday we shall see reality face to face. Now abide these three: character, performance, and pedigree. And the least of these is pedigree.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not as smart as Ani Onomous, but I do have a question. If the stakeholders are really the order you say (which seems quite reasonable to me), why the focus on scholarship in hiring? As is often mentioned here, elite credentials have no bearing on scholarship, but why should that matter in the moneylaw analysis? Most scholarship only has a bearing on the very last of the stakeholders, and as such, should be the very last thing considered. Yet, it is constantly touted (by some) at least in co-first place with teaching.

As Ani Onomous asks in a prior post, are we sure that there is agreement on what the goal of moneylaw is or even who the stakeholders are?

11/08/2007 7:21 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: I enjoy debate. In fact, many of my overstated positions are designed to draw people out. Still, I cannot say I share your enthusiasm here. As I understand Ms or Mr Anon, my bogus factors are "objective and measureable" and, thus, something BillyBoy would approve of. Yes, height, weight, blood pressure, are all measureable as well. And exactly as accurate as the bogus measures I listed at predicting who will be a good law professor.

11/08/2007 7:25 AM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Dear Anonymous Commenter of 11/08/07, 7:21 a.m.:

You raise an important point, one that warrants much more than a below-the-line exchange (and, with any luck, will soon be the subject of a lead piece here at MoneyLaw).

You are right: schools and individual professors, including many if not all writers here at MoneyLaw, take teaching almost for granted and train their focus on scholarship instead. Here are some possible explanations.

1. Many of us in the legal academy, including me, assume that teaching is relatively easy to learn and improve over time, and that the daily experience of having to stand and deliver before as many as 150 strangers will motivate just about anyone to master decent teaching techniques.

2. Adequacy in teaching is presumed to be a threshold issue, and a relatively low one at that. At the margin, one might imagine, there are people who might be competent, even great, scholars but are irredeemably disastrous in the classroom. The arguably unexamined assumption is that such individuals are extremely rare and that their ineptitude should be and is treated as a basis for denial of entry to the teaching ranks (or perhaps even the basis for denial of tenure -- an altogether different subject that has gotten very little play here).

3. There is utterly no agreement on what constitutes effective teaching, and the only quantifiable measure available -- student evaluations -- is flamboyantly subjective. Of course, peer-based reviews of scholarship and of teaching are also subjective, sometimes just as flamboyantly. The difference is that faculty members will accord each other (read: themselves) a measure of respect, but not the students who fill evaluation forms.

I defend none of this, and if anything I am quite uncomfortable with the whole set of assumptions. But they are what they are, and I will be thinking harder about whether, if at all, they can be defended.

Jim Chen

11/08/2007 7:58 AM  

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