Vladeck’s Shining Hour

miamiu2.jpgI assume that many of our readers also follow Prawfsblawg, once home to Solove, Wenger and I. But in case you haven’t been to Prawfs lately, you are missing one of the most interesting discussions I’ve read on the legal blawgosphere in the five years I’ve been wasting spending time following it. The protagonists: Steve Vladeck (University of Miami first-year professor); his students; sundry law professors of the left; and some academics from the “right,” including Texas Law’s Assistant Prof. Kate Litvak. The discussion revolves around Steve’s decision to hold classes “off-campus” for the duration of a just-begun janitor’s strike.

As Steve explained in his first post on the topic, he canvassed his students before making the decision. Nevertheless, as his second post reveals, he has been attacked vigorously by students, one of whom (in an open meeting) called for him to be fired. That hostile reaction – – which you can really taste reading the comments to the posts – unsettled Steve, as he explains most recently here:

What’s perhaps been the most surprising to me is the extent to which those students who have been the most outspoken critics of what I’ve done have no qualms or hesitation about their entitlement — their right — to dictate to me the terms of my job . . . . I had always understood the academy generally, and the legal academy specifically, as characterized by the autonomy it bestows upon its members. Autonomy to decide what to teach, and how to teach it. I would’ve thought that “how” also included at least some flexibility with respect to “when and where” . . . And so, I pose this as a question, especially to my more senior colleagues here and elsewhere: Where is the line? At what point do we cease being servants to our student masters? We can say no to requests for recommendations. We can say no to requests that we advise student papers. We certainly get to design our own syllabi, even for the most black-letter, bar-essential classes. Indeed, the real stick we wield is our proverbial red pen. But apparently, we don’t get to inconvenience some of our students in the interests of others (and other members of our community). Isn’t there something of a disconnect here? Doesn’t part of our portfolio include the authority and the responsibility to make that decision?

All of these posts engendered substantial comment threads, with anonymous and attributed authors. Litvak, in particular, has been blunt in her criticism. “[R]efusing to move the class is not a ‘political statement’ – it’s simply a refusal to breach a contract. The deal was for class participants to show up at a certain time in a certain place and do a certain thing. That’s what you were hired to do. That’s what you should do.” She further has argued that a law professor’s classroom management decisions should pass a “viewpoint neutrality”* test. She explains that she would support Steve under limited circumstances:

[If] abortion protesters put up a sign on campus ‘This is the save-the-babies week. Don’t cross the line if you oppose abortion!’ and a group of your students announces that crossing the line violates their fundamental moral beliefs, [and Steve proceeded to] pledge to move your class outside campus. And you pledge to do the same for all student demands to meet outside campus so long as such demands are based on proclaimed moral belief. If you publicly pledge so, I will be the first to get off your case because you will demonstrate that you are in fact viewpoint neutral. Please don’t start arguing that strike picket is somehow different from the abortion (or any other) picket because of “history.” . . . [I]n this country, walkouts on the grounds of pure moral revulsion have been just as common (if not more common) as walkouts in demand for higher pay. Most of the civil rights protests fit the pattern.

She finally expresses her disdain for the enterprise of using the fact of the strike to have a discussion with students about labor law:

By the way, the “teaching moments” stuff demonstrates a spectacular naiveté and a spectacular arrogance on a part of a faculty member . . . I oppose political propaganda in the classroom not because I believe it to be consequential (I don’t), but because I believe it to be the most arrogant case of professorial self-indulgence.

Joseph Slater, Dave Fagundes, and others have since weighed in. The whole topic is actually (for the medium) a pretty nuanced, substantive, and real-world debate. I think that you have to applaud Steve for being willing to put this story out there and to face some incredibly hostile reactions as a first-year professor. All across the land, first-year teachers are ducking their heads at controversy, and obviously Steve could have done so too. But instead he keeps on blogging away, refusing (mostly) to rise to provocation, trying to imagine good motives in many of the people who have attacked him personally, and – above all – being really transparent.

There are many interesting things going on in this exchange, and I encourage you to read them for yourself, and perhaps join in. The whole thing has raised lots of questions for me, some of which I can hold until it is over. But one problem that comes immediately to mind whether strikes and related labor actions give rise to aberrant behavior and rhetoric, or whether they instead peel away pretension and bring us closer to a realistic look at law school life. The possible truth that cuts deepest is that some/many/most law students believe that their faculty aren’t professionals but instead their employees. Usually (the story would go) this student opinion is cloaked by norms reinforcing hierarchy, habits of civility, and strategic calculation. Of course, the view would imply that when law professors do anything to help a student outside of class, we shouldn’t see those actions as altruistic or part of the obligation that professionals owe to society, but instead motivated by the student’s hidden whip hand. Thus, professors tolerate IMing in the classroom (as a recent discussion on the contracts listserve, of all places, has suggested) because prohibiting it is not something that students let us pretend to have the power to do.

I guess I prefer to think that strikes are emotional times, and that forum’s like Miami’s public meeting encourage venting by extreme voices. The relationship between law student and law professor is, in my view, better analogized to that between client and lawyer than employer and employee. But maybe my students (who sometimes read this blog, for some reason) disagree. If so they (and other readers) are feel free to so comment, anonymously or otherwise.

[*”Viewpoint neutrality”!! And they say that economists’ rhetoric is invasive!]

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Kaimi says:

    I’ll comment here, rather than in the mess that is Steve’s thread.

    I think he is underestimating the extent to which class changes are a very big deal to students. Law school grades are hard to earn; often hard to decipher; and hugely important for future employment. Law students are very stressed about them. Any change in class is going to be highly disruptive and stressful for students. (And such changes are not limited to a single political side. One professor of mine took off in mid-semester to go work for the Bush side of the recount. The students weren’t thrilled about that.)

    That said, I think that his choice may be reasonable. I met off-campus for a couple of classes while in law school, for the entire semester. It was that professor’s style to do so. They were very effective, as well as being some of my favorite classes. (My final take on the reasonableness of the off-campus meeting would depend on the specifics of it — where it is, etc.)

    Also, I think that Steve’s repeated invocation of the poor hypoethetical student who herself doesn’t want to cross picket lines is, at least as currently framed, a bit disingenuous. Steve doesn’t know that such students exist, or that they exist in any real quanitity. We do know, absolutely, that some students _don’t_ want to move.

    If a vote showed that students were split 50-50 on the issue, then Steve’s action (and his repeated invocation of the student-who-doesn’t-want-to-cross-picket-lines) would seem like a reasonable enough choice. He’s going to offend some group, somehow — it’s reasonable to go with his preferences.

    However, if his students prefer to stay on campus by a 90-10 ratio, his own choice looks a lot less like defense of his own students, and a lot more like an outright imposition of his own views on his students, based only on his own superior position of power.

    Absent some indication as to how the views of his students break down — and I didn’t see such an indication in a reading/skimming of that mega-thread — I can’t say one way or the other. But if his students _do_ strongly prefer to stay on campus by some overwhelming margin, it gets harder to frame is as “Steve watching out for the interests of union-friendly students” and looks more and more like a raw imposition of power.

    Finally, and in general, the mere fact that Kate Litvak’s criticism is massively off the mark (asserting breach-of-contract, apparently without knowledge about what any of the contracts involved actually say), or that some of the other critiques are even worse on the Prawfs thread, doesn’t mean that Steve’s actions can’t be subjected to reasonable critique.

  2. Steve says:

    Kaimi — I don’t take Dave’s point to be that what I’ve done shouldn’t be subjected to reasonable critique. I had hoped it would be. What surprised me, and what (I’m guessing) surprised Dave, was the extent to which the critiques quickly took on a very personal, very emotional bent…

    As for your inquiry, I can only speak to my students, but they’ve overwhelmingly supported my decision to have class off campus, even those who don’t agree with it. The most heated criticism, thus far, has come from other students, which is part of why I found so troubling their questioning of my motives.

    Live and learn, I guess.

  3. sls_3L says:

    Professor Vladeck, To say that your students “overwhelmingly supported *my* decision to have class off campus” is different than saying over half preferred to move off campus. In previous posts, you said that if you held one class on campus and one class off, most students would end up attending the on campus class. I take this prediction as a better indication of your students preference than any support for a decision you have alread made.