Making Law Professors Happy

grades.jpegMichael Livingston (Camden-Rutgers) has a relatively new blog that I just came across. Last month, he offered an interesting set of observations on why law professors, who have objectively wonderful jobs, are often so darn nervous and angsty. Here is a taste:

The answer is provided by the theory: they behave in this manner because they are doomed to compete, without anyone else to share the responsibility, in an activity in which they can never know whether they have succeeded or even what succeeding might mean.

This makes the world I live in look quite grim, and I don’t know that I buy the descriptive claim. Are professors any more unhappy than doctors, accountants, GM workers, or real lawyers? I doubt it – although Livingston’s recent post on affirmative action sheds some light on issues he finds alienating. The payoff from his claim is provocative: he offers a novel defense of the tenure system, based on relieving of the crisis caused by competing against yourself in a world without measures:

Tenure, for example, which would no longer be seen as a form of protectionism for incompetent academics, but a necessary countermeasure to prevent the suffering from becoming still more pronounced.

Ok. But if that is the goal tenure is serving, couldn’t we accomplish it more efficiently by, say, giving professors grades? Does it really matter that such grades will have no connection to objective measures? (We all went to law school, and are used to such things.) As so often happens, I’m reminded of a terrific Simpson’s episode, involving a teacher’s strike. I strongly empathize with Lisa’s response, expressed in a conversation with Marge:

Lisa: Grade me…look at me…evaluate and rank me! Oh, I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart! Grade me!

[Marge scribbles an A on a piece of paper]

[Lisa walks off, muttering crazily and sighing]

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9 Responses

  1. Ok.

    David Hoffman: B-

    (just kidding)

    Law professors are a competitive lot, and many crave some sense of external validation and recognition of their work. But I strongly doubt that law professors are unhappy. In fact, I’ve hardly encountered an unhappy law professor. As far as tenure serving as a way to “alleviate suffering,” the idea strikes me as a bit ridiculous. In my experience, those professors driven to produce scholarship will keep on producing it as much after tenure as before. And I doubt that what drives them will change with tenure.

  2. Compared to my colleagues at the law firm, law professors are practically giddy. All kidding aside, I think that this theory strikes a chord. I had a law colleague confide to me when we were 3rd years that he was depressed. His whole life had been spent garnering an award, or a good grade, or some other honor every few months. Then, in the practice of law, there really aren’t grades. He was in litigation, but he never went to trial, so he couldn’t even count his trial victories when he was feeling low.

    Maybe this is why law professors love to talk about the rankings or SSRN downloads. That’s our external validation.

  3. Chris says:

    The lack of measurement isn’t substantively different than many careers. I get formal feedback on my performance once a year from my boss, I get intermittent feedback from my customers and occasionally a complaint that is lodged over my head.

    Professors may or not get formal reviews yearly, but the feedback loop from students is probably more frequent than the feedback I get from customers.

    I think the challenge of getting feedback in a job without meaures is prevalent in every proffession that people work with autonomy.

  4. Chapin Cimino Cody says:

    I just started teaching last year and have been thinking about this exact subject a lot since then. Before teaching I was a mid-level litigation associate. When I first got to academia I was quite struck with how preoccupied law professors are with their “public” personae. I call this phenomenon “peacocking” (strutting in an effort to convince others of your worth and so to improve your reputation). Relevant to this post, I didn’t see much peacocking in practice, at least within my firm (as opposed to between adversaries).

    My own crack pot theory is that peacocking (lonely, competitive) can be less prevalent in practice because practice can be much more of a meritocracy than academia. If as an individual you obtain good results for your clients, or do good work for the partner supervising you, your reputation improves. By contrast, in academia, one’s individual reputation remains tied to mostly institutional proxies (rankings, rankings, and more rankings). The net result is that academia strikes me as a less meritocratic place than practice (at least in my own experience), and could be one additional explanation of the angst that Michael Livingston has observed.

    One final thought: maybe a desire for more “meritocracy” in academia could be fueling the popularity of the blogosphere and of SSRN downloads. Blogs and SSRN numbers do serve as external validation, but these two measures seem to more directly validate the individual than do the more traditional institutional measures (rankings, rankings, and more rankings).

  5. lawprof says:

    Most law professors have long given up competing for anything. Most of them are sitting around, mostly dead wood. If they’re unhappy, it’s because you need to be a nervous angsty person to get the law prof job in the first place. Once you have it, though, it’s pretty cushy.

  6. Ann Bartow says:

    Oh cripes, I love this job! Where else can you get paid for trying to overthrow the patriarchy?

  7. PG says:

    I am disturbed that only one person mentions student evaluations as a way law professors get feedback. I know that often those evaluations are lazy and unhelpful (even the positive ones; I once left as a comment “Prof. B is a ROCK STAR!” which accurately describes my appreciation but is hardly descriptive). Still, it’s dispiriting to think that law professors count their success wholly in publication and other non-teaching terms. I TAed a class in the journalism school last year and got a lot of satisfaction (almost enough to make up for the frustration created by the people who complained) from the students who evinced enjoyment of the subject and clearly learned something from the course.

  8. Extremely well written..Let me know if you need an extra writer on your team! from the looks of the number of comments it seams your blog is admired.thanks

  9. h cripes, I love this job! Where else can you get paid for trying to overthrow the patriarchy?