Live from the AALS Conference on New Ideas for Law School Teachers: Teaching Intentionally

Today is the first day of the AALS Midyear Conference on New Ideas for Law Teachers. Before commenting more substantively on the Conference itself, I want to ask this preliminary question: why are so few law professors from “elite” schools participating in the conference? There are approximately 150 professors registered for the Conference. By my count, only about 3 percent of those registered teach at law schools ranked within the “top 10” according to US News & World Report (I am aware of the controversy associated with US News rankings, but have referenced them here for the sake of convenience.) Similarly, only about another 10 percent of the participants teach at law schools ranked within the “top 25” according to the same US News ranking.

A causal observer might argue that the relative lack of participation by professors at “elite” law schools signals a lack of interest in teaching. Or an observer might say that professors at “elite” law schools already know how to teach well and therefore are unlikely to register for such a conference. But I think both of these arguments are far too facile. I believe that law professors at highly ranked law schools care deeply about teaching; and teachers at all levels can always benefit from sharing best practices. Instead, one arguent is that the difference in registration rates can be explained by the differing markets for law students. Arguably, schools in the “middle range” are incented to constantly improve and refine teaching methods because they compete against other schools in the same range directly on that basis. Upper tier schools, by contrast, are largely competing against each other in terms of branding and prestige of the institution.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    I admit I don’t know about the conference schedule for legal academics, but it might be similar to my experience with mathematics.

    There are a lot of conferences, summer schools, and the like across the summer, since that’s when most of us are off of teaching at our home institutions. Since we can’t be at more than one at a time, and depending on funding can’t be at more than one across the summer at all, we’ve got to make choices as to what to attend. So, which is going to be most beneficial?

    Well for people at top, research-oriented schools, the answer is undoubtably a research conference. This is particularly true for a young mathematician who’s trying to get new positions, or to score tenure. If you’re looking at schools which weight more for research than for teaching then going to a teaching conference rather than keeping on the bleeding edge of your field is a waste of time and money.

  2. MR says:

    Could the answer lie in the quality of students? It’s possible that students at top law schools are going to more easily and more comfortably fit into socratic method, policy analysis, etc., such that teaching such classes requires less “best practices.” That’s not to say these teachers can’t improve or are even good in the first place, just that less time need be spent on figuring out the best way to present material.

    Not having taught a class, I have no idea, but that’s the first thought that occured to me.

  3. Adam Kolber says:

    There are almost 200 ABA-approved law schools in the country (plus some unapproved schools whose profs might attend, too). If there were 200 professors in attendance and they were randomly distributed across the U.S. News tables, one would expect only about 1/8 (12.5%) to be from a top 25 school (if, counterfactually, all schools had the same faculty size). So I wouldn’t be surprised if your analysis is right, but I’m not sure that the data here can support it.

  4. Duke Jordan says:

    In my experience, professors at the top 10 schools are pretty arrogant, and tend to think that they could only learn from “big name” professors. So they tend to stay away from AALS events, which don’t necessarily feature the “big names.” (This isn’t entirely irrational; the quality of AALS events tends to be pretty low.)

  5. Doug B. says:

    I’ll throw in a variant on the comment from John: because many (most?) faculty members at top schools get many (too many?) invitations to participate in conferences of all sorts, their travel schedules are readily filled with “speaker” events (and also with follow-up writing commitments). That reality can leave little time/energy to be attendees at other events, no matter what the topic…

  6. Kate litvak says:

    Adam Kolber stole my thunder. If schools in different tiers hire roughly the same number of entry-level profs, then, the participation by the top-25 is almost perfectly proportional. And if we buy into the rumor that higher-ranked schools rely more heavily on lateral hires (and therefore hire fewer entry-level people) than lower-ranked schools, then, the level of participation by top-25 juniors is even higher than proportional.

    Actually, I take it back. Top-25 hires are just ungrateful lucky snobs; everyone knows that.