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Choosing a law school, part 7

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10 Responses

  1. Len Rotman says:

    Alfred,

    I have enjoyed your thoughtful posts on choosing a law school and could not agree with you more on this latest post. An engaged scholar is a person truly engaged with the law of the particular area(s) and who has arguably spent far more time thinking about the subject matter than those who do not write about the subjects they teach. The time spent researching and thinking/theorizing about issues and problems provides the scholar with a greater perspective and wealth of material to draw upon in the classroom than the professor who does not publish. This can only benefit the students as long as the scholar takes the time to translate that knowledge into a form digestable for them.

    Best regards,

    Len

  2. Stephanie says:

    While I agree that students should care about learning from teachers who are experts in their field, rather than people who just happen to teach a class but research something else, there are a lot of people out there in the world who write prolifically and are at their top of their field but cannot teach to save their lives. Unfortunately, I took my constitutional law class from a highly prolific scholar with a prominent blog who was horrible at teaching and was very socially awkward. So publication is a factor, but perhaps it shouldn’t be a very big one. I have had excellent classes from teachers who happen to teach a subject the do not publish on.

  3. John Steele says:

    haven’t there been studies on this question? why treat it as a question to be answered by personal intuition and plausible rhetoric?

  4. Len Rotman says:

    John,

    The problem with your query is how one would go about studying the issue.

    Let’s start with an empirical study of “X” number of well-published profs vs. “Y” number of not well-published profs. First, one must draw the distinction between the well-published and not well-published professors. How is this done? How many publications makes one well-published? Do you count by year, by quality or over a career? Peer-reviewed vs. non peer-reviewed journals? Books? If so, edited collections, casebooks, or textbooks/treatises?

    Next, assuming you have been able to reasonably and objectively decided how to determine what makes a person well-published vs. not well-published, how do you assess their ability to teach? Do you rely upon student evaluations? Do you ask the professors’ peers? What are the objective criteria you would use? What is it that makes a professor a “good” teacher as opposed to a less than good, or bad, teacher? Is it the ability to communicate? Is it the style of delivery — socratic, modified socratic, casual, structured, unstructured? How about availability to students? If this is valid, how do you count in class vs. out of class, office hours vs. e-mail, etc.?

    My point here is that it is rather difficult to establish a solid basis for studying this issue. Certainly, one could ask random students what traits they think make for a good teacher and tally the numbers, but why is it only student opinions that count? The same objection could be made of only asking the professors’ peers. If both students and proessors were asked this question, they likely would have rather different responses.

    So, at the end of the day, all you may have left is “personal intuition and plausible rhetoric.” Perhaps some questons simply cannot be answered in a strict and absolute sense when dealing with human idiosyncracies? But don’t tell the economists that I said this, or I’ll deny it :)

  5. John Steele says:

    Len,

    If your level of skepticism about how we could test the claim is appropriate — and let’s assume it is — then there’s no point in instructing students to make expensive decisions on this factor.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    From a practitioner point of view, most of what law professors publish is irrelevant to the practice of law, especially transactional practice. One reason is that faculty written output is very often dictated more by the intellectual fashions and ideological predilections of tenure committees than by utility to practitioners. A good example is law & economics, which even Big Law litigator friends of mine, in practice for 30-40 years, tell me has been irrelevant to their practice except insofar as an occasional judge might be interested in it, or sometimes in an antitrust case.

    When I was in law school, albeit quite a while ago, I had much more respect for the profs who had actually practiced law (and I don’t mean 3 years writing memos or doing discovery at a Big Law firm). Unless the student plans an academic career, professors’ writing should be neutral or even a criterion only for what schools to avoid. If they do plan an academic career, then according to what I read on this blog, with rare exception they need to go to a Top 10 school anyway. Prospective students at Top 10 schools who plan to go into practice already have lots of other reasons for preferring a Top 10 school. So only those applicants who not only (i) plan to be academics but also (ii) expect to be able to choose from among multiple Top 10 Schools are likely to benefit from an affirmative application of the criterion you suggest in this post.

    That’s not to say that a professor’s enthusiasm for a subject is irrelevant to the benefit a student can get from a course. But course evaluations are probably a better guide to whether the enthusiasm translates into better teaching. BTW I took antitrust from a big macher & treatise author in that field, and it was a snore; see also Stephanie’s comment above.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    PS: further on the practical relevance of L&E, see also today’s post by Lawrence Cunningham, “SCOTUS Chides Posner/Easterbrook in Jones v. Harris”.

  8. Len Rotman says:

    John,

    While not wanting to hijack Alfred’s post into a dialogue betwee you and I, I fail to see why the fact that one may not be able to positively test Alfred’s claim necessarily means that one ought not make decisions based on using it as one criterion (out of many, as Alfred indicates) of law school quality. What makes one car superior to another? There are many factors, and opinions, affecting such a choice and not all can be boiled down to provable points, like what car has more trunk cargo space. If I think an El Camino is sexier than a Gremlin, who is to question my choice, even if you “know” that the Gremlin is far sexier.

    If I look at my own faculty, the most productive scholars are, for the most part, the best and most engaged teachers. That does not always make the most productive scholars the most popular teachers. Some students prefer to be spoon fed basic material than to engage in a dialogue on contentious and challenging issues that truly test one’s mastery of them. From my understanding, the perception (and yes, you can challenge me on this point because I cannot prove it) is that students in classes taught by more prolific scholars learn more than students in classes taught by my less well published colleagues. Do schools seeking lateral hires tend to pursue professors who do not write? If not, why not? Again, no absolutes, but if I am going to hang my hat on who I would rather choose when offered two sections of corporate law and I am truly interested in learning as much as I can, you can be assured that I am going to pick the professor that publishes and is up on the current issues and jurisprudence (particularly if they author a casebook or treatise on the topic) over the professor who “just” teaches the course, barring any other information that tells me to avoid the former.

    This is not to suggest that all professors who publish are good teachers, as Stephanie and A.J. illustrate. I would think that insofar as publishing demonstrates one’s engagement with the material, it would suggest, at a minimum, a more engaged teacher. A more engaged teacher is more likely to be a better teacher than a less engaged one because he/she possesses greater knowledge of the subject matter; further, because he/she is more engaged, he/she is likely to exert more effort in teaching and to truly care about that teaching than the less engaged, less prolific professor. If a professor is teaching a course only because of duty rather than because it meshes with his/her scholarly interests, that professor likely does not have as much at stake in teaching that course, particularly if the person has tenure, than a professor who publishes in the area. Admittedly, these are suppositions, but they are, I think, better criteria to base a choice on than not. Go ask Associate Deans which of these professors they would rather have teaching their classes and see what their responses are.

    Cheers,

    Len

  9. John Steele says:

    Len,

    Thanks. A dialogue between you and me seems appropriately on point, I hope.

    It seems to me that you make two different arguments. One is about making decisions on whim and intuition—like picking the El Camino because you find it sexier. On that kind of issue, de gustibus non disputandum est.

    Then you make a factual, empirical argument based on looking at your own faculty. I’m all for making this an empirical question, but I’d prefer that if we play that game we do it systematically and thoroughly rather than through anecdotes, intuition and plausible rhetoric. (My experience: by far the best profs I had at Georgetown didn’t publish; the publishing superstars were ho-hum teachers to be endured.)

    Your plausible rhetoric arguments including asking if schools pursue professors who don’t write. That’s not germane to the question at hand unless you assume that schools are seeking the best teachers and for good reasons use publishing as a proxy for what the school really wants: teaching skills. But that’s not how it works, is it?

    But as long as we’re asking anecdotal, empirical questions about what the market chooses, what do the students choose? Unlike the hiring deans, the students are the actual consumers of the teaching. Isn’t it common that the great teachers—even the hard, demanding teachers—are over-subscribed semester after semester?

    You also ask if an associate dean would prefer an engaged professor or one who teaches out of a begrudging duty. Again, not germane and basically a straw man.

    Just to be fair, I’ll lay my cards face up on this issue. Both as a student and as someone who teaches in law schools, I find the fact of publishing and the act of teaching to be sufficiently different activities that there’s no particularly strong correlation. If we created a 2×2 matrix of good/bad teacher and strong/zero publishing, and then mapped the profs, my intuition says we’d get a scattershot of data with perhaps a very weak correlation between strong publishing and good teaching. But that weak correlation, if it exists, could just be reflecting energy rather than causation.

    I seem to recall that some studies have been done on this topic, but I can’t put my finger on them right now. This is an empirical question and our respective experiences and intuitions shouldn’t be the grounds on which this issue is decided.

    Finally to return to the original post, I can’t imagine telling an undergrad to pick a law school on this criterion. Imho, that would be bad advice. On the other hand, I could advise an applicant to think about which schools take the teaching side seriously.

  10. Rob says:

    Len, John, and Alfred,

    In order to classify my own perspective, I am currently a law student who came across this post and felt the need to respond. I do not know if this will be read, seeing as the previous post occurred a month ago, but I still feel compelled to respond. Though you have all been law students, after having taught law school for a number of years, it seems that many professors have a lapse in memory about what their experience really was like.

    The posit that a published professor is a better teacher than a “not well published” professor is difficult to quantify. Simply because you are well published, knowledgeable, and “engaged’ in the subject does not equal a better professor in the mind of students. It is how a professor can convey the information to the students and engage them in the topic. The worst professor I have EVER had was my contracts professor. She did not normally teach contracts and is extremely well published and knowledgeable in another legal field. I assumed she taught contracts poorly because she was not as knowledgeable and her other classes might possibly be better.

    However, I have read reviews, talked to students, and almost unanimously the students say she is the worst professor they have ever had, even in her acclaimed field. She is extremely intelligent, published, and engaged in the subject, but did not have any teaching skills. I have also had professors who are well published, wrote the text book we use, etc, who are incredible professors. Likewise, I have had professors who were not well-published (at least yet) and were also incredible professors.

    As a student, it does not matter if they are well published or not, mainly how they convey the subject. Therefore, I would not take into consideration what school the professor came from, how much they have published, or how long they had been teaching. It is whether the professor can engage me, as a student with perhaps little knowledge on a topic, in the subject they are teaching. I am not saying that I am looking for a comedian or entertainment, simply an engaging professor, not necessarily a professor engaged in the subject.

    I do not think it is good advice to tell students to look at how much the professors have published in choosing a school. That will not mean they will like their professors any more or less. In fact, this advice could lead a student to become more resentful or jaded, feeling like a factor in choosing their school was the faculty’s extensive publication while they still have bad professors. It would be much more beneficial to somehow be able to read reviews on potential professor’s teaching style/methods from other students and thus choose accordingly. Though even this is still subjective as well.

    -Rob

    P:S: Professor Rotman, will you be teaching at the University of Denver Fall Semester 2010? That is where I attend and I am actually trying to decide which Corporations professor to take.

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