Category: Law School (Teaching)

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On Ree Dolly, J.D. Vance and Empathy for Low-Income Whites (or, What Hillbilly Elegy is Good for)

This is my fourth and final installment about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

One striking aspect of the wide-spread kudos heaped on Hillbilly Elegy is that readers do not seem put off by J.D. Vance.  That is, many (most?) readers appear to sympathize (for lack of a better word) with him, even if they cannot empathize with the circumstances of his upbringing and his struggle socially to transition to Yale Law.  When you consider how many outlets exist for poking fun at low-income, low-education whites, sometimes referred to as “white trash” (think:  Wal-Mart shoppers,  lots of reality television shows poking fun at the white working class, lots of hateful Tweets demeaning this group, the presumptive Trump voter), this attraction to Vance is surprising.  Is it really possible to “clean up” so well, so quickly?  I knew Yale law degrees were valuable, but Vance’s seems to be working miracles.

This generally positive response to Vance reminds me of a similar response to Ree Dolly, the 17-year-old heroine of the movie “Winter’s Bone,” which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2010.  If you saw the film and remember it, that is likely because Jennifer Lawrence starred as Ree.  Indeed, for this her breakout role,  Lawrence was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress. (The film was nominated for best picture).  Ree is the daughter of what would widely be considered a “white trash” family.  Yet she is nothing short of heroic as she courageously rises above the meth-making and hillbilly-version-of-organized-crime circumstances of her extended family.  She takes plenty of hard knocks–literally as well as psychologically–in the quest to prove her father’s death so that she can prevent loss of the (very modest and “trashy”) family home to the bail bond company that secured her father’s release after his last foray into the illicit drug scene.  Along the way, however, it is clear that Ree prioritizes the well-being of her younger siblings–and keeping her nuclear family together in the face of her mother’s mental incapacity and father’s death.  I recorded some of my thoughts about “Winter’s Bone,” Ree and our reaction to her and her milieu back in 2010 here and here.   The most salient quote from one of those posts follows:

Film critics have touted Ree as brilliant, a feminist heroine, a modern-day Antigone.  Like many film goers to whom I have spoken, they look past her trappings and her kin, and they see her value.  This is progress—but then, Ree’s character and courageous acts are exceptional.

A.O. Scott, in his summary of that year’s films under the headline “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” called Ree “exotic” and “an other.”  He wrote of many of that years protagonists (which included Mark Zuckerberg!):

What they all really want is entrée into the middle class, which is why these movies can set them up as objects of audience sympathy and identification.

So Ree is brilliant and we can sympathize and identify with her, while J.D. is compassionate and discerning.  (And if Ree is Antigone, what figure from Greek tragedy might J.D. be?)  I guess I’m surprised by these assessments because I grew up a little too close to where both of these “characters” come from.  As I have suggested elsewhere in this series of posts, maybe my response, my skepticism is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  (And to be clear, I feel contempt for neither Ree nor J.D., but my relationship to both is complicated by considerable familiarity with their milieu.)

Or maybe I’ve just heard so much denigration of low-income whites in my years as an academic that I expect the worst (at least in this regard) from liberal elites.  A number of scholars of socioeconomic class have observed that hillbillies, rednecks and such are the only “identity” group not protected by political correctness (see here, here and here, collecting sources; plus herehere, and here).  Given that it’s ok to engage in micro-aggressions (and worse!) against low-income, low-education whites, what gives for Ree and J.D.?  How can they be heroes?  Presumably because  both rise above their circumstances.  (Interestingly, both also remain loyal to parts of their families, despite those family members’ anti-social practices).

If we coastal elites have this capacity to respond with compassion to Hillbilly Elegy despite the provenance of its protagonist, maybe the book has some redeeming value after all.  Maybe it’s good for something besides satisfying our voyeuristic curiosity about the enigmatic Trump voter (and, of course, making J.D. Vance a very rich man).  Maybe, in fact, it’s particularly useful for educators–including legal educators.

In January, I participated in an AALS 2017 panel on “Cultivating Empathy.” I spoke about how the use of film excerpts in both my Law and Rural Livelihoods and Feminist Legal Theory courses helped to foster student empathy for low-income, low-education whites.  My law school, UC Davis, features an overwhelmingly left-leaning student body, and as a community we were nearly universally flummoxed by the outcome of the 2016 Election.  In a sense, our law school is its own echo chamber.  Yet I noticed that when I showed even brief excerpts from films such as “The Accused,” “North Country,” and “Winter’s Bone,” students responded with great empathy to characters like Sarah Tobias, Josey Aimes, and Ree Dolly–all low-income, low-education, working-class white women.   If we see these socioeconomically disadvantaged whites first as human beings and only secondarily as  (presumptive) Trump voters,  it’s not so hard to empathize with them, to process the stories of their lives, to “get into their heads” in some small way and to imagine having to make the very difficult choices they must make to survive, never mind thrive.

After that AALS panel, a  law professor who teaches at a state university law school in the midwest approached me and said he thought my plea for a more empathic approach to low-education whites could help him and his colleagues better understand their students, most of whom are conservative to one degree or another, and many who are Trump supporters.  Of course, not all conservative white voters are low-income and/or low-education (an angle on the 2016 election often lost on the media; see more here and here) but some overlap exists.  So, wouldn’t it be great if law profs could take their generally positive reaction to J.D. Vance and Hillbilly Elegy and use it to inform how they engage their own students who may be similarly situated to J.D. before he got that fancy schmancy Yale Law degree.  In this regard, we should credit Yale Law’s Amy Chua, who saw value in Vance as a student and mentored him while we was at Yale.  (One can’t help wonder the extent to which the sensationalism of Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother inspired similar sensationalism in Hillbilly Elegy, but I digress).

UC Davis Undergraduate Education has just launched a #firstgen initiative.  In its initial phase, the program encourages professors who are the first generation in their family to get a college degree to “out” themselves (as by wearing to class these cool T-shirts they have supplied to us) so that first gen students can find us, seek us out for mentoring.  The program also aims to educate faculty about first gen student perspectives, encouraging us to be transparent about expectations and grading, reminding us that not all of our students will have parents who can coach them toward success, who will understand the significance of opportunities on offer, let alone how to actively seek out those opportunities.  Among the startling figures that have come to the fore with this new UC Davis initiative:  42% of our undergrads are first gen, a number that no doubt reflects the enormous racial and ethnic diversity of California and our student body.  Further, more than 300 faculty members from across campus have self identified as first gen by joining an online faculty directory.  At an initial gathering, I noticed that many of them/us appeared to be non-Hispanic white, though perhaps that is a generational thing.  Our law school also has a #firstgen program in the works.  A few other law schools already boast these, and numerous undergraduate programs do, too (see more here, here, herehere, and here).

These “#firstgen” initiatives are important in that they remind us to see and assist  not only racial and ethnic minority students, but also would-be class migrants who are white.  We must be mindful of what all of these students need to succeed in a very different world than the one from whence they come.  White skin is not a magic tonic.  And as much as Hillbilly Elegy annoys me (see prior posts here, here and here for elaboration), if the book is good for something , that something may be cultivating empathy among those who can help aspiring class migrants–whatever their race or ethnicity, remembering that white people “have race,” too–to achieve the increasingly elusive “American Dream” via access to higher education.

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The “Shock and Awe” Response to Hillbilly Elegy: Pondering the Role of Race

In my prior posts about Hillbilly Elegy (here and here), I’ve noted some reasons for my struggle to understand the overwhelmingly positive response to J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir.  Actually, positive is too general a descriptor.  There is often what I call a “shock and awe” character to the response, a “there are actually people like Vance and his family out there in America” response.  Who knew?  And who knew male seahorses gestate the offspring?  Who knew the Okavango River flows inland?  Who knew the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, excepting some small African tribes?  But I digress …

It’s not clear if this initial incredulity regards (1) the white socioeconomic disadvantage and dysfunction from whence Vance comes or (2) his meteoric rise from Appalachia to Yale Law School and on to Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital.  I’ve already opined on why we should not be surprised by the former, so in this post I’ll say more about the latter.

First, however, to illustrate just how over the top the media response to Hillbilly Elegy has been, let me quote a few reviews.  Bloomberg identified the book as “the most popular choice for best book of 2016.”  Ok, well, popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, but the venerable New York Times, my own media polestar, called the book a “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass.”  I’ve already explained why I don’t see it as discerning.  As for compassionate?  Maybe in the vein of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” but that doesn’t seem to be a thing any more–if ever it was.  I assume that The Economist reviewer would agree with me on the (lack of) compassion point because he concludes that Vance is a “conservative in the oldest and best sense.”  It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that this reviewer opines that “you will not read a more important book this year.”  In short, the reviewer falls hook, line and sinker for Vance’s tough love, personal responsibility prescription, calling it a “bracing tonic.”

One reason I am surprised by the glowing reviews (especially among left-leaning outlets) and the “millions sold” is that I would not have expected 21C Americans–particularly among the chattering classes (and I know a shocking number of law professors who have read this book)–to be so interested in a story of white class migration.  I thought Horatio Alger characters were a creature of history, that American dream, up-by-your-bootstraps narratives were yesterday’s news.  Didn’t our attraction to such delusional thinking fade once we discovered/identified/named white privilege?

In the world in which I live and work, white privilege is often referenced as if a magic bullet, a miraculous cure-all that permits people with white skin to achieve any and all that their hearts desire.  I often hear phrases like “white people’s problems” and “you’re white, you’ll be alright” tossed about casually.  At a minimum, whiteness greases the proverbial skids on the road to success, though we often treat it as much more potent than that.

Broadly speaking, the academy is highly attuned to structural racism and bias based on race/ethnicity–and appropriately so, in my opinion.  Peggy McIntosh tells us that the invisible knapsack of white privilege means that whites “can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which [they] can afford and in which [they] would want to live.”  (“[W]hich they can afford” is a rather important qualifier, no?)  Bernie Sanders told us during the 2016 primary:

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto.  You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

But this isn’t accurate, and surely–somewhere in the deep recesses of our memories and minds–we are aware of this inaccuracy, this failure to see or acknowledge white poverty.  Yet it seems to have taken Hillbilly Elegy‘s publication to surface that reality, however opaquely.  Still, how many of you have made the connection between what (I hope) you know about the existence of white poverty and the economic landscape depicted in this bestseller?

A majority of those experiencing poverty self-identify as white.  Yet like the academy, the media very often conflate our racism problem with our poverty/inequality problem.  See here and here.  The suggestion is often that black people are poor because they’re black, and of course there’s truth to that.  Trina Jones expresses the phenomenon eloquently:

Somehow . . . race and class become mutually reinforcing. Blacks are poor because they are Black and Blackness gets constructed as poor. That is, poverty becomes a constitutive element of Blackness. Blacks are not only lazy [and] intellectually and morally inferior, they are also poor.

So if we have conflated blackness with dependency, have we conflated whiteness with affluence, well-being, and independence/agency?  Arguably, yes.  And if we have done that, where does that leave low-income, low-education whites?  (This is a H/YUUUGE topic, of which I barely scratch the surface in this post).  If they slump or find themselves downwardly mobile or otherwise fail, we look away, ignoring or “forgetting” them (consider the headlines here and here).  If, like Vance, they ultimately succeed–if they become like “us”–we often discount that success by attributing it to their white privilege.

Given that tendency, isn’t it interesting that we’re so captivated by Vance’s story?  (Further illustrating that intrigue, did you know the movie rights to Hillbilly Elegy have been purchased and Ron Howard will be involved in making the film.  I can’t help wonder/worry what combination of “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dukes of Hazard,” “Honey Boo Boo” “Duck Dynasty” “Deliverance” and ???? will get depicted.  Plus, who’s going to play J.D.?  Sorry, digressing again).

Furthermore, would we feel the same about Hillbilly Elegy if Vance were our colleague?  (Btw, even friends and acquaintances who liked the book are telling me they are tired of seeing and hearing Vance on CNN; guessing it’s a good thing I don’t watch TV.)  What would it be like to have Vance on your law faculty?  Would that just be too awkward given how different he is from “us”?  What if he showed up, fresh out of Ohio State, as our law student?  (that’s a topic for a future post).  Maybe we relish Vance’s story, his success as a token and at a distance, but we can probably imagine what it would feel like to have him around in the flesh, too close for comfort.  We know he wouldn’t really fit in.  And maybe part of the reason legal academics (of all people) and other elites seem to savor the story is that Yale Law School is the ultimate icing on the educational cake.  Maybe we are attached to that “up by the bootstraps” narrative after all.  Maybe Vance affirms our desire to be engaged in–and to be the products of–a meritocratic enterprise.

And that brings me to another “race” question:  Would the Black/African American equivalent of Hillbilly Elegy have spent so many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list?   Or could/would such a hypothetical book–in an era when the Obamas’ autobiographies have been valued much more highly than prior U.S. presidents–leave Hillbilly Elegy in the dust?  Maybe so.  In fact, we may already have our answer to that question in Dreams from my Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance.   

Oh, and for the record, I love that book.  Really love it, as reflected in some of my ponderings about it in 2009.  Barack Obama is not only a much finer writer than Vance, I found his reflections more thoughtful, mature, nuanced (and maybe he had a better editor because I don’t recall him going on and on and on).  But I admit that familiarity breeds contempt, and Obama told me a story and introduced me to a world I didn’t already know.  Sadly, I can’t say the same about Vance.

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Buffett on Family Business: Beat the Third Generation Curse

warren buffettWarren Buffett is very good at spotting great family businesses. What does he look for? How can his filters help family businesses prosper?

For one, they can mitigate one of the greatest dangers: the third generation “curse.” This refers to how few family businesses survive beyond the third generation, let alone prosper.

An under-appreciated fact about Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Buffett built: virtually all its family businesses boast second or third generation descendants who rival or outshine previous generations. That is rare among family businesses.

So while every family and business situation differs, Berkshire’s two dozen family companies are a good place to look for insight about multi-generational prosperity in the family business.

Studying Berkshire’s family businesses, I found that they are united by the following values. These values are important factors in their success, in the founding generation and subsequent ones.

Family business members, and their professional advisors, whether in law, accounting, or other fields, would do well to ponder these points.

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Jeannie Suk on Teaching Rape

In this week’s New Yorker, Jeannie Suk laments what she perceives as the increasing difficulty in teaching rape to today’s law students. I was a bit surprised in reading Suk’s article because her descriptive account of today’s law school classroom environment regarding rape is at completely at odds with my own. A few years ago, I attended SEALS where there was a panel discussing teaching rape in the classroom. I asked the panelists whether the reluctance to teach rape, most famously described in James Tomkovicz‘s 1992 Yale Law Journal article on the subject, was simply outdated. Almost everyone else was teaching rape and students were reacting positively to that choice. And that is why Suk’s article struck me as particularly strange – teaching rape has become the majority rule in 1L Criminal Law.

Of course, the reluctance to teach rape articulated by Tomkovicz was somewhat different than the one now described by Suk. Tomkovicz was primarily focused on classroom controversy, potential professional consequences, and students being marginalized because of classroom discussions. In contrast, Suk focuses on trauma of rape victims in the classroom. She is concerned that students seem to want trigger warnings or no discussion of rape in the classroom.

I don’t want to entirely discount Suk’s assessment of modern criminal law teaching, but my experience has been radically different.  Since I started teaching in the Fall of 2007, I have taught twelve sections of Criminal Law and seven semesters of a Sex Crimes elective I have designed. I have probably taught 750 1L students in Criminal Law  and about 150 in Sex Crimes. In Criminal Law, I have never had a single complaint from a rape victim or person otherwise affected by sexual violence. In fact, I have received numerous anonymous reviews, emails, and comments in person from students thanking me for teaching about rape. This has been true at Kansas, in Chicago at John Marshall, and during my semester visiting at Iowa. After class discussions, students have often come to my office to share their personal experiences with sexual violence. Sometimes, they tell me stories that have just happened in the past couple of months. I am certain that if I didn’t teach rape in the classroom, those students wouldn’t feel comfortable coming to talk to me in private. A major theme of my classroom discussions of rape is that the dysfunction of America’s sex crime laws is due our failure to discuss the subject. And while I do my best to create a healthy learning environment, we do not shy away from the tough legal and social dimensions of sexual violence.

In my experience, it has been a net positive learning and personal experience for victims I have spoken with to have rape as part of the 1L Criminal Law curriculum. It has been beneficial much like when I had a student in a class who had experienced unfathomable trauma with a family murder. A few years previous to being in my 1L Criminal Law class, this student’s mother had killed his father. She was found guilty and sentenced to lengthy period of incarceration. He came and talked to me about it after we started our section on homicide, became my best RA, and I still keep in touch with him. I can’t speak with certainty as to Harvard students, but my experience has been that 1L Criminal Law has helped traumatized students deal with the violence and difficulty in their past. And, in doing so, many have found greater purpose and direction in their law studies. Some have harnessed that purpose to dedicate their legal careers to addressing the social ill that had previously plagued their lives. If Suk’s concern is with the victims of sexual violence, I hope she doesn’t give up teaching about it.

Of course, my experience might be atypical or I might be overstating the positives that have come from my classes. So, I welcome comments from other professors and will forward this post to some KU students to see if they want to chime in anonymously.

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“Be careful of those that meet you at the train…”

Every now and then, a fortune cookie dispenses with advice that is so spot-on you just have to keep the little sliver of paper tucked away.  Here is my fortune cookie keeper of all time:

“Be careful of those that meet you at the train for they know where they want you to go…”

It was 2007 and I had just accepted my first job teaching.   And the faculty at the time was in a bit of turmoil.  The dean had recently resigned and it was unknown who the future dean would be.  As a visitor setting foot on campus I was a bit blurry eyed and knee deep in figuring out how to teach, be productive and all the things you do to start yourself off right.  Many of the faculty who remain very good friends today reached out to me to be reassuring about the the stability of the faculty etc….  But one person reached out to me to tell me who on the faculty not to trust.  What was particularly interesting was they named names!  This person was actually one of the first people to reach out to me when I arrived.  So when about six months later I read this fortune cookie sliver, I took the waitress’s pen and wrote their name on the back.

In my experience, the people on a faculty who you should be most leery of are those that will tell you either the people or the kinds of people you should be careful of.  What sounds as if it comes from experience and insight most often comes from places of fear, mistrust, manipulation, and insecurity.  What it can tell you, if you did not already know it, is that there are fault lines on the faculty for which a subterranean battle for the institution’s soul may be playing out.  As a young faculty member, don’t choose sides without carefully understanding what is at stake.

When you are new to a faculty, there are some traits to be “eyes wide open” on.  One is the “do not trust” this person or group of people conversation.  Most of time, when people offer this advice it is rarely for your own well-being, but rather because of their own motives.  Likewise, advice about faculty members that reduces them down to one quality or another or suggests that they are one dimensional in their views of the world (i.e., this person only cares about scholarship, so you should talk to them about your work often; or this person is only a teaching faculty member and doesn’t really care about scholarship) is rarely accurate and should be taken with equal caution.  I recall, being told at one stop “this professor doesn’t do scholarship so you shouldn’t waste your time talking to them about yours.”  As I found out, that was some of the worst advice I had received.  That person did not write, true, but they were very interested in the scholarship I was working on.   Had I not been willing to talk about my passions to this faculty member, I would have missed the chance to build a great relationship with this person — who frankly was glad that people like me were interested in writing our voice into scholarship and wanted to be supportive of that for the good of the college.

Anyone that suggests that faculty members are one dimensional and will only care about X, whether X is how you teach or what you write, means that the person dispensing with the advice doesn’t know the faculty member they are dispensing advice about well at all.  If we know anything about people — whether they are faculty members, scholars or administrators — it is that they are rarely one dimensional and regularly surprise us with the way they see the world if we open our eyes to see from time to time.

The people that make the best mentors on faculties are those that do not spend as much time worrying about who else you are taking advice from or attempting to characterize others, as they do about what you are up to and how your year or writing is shaping up.  In other words, when you find someone that is spending far more time offering comments about others on the faculty (particularly when you are new) understand that you are not their primary interest.  Their interest is to shape you to be aligned in their view of what the law school should be doing.  And most often, after you have served your purpose, they will dispense with you as well.

A final anecdote on this line — at one of my many stops (I have had four)  a colleague had the “do not trust this colleague,” conversation with me.  Fortunately I had experience in these matters and took the advice with a heavy dose of caution (of the advise dispensing colleague) and with eyes wide open. As it turned out, the person I was told not to trust was also told not to trust me by the same colleague.  Had I listened, I would have been deprived of a person who has become one of my greatest friends in the academy, but also a really great mentor.

So now, my little Chinese fortune cookie sliver, has two names written on the back, and still sits in my office today..

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The Role Law and Literature Should Play in a Law School

Some may ask what role should liberal arts style courses play in law school where we are increasingly focused on bar exams and practice ready skills.   It may take me a while to unravel that answer with the gusto and the framing it deserves.  I think anyone that regularly teaches Law and Literature has been asked some variant of this question.  The course doesn’t have the safe luxury of “well its on the bar exam,” or even the more sardonic return of “well, but of course it underlies much of legal thought and practice.”  See, e.g., Law and Econ, Law and Social Theory, and Legal History.

Let me make a bold proclamation.  The law and literature course, perhaps more than any other, asks students to wrestle with their subjective views of the law.  It’s interesting, in a course that deals with Constitutional Law, for example, there is the finality of how the court approached the problem (whether we agree with the outcome or not).   In Law and Literature on the other hand, the course encompasses the views of the professor, the authors, and their fellow students as they encounter these views.  Sometimes worlds are created in which those concrete legal frameworks are disembodied (See, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).  Sometimes, the fictional worlds embrace the world as we know it, and offer stunning critique to its foundation (See, e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). That’s not to say that other courses, (take a UCC course), is not rife with highly charged emotional queries (notwithstanding my critique, my explanation for whether the disposition of collateral equates to proceeds is a highly charged event!).  It is saying that in a time where the ABA is prompting law schools to create standards that push the law school experience towards so-called objective standards of evaluation (see revision of section 302 in the ABA standards), the role of encountering, critiquing, explaining, and understanding different subjective understandings of the law is critical.   We should not be afraid to encounter nor express our subjective views in the context of critical dialogue.

My view is that Law and Literature is a course that offers students not only the opportunity to understand themselves better but to learn to dialogue about the subjective views of law.  A few years ago, Yale Law School offered a course titled “The Book of Job and Suffering.” Unfortunately, at many law schools such a class would never be taught for fear that the subject strayed too far from what law schools are suppose to do — at least not under that title.  However such a course is precisely the kind of law and literature course we should be teaching. Isolating the critical component that suffering may play in the narrative for law students, I imagine, was a powerful experience for those students and the professor.  Powerful because they all have suffered something, I’m sure, though undoubtedly it was uneven.  Students learn to dialogue about themselves and the text in a group where each other’s respective experiences help frame and isolate the way the text moved within the group.   At one and the same time, students in a law and literature class learn about themselves, as members of a group, a class and as an individual.   This is the idea of Law and Literature that James Boyd White framed so well — the engagement of the reader with the text forcing the reader to accept or not accept the writer’s framed world. [Perhaps Boyd’s best framing of this encounter is his book This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, in which Boyd wrestles with the text as reader primarily].

This role of teaching students about themselves is critical if not necessary to shaping who they are as counselors and advocates for their clients.  Of course they are things we should care about as shaping lawyers. But should we have to isolate them into an ABA objective or standard.   In a way, it cheapens the process to do so.

I fear that courses like Law and Literature, in which students engage in thoughtful discourse, may find themselves replaced with others that fail to live up to the promise of helping students understand themselves in a legal environment and instead only focus on the particulars of interacting in the legal environment.   There is nothing wrong with a movement in legal education that attempts to focus institutional resources to critically examine whether the law school is best preparing students for the modern legal environment.  But, that doesn’t mean that our students [or our faculty] are better off without having the dialogues and communities that law and literature help promote and shape in the law school environment.

Legal Scholarship & the University

Just a quick note to make explicit something implicit in my last post: I not only agree with Dave Hoffman’s point about the enduring value of many modes of law teaching, but also think that we could do with a lot less defensiveness about the value of legal scholarship. It is not only the case that legal theories “have fundamentally changed our thinking about the law,” as Robin West and Danielle Citron argue. There are areas of social science presently adrift either because they have not adequately incorporated key legal insights, or because attorneys and legal scholars have failed to fully engage with key controversies and ideas. And there are fields–like political economy and finance theory–now being revitalized thanks to the efforts of legal academics. Legal scholarship exists not only to help the bench and bar, but to enrich the social sciences and humanities generally.

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“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

deathanddeclineAt high holiday services in my conservative Jewish synagogue, I reflected on the omnipresence of narratives of decline in my professional and religious life. Apparently, the approved sermon topic at many conservative pulpits this year was how to rescue the shrinking conservative movement.  The Pew Report’s stark figures on that decline, illustrated to the right, suggested the theme of the sermon (at least in my congregation): reaching out to new revenue sources applicants potential converts congregants.  As the rabbi stated, unless we find more congregants (and soon!) by opening the doors & working to engage new audiences, we will wither on the vine.

This sermon was explicitly delivered as a recruiting pitch, and I found it familiar.  Doesn’t the claim — “we’ve learned our lesson, we’re now going to innovate” — sound exactly like a thousand Law Dean speeches?   Here’s a summary of one, by an especially skillful and media-savvy Dean: Read More