Saturday, December 15, 2012

Take The Classroom Back

Newberry College in Columbia, South Carolina, will offer a major in social media.
The college, for its part, explains that this is one of the first interdisciplinary social media majors. It says it blends graphic design, communications, business, marketing, psychology, and statistics, and that social media is such a vital part of marketing and other business habits that it'll be a valuable qualification with a likely career path ahead of it. One way students will learn mobile marketing, the college says (via Fox 57), is by designing QR codes, "those little black and white scanners you use with your smartphone." Apparently this is the "hot new way" to do marketing with mobile phones.
So...last time we looked, the QR code was frowned upon by almost everyone, everywhere (though it does linger in the U.S.). And surely one worry is that by the time students graduate in 2017, with the course starting in 2013, the rocket-speed development of social media itself will have outpaced their education.
No, this isn't from the Onion, but from educators who are trying to become relevant in a young person's world by getting ahead of the curve, even though there is neither a chance of success nor a need to turn culture into coursework, and cater to the interests of children.

What teenager wouldn't be enticed by a major in Facebook with a minor in Pinterest?  Of course, if they offered this a decade ago, the major would have been Netscape and they would be working the counter at Dairy Queen today, if they were lucky.

What type of educator panders to youth culture in this way?  All types, actually.

Having taken lawprofs to task for the inexcusable failure rate on the bar exam, it's worthwhile to consider what has gone terribly wrong in the classroom. It's not that lawprofs aren't smart enough to adequately educate law students, though their interest in pedagogy as compared to indulgent scholarship is in question. But, from what I know of law professors in general, they want to teach students well, even if it's not their primary focus.

So if it isn't their capability to teach or knowledge of the law, then what? 

My surmise is that a core problem is that lawprofs have allowed the inmates to take over the asylum. Law students today have a very different perspective of their relative worth. They believe their opinions are important. Stemming from an excess of unwarranted self-esteem and entitlement, borne of years of coddling, they view themselves as peers of their professors.

They have questions, and demand not only prompt answers, but answers that validate them. The will not tolerate the Socratic Method, as it belittles them and reflects a lack of respect.  There are no longer wrong answers in law school, but just answers not as right as they could have been. And when a student disagrees, asserting that his answer is every bit as good as the one the professor "suggests," they have no qualms about informing the professor of her error.

What does not happen anymore is a professor informing a law student that they are wrong. Dead, completely wrong. Totally wrong. There is no Kingsfield to hand Hart a dime.  Any lawprof foolish enough to do so would learn that he was "condescending and disrespectful." 

And why, an old lawyer wonders, would any lawprof care what a law student thought of him? The dark side of empiricism, evaluations. I asked a lawprof for whom I have enormous respect what drives lawprofs to give a damn about evaluations. This is what I was told:
Deans probably give popular teachers a bit more money in salary, although it's hard to know for sure and varies Dean to Dean. Bad teaching evals can make a lateral move less likely and tenure harder, too, although that's probably only if the evaluations are really bad.   But I suspect the real reason professors care is that everyone wants to be popular, and to feel like their work is valued.  And for professors, evaluations are like their grades, and professors tend to be Type A people who are competitive and want to get high grades.
This is a shocking and deeply disturbing explanation.  A law professor cannot, by definition, be "condescending" to a law student. There is a reason why one is the teacher and the other the student. The teacher possesses superior knowledge. The student is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with the teacher's knowledge.  At least that was the old concept, before they needed the permission and approval of students to teach them.
Plus, law students tend to be a pretty nice people, and it's natural to want the nice people you work with to like you back.
Law professors do not "work with" law students. They teach law students. Or at least they used to, and many of us thought that was still the job. 

Even though practicing lawyers may not know what happens in the classroom these days, we can see the attitude on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., where law students are so bold as to school us on the law. One of my favorite examples was on Twitter, where a law student would twit her opinions on the law to me, which were ignorant and juvenile, and I told her so and explained why.  She was outraged that I didn't respect her views, at my snide, arrogant and condescending attitude.

I responded that the fact that I acknowledged her existence at all was a demonstration of respect far beyond what she deserved. In what universe does a law student get to demand the attention of an experienced lawyer?  In her universe, I was told. In her universe, she was entitled to demand my attention and respect, and my failure to comply with her demands, and in the manner she demanded, made me unworthy.

Dear Lawprofs:  Take back your classroom.  These are not your peers, your colleagues. Perhaps one day they will be, but not now. When you seek their approval, you forfeit your authority to teach them.  If they are wrong, someone must tell them they are wrong. If they lack the capacity to become a lawyer, someone must give them a dime and tell them to call their mother. 

But they won't like you?  Too bad. Your job is not to be liked, but to teach blobs of clay to become lawyers. You do not need any more permission than the fact they sit in your classroom.  They disagree with what you say? Too bad. They are students. They know nothing. That's why they're there.  Their feelings will be hurt if you don't apologize for anything less than glowing validation of their every thought, and they will take it out on you in their evaluations?

That's why they pay you the big bucks.

The expectation of students is that you will honor and respect them, no matter what.  They can be wrong, yet you will find something positive to say because they cannot handle the slightest hint of criticism. They are fragile. They are delicate. They are special.  And since you want them to like you, you pander to their demands. 

As the bar exam results prove, this hasn't helped them to meet the minimal level of competency to become a lawyer. As unemployment rates prove, they are about to learn what real disappointment means. And as their skill in the representation of clients proves, real life will not be nearly as kind to their fragile self-esteem as you were.

You have done them no favors. You have not done your job. Perhaps they are now your dearest pals, but they didn't need a friend. They needed a teacher.

As I pay attention to what lawprofs say and do, I also pay attention to what law students and new lawyers say and do. Some are remarkably astute. Some are mind-bogglingly misguided. They hate me for telling them when they are wrong. They call me snide, arrogant and condescending. And I don't give a damn. They are not my peers, but children in dire need of guidance that no one else is willing to give them. 

Of course, they won't listen to me. I don't coddle them and rub their little tummies. So as long as you concern yourselves more with sweet words on their evaluations, law students will continue to emerge from your classrooms incapable of the rigors of law and unsafe for clients. But who cares, as long as they like you. 

This is the pedagogy you've created and perpetuated. If you have any balls at all, take back your classroom and teach your students well.  Hurt their feelings whenever their feelings need to be hurt. That may be the most important lesson you can ever teach them.  And stop caring more about your validation than what these ignorant, entitled misfits will do to clients some day.

Cross posted at Simple Justice.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I have one problem with this post. Things are actually worse. But it's not the professors alone who need some balls. It's the students who should be able to hear criticism and not take it personally. To engage in the give and take and not view learning someone new as losing.

12/20/2012 1:02 PM  

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