Category: Teaching

Recommendation Inflation

clarence.jpgThough many law schools have become vigilant about stopping grade inflation, what about “recommendation inflation?” Recommendations can become difficult to write well if one is unaware of the prevalence of superlatives in others’ assessments. Consider this observation from an English professor: “The level of praise is so high that any assessment short of ‘brilliant’ can look tepid. That means that any consideration of a candidate’s weakness is probably a kiss of death.”

The inflation here is particularly pernicious because simple observations like that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Though the confidentiality of recommendations is supposed to ensure candor, privacy laws also make it highly unlikely that anyone can ever fully compare what one recommender has written on behalf of a range of applicants.

Lior Strahilevitz has argued that there is “often an essential conflict between information privacy protections and antidiscrimination principles,” because “the government can publish previously private information about individuals so as to discourage decisionmakers’ reliance on problematic proxies.” Reflecting on that proposal, I thought that one solution to recommendation inflation would be to establish a norm among recommendation writers to disclose how many times they called someone “the best student I have taught,” “in the top 1% of students,” etc.

But I sense that the impulse to quantify & disclose here is probably misplaced. To return to the Chron article I cited at the beginning, perhaps there are some more creative ways out of the problem. Though this style of recommending is directed to humanities graduate students, it could be translated to other fields:

One of our sources made a great comparison between the challenge of writing a letter of reference and the task facing Clarence, the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Clarence elucidates the importance of George Bailey’s life by showing George what it would have been like if George had never been born. A great letter explains what a field or discipline would have been like if the candidate had never contributed to it, and thereby establishes the candidate’s contribution.”

Ah, the wisdom of Frank Capra. Perhaps narratives have as much a place as numbers in the assessment of excellence.

Photo Credit: It’s a Wonderful Life (George and Clarence).


Short courses?

Greetings from (mostly sunny) Champaign-Urbana, where I’m spending the week, teaching a short course on Federalism and the Making of American Corporate Law at the University of Illinois. Under the law school’s short-course program, the brainchild of Ralph Brubaker, my former colleague at Emory and now Associate Dean here at Illinois, anywhere from five to ten professors, judges, and attorneys come to campus each term, to teach a week-long, one-credit course.

I’m told the students generally love the short courses. My own data – consisting of the (fairly high, I think) enrollment of 27 students in the class, and good participation in the first class (yesterday) – would seem to confirm as much. For the visitors, meanwhile, it can be an occasion to try something new, or at least different, and to spend time with academic colleagues they might otherwise only see in passing, in the hallways at AALS. For Illinois, finally, it’s an opportunity to spread good impressions and good will among legal academics, on the bench, and with the bar. (As Charles Tabb – who’s serving as Interim Dean – put it, it’s a great way “to make new friends.”)

At Emory, we have “accelerated courses,” but of a different sort. Visitors, most commonly hailing from overseas, come for four to seven weeks to teach a class or two. Again, students like it, etc. Obviously, though, the longer format engages a completely different set of potential visitors.

Do other schools do anything similar to Illinois? If not, it’s something I suspect might be well-worth considering.


Practicing Law, Studying Law, and Teaching Law

I missed the party on interdisciplinary studies last week — see here for links — but it did raise a question that I don’t think was a focus of the discussion, namely, all else being equal, can interdisciplinary scholars teach law school classes just as well as “non-interdisciplinary” hires? If, as Brian Tamanaha claims, more schools are adopting interdisciplinary programs, presumably the character of their faculties will need to reflect that ambition — i.e., they will have to hire more professors who have spent relatively more time studying and relatively less time in practice. Indeed, that balance does not only pertain to schools going interdisciplinary. Larry Solum suggests that in 20 years, law schools might be taught by law Ph.D.’s, who will presumably have less practice experience than today’s non-Ph.D. law faculty. So the question is really one of scholarly credentials versus experience. Will law teaching be better, worse, or unaffected by such a shift, if it occurs?

I’m skeptical of arguments that quickly equate “different from how it is done now” (or, similarly, “different than how it was done when I was younger”) with “worse.” So that’s a danger to avoid. However, as someone who views himself as having both interdisciplinary interests and some practice experience, I feel unusually free of biases here. And at the end of the day, I lean toward “worse.”

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Lessig on PowerPoint

Following up on Deven’s recent, well-deserved praise of Larry Lessig‘s Free Culture, I wanted to mention the rather distinct grounds on which I’ve often had occasion to praise Lessig: His use of PowerPoint.

I’ve long had doubts about the the value of PowerPoint as a pedagogic tool. Essentially, I’m unsure what it adds. Often, I hear folks talk about visual learners, but does PowerPoint – at least as commonly used – do much for such learners? Too often, I see speakers use PowerPoint simply to squeeze in more information, with less structure, thought, and analysis, than they might otherwise bring to their remarks. Listeners, I have consequently come to suspect, may actually be learning less with PowerPoint. Perhaps I’m not yet ready to conclude that the crash of the space shuttle Columbia can be traced to PowerPoint, as some have suggested. Given its capacity to bury and obscure relevant information, though, I’m not far off.

Some time ago, however, a friend forwarded me this link, to a talk and PowerPoint presentation by Lessig, back in 2002. (Even if you’ve seen it, I’d encourage you to sample it again, as a truly amazing piece of work.) Basically, by the spare use of select words and phrases, Lessig successfully conveys both his broad themes and a substantial amount of information, in a way that even visual images – let alone line after line of PowerPoint text – could never have done. I’m confident that my absorption of the relevant ideas and material was exponentially greater than my normal (perhaps abnormally low) rate.

Here, Lessig credits someone else with helping to create the final product, perhaps affirming Deven’s point about his modesty. At a minimum, though, he deserves credit for his excellent judgment, in recognizing a good thing when he sees it.