Saturday, November 22, 2008

Searching for Outliers

I'd like to say there is a debate about the fascination law school hiring committees have with candidates with elite credentials. I am not sure it is a debate, however, if no one is listening to one side of the argument. If it is a debate, it is one that I and the six or seven people who agree with me (and I do not mean at my school but in the world) always lose. Nevertheless, here I go again.

First I think it is a fact that schools at the level of mine and lower only rarely attract candidates who graduated from top ranked schools at the top of their classes. Thus, the decision is between lower (and sometimes very low ranked) graduates from elite schools and the tip top graduates from other schools. By "other schools" I do not mean bad ones. No, I mean ones maybe just outside the top 10. Still, it continues -- the brand name trumps almost every other indicator of intellect and work ethic.

This is not a matter of relying on an accurate indicator of success. A little study I did last year indicated that grads from elite schools who end up at mid level schools are no more productive than the hand full of non elite grads. In addition, on average I think elite grads are less well educated than non elite grads who end up teaching at mid level schools. The elites (again, on average, not uniformly) seem to be narrowly educated. Very few seem to be able to talk about art, history, politics or any thing other than a very narrow range of topics. (They also seem relatively humorless -- not an irreverent bone to be found -- but that is another story.) They seem more technicianish.

I've tried to put aside my anti elite bias and identify why it is that non elites seem to have more going for them than elites. The only factor I have been able to come up with so far is that the non elites in legal education are very likely to have been, as children, and continue to be voracious readers. They are basically self-educated. (Don't misunderstand. Elites can be voracious readers and self-educated but they also have many other ways to become law professors the principal ones of which are branding and self-referential hiring tendencies.)

This means a number of things but the most important is that somewhere somehow, hard-wired or socialized (unlikely), the non elites were intellectual curious at an outlier level. Learning itself was a reward and not because it meant getting an A or performing well as a "trophy child."

So, if I were on a hiring committee, what I would ask, in addition to the lists I have posted before that were designed find to lower socioeconomic class people, would be:

1. What was your favorite book at age 15.
2. What were the last 10 books you read that had nothing to do with law.
3. Name your favorite opera, aria, sonata, symphony or any non pop, folk, alt music. (I mean one that gets you in the gut.)
4. What non law book is on the top of the stack on your night stand.
5a. What is your car book -- the one you keep in the car for waiting in lines or waiting rooms.
5b. What is your favorite pasta? (Opps, this question snuck in from the Italian cooking blog.)
6. Who was your favorite teacher before law school and why?

and finally,

6. How would a Rawlsian design the faculty recruitment process?

There are no right answers but there should be answers that come quickly and with a sense of excitement.


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Since you and your colleagues seem reasonably receptive to criticism, let me not mince words: I think this is a really horrible idea.

1. As to your impression of which group is less well educated, I would be surprised if there were marked differences. If and to the extent you see them, I have two alternative explanations: first, observation bias coupled with differing baseline expectations; second, the fact that applicants willing to hazard the market with less tried and true credentials, and with less likelihood of a payoff in reputation or salary, are more fascinated with the life of the mind. Quality or style of education seems unlikely to explain any difference, which is as you say relates mainly to top ten and non-top ten rather than some crop of the self-taught.

(As something of an aside, I think you are quite wrong in supposing that faculty cultivation is the province of those you deem the elites; in my experience, being heavily championed by someone at a non-top school -- "the very best student I have seen this year or in decades" -- is much more significant for such candidates.)

2. I agree that I might learn a lot about someone by posing the kinds of questions you mention, but would it level the playing field, or relate to the needs of students? My guess is that you would favor candidates benefiting from elite *undergrad* educations. I also think you would feed irrational and subjective decisionmaking by the committee. ("Christ, I can't believe that guy likes Lynyrd Skynyrd. And she loves Ayn Rand!") And I think you would get more interesting people, more intellectually curious and devoted to the life of the mind, who are likely to have relatively less interest in serving on committees and teaching the bar.

11/22/2008 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really, faculty hiring based on what opera someone likes? Worrying about faculty lounge chatter about art and history instead of academic expertise and skill sets? And you think this is "non-elite"? Welcome to academia circa 1950.

Not what I thought MoneyLaw was about.

11/22/2008 5:00 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

My goodness. I had no idea my modest proposal would be so worrisome. I sincerely appreciate the comments. Ani, you are so hard to please but it makes for good discussion.

I do not fully understand your item 1 but fear one point I made may not be clear. The type of people I would like to hire may come from elite or not elite backgrounds. However, while most non elites who are hired seem to fit the description of an intellectual outlier, far fewer elites do because they are able to enter to profession on branding.

If you are saying that the status quo -- nearly all elites -- means professors who are more interested "teaching the bar" and serving on committees that non elites, we just disagree. In fact, "teaching to the bar" and willingness to serve on committees is unlikely to related to elite branding except possibly negatively since with the branding often comes a sense of entitlement.

To anonymous: I wonder if you are really responding to what I wrote. As I noted there are no right answers to the questions ("no right answers"). But are you suggesting that elitist branding is consistent with "academic expertise?" What possible connection would there be?

11/22/2008 9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The irony here is that much of what you describe as elite relates far more to the high school a person attended than to the college. That is really the one thing most committees firmly don't know about it when they review a candidate's resume (and it would probably turn off many faculties if a candidate put their Exeter "degree" on their CV). The value to an elite JD, by contrast, is far more relevant to preparing a person for the market even if it has little bearing on actual long-term success. For example, students from elite schools are more likely to know what an academic paper and a job talk looks like since so many elite schools now offer colloquia classes in which they invite scholars to present papers and students can comment on the paper for credit. They also offer more humanities-like classes in which students read interdisciplinary materials. These are luxuries at some cash-strapped schools or schools with small faculties.

11/25/2008 3:44 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Jeff, thanks as always.

1. On the subject of whether elites are on average more narrowly educated, I think I am responding by questioning the accuracy of your perception, particularly as it relates to the question of education versus expressed interests. And I don't the suggested explanation that elites are able to enter on branding makes sense. If non-elites are to challenge elites for positions when the odds are against them, I would expect that the way they do that is to out-perform them on traditional metrics (getting the very tip-top grades to the exclusion of nonlegal activities, publishing more, making sure their recs say that they are the very best students ever) whereas the elites can coast and indulge a life of the mind. Maybe that's wrong, but I don't think a quick allusion to branding does the trick.

2. I don't see any answer to the proposition that this kind of inquiry would entirely subvert the MoneyLaw notion of objective indicia of professorial potential.

3. I am not saying that the status quo produces zeal to do a school's dirty work, or to teach the bar. But I can't believe hiring people based on whether they are intellectually curious, devoted to a life of the mind, and whatnot is going to get a cadre of professors who want to teach what students need to function as professionals and to perform what the school needs. I think if someone else told you that's what a hiring committee was asking, you'd speculate that it was Yale's, and shake your head and the poor service being performed for stakeholders.

11/26/2008 4:29 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Dear Ani and another anonmous;

First, another anonomous.Yes, there is no question that the elites understand how to "play the game" when they begin looking for a job. Funny that hiring committees cannot understand it.

For Ani; I get your drift and understand. My response to 2 and 3 is that the life-of-the-mind-state-school-top-of-the-class person is more likely not to have a sense of entitlement. More likely to have spent a summer working at McDonalds as opposed to spending the summer at a "dig" in Peru. They are more connected to the notion that there are bills to pay. Maybe it is work ethic. Maybe it is just the sense of obligation.

11/26/2008 5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

perhaps the real problem is that, having gone through law school once already, the most interesting and creative students are already bored of what really is a rather stodgy establishment. being creative and interesting, they've moved on to other, newer things that interest them more.

1/21/2009 11:29 PM  

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