Sunday, October 07, 2007

quality of the faculty

I was thinking recently about what I’d say if someone considering law school asked me about the quality of the faculty at the University of Miami School of Law. Mostly I’d say the faculty were mediocre. To be honest, I have little to compare it to. I went to a small liberal arts college as an undergrad and I know college professors have little in common with law school professors.

But it seems that even most of the good law professors – the ones who made class somewhat interesting while also teaching the law – had some deficiencies that made them unfit to do almost any other job, which is presumably why they became law professors. Remember back in elementary school and junior high when you filled out some survey and the computer spit out potential careers? I can just imagine the criteria for being a law professor: (1) be analytical enough to score in the 99th percentile on the LSAT so you can get into Harvard (2) be arrogant, smug and cocky, knowing you’re ALWAYS right and you know better than most judges and lawyers and certainly better than any student who dares to disagree with you (3) be unable to relate to students in or outside of class; have zero understanding of why law school can be stressful for students; do all you can not to make their lives miserable – like, say, if you have to cancel class, don’t send out an e-mail in advance; just post a sign on the door because students are always on campus awaiting your class; no students have lives and other things going on and none would benefit from knowing in advance that your class is canceled. (4) Likewise, keeping appointments with students is wholly optional; students hang on your every word so if you have an appointment and don’t show up, it’s no problem at all because no student ever has anything to do other than await your presence. Similarly, grading, which I’m sure is a miserable aspect of your job, can wait as long as you want. Students are never in a rush to get their grades because they don’t need to submit their GPAs to prospective employers – you want to take two months to grade exams? That’s fine! You’re a tenured law professor…Students have absolutely nothing to do other than wait for you; they don’t make plans or have a life. Oh, and be sure never to make eye contact with students even though, um, ya know, you wouldn't have a job if students didn't exist, so walk around campus (on the rare occasions that you actually do so because it's unavoidable; otherwise we know you have a side entrance, side staircase and even a side elevator that allows you to slip in and out of campus totally unnoticed) with your eyes straight ahead. Never, ever acknowledge people just because normal people in polite society who know each other nod to one another or say hello or exchange greetings; be defensive when challenged about your grading of a student's exam; use your class as a platform to preach either your political agenda or your worldview, regardless of how extreme that agenda is or how pessimistic you are about society.

As I said, I have nothing to compare it to because I never attended any other law schools. Two friends of mine, UM law graduates, who visited at other schools said they were stunned at how helpful, friendly and concerned the faculty seemed at those other schools compared with this one. These two friends don't know each other; they told me this separately. They were literally blown away by how accommodating the faculty were at these schools. But that’s hearsay (or anecdotal...whatever) so I can't swear to this. I know I’m not the first person to speculate that academia attracts those who can’t fit in elsewhere in the working world. What do you call it? The idiot savant theory? The Einstein theory?

Ultimately, I was disappointed in the quality of the faculty because I expected a little more than mediocrity. I knew I was attending a second-tier law school. I knew from reading their bios online that these people all went to Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and Chicago and Berkeley so I knew they were at one point considered among the smartest 1 or 2 percent of people in this country.

I knew that unlike in undergrad, professors wouldn’t seek out students and take an interest in their lives in and outside the classroom. That's fine. But I don't think my expectations were unrealistic; I did not expect to become pals with the faculty. But I think I expected more – specifically, I think the thing I expected the most was that the faculty would treat the students with respect (even just a tiny bit) and open-mindedness. I expected a little more interest in the actual teaching part of their job (even if only a little bit more). I didn't expect the intense disdain that most faculty emit toward students - ignoring them in public (several profs), walking around with their eyes locked in the forward position so as to avoid all eye contact (prof. torts), staring right through you when they see you at the gym (refers to a certain Prof who was a dean a couple of years ago, but NOT to a certain prof/dean often found walking his dog on campus, who is quite friendly). It seems as if so many of them had no concept of who their students are and no interest in finding out. Which is fine, but the disdain and arrogance gets to be too much when you face it ever day.

I should qualify this. There were some exceptions, of course. I came across a few (very few) who seemed like normal human beings with no obvious social deficiencies.

The thing about Froomkin's post is that although his reasons for what a prospective faculty member might consider before coming here is important, none of these factors directly impact students (except for Froomkin's No. 4, about students). I have little doubt that they indirectly impact students; if faculty didn't get research support and have other brilliant faculty around then the school wouldn't attract quality faculty.

I think a part of the problem is that, as with many institutions, there are conflicting goals. Kind like the way a pro sports team winning and making profit are dual goals that are accomplished in different ways, imparting knowledge onto students on the one hand and conducting scholarly research while contributing to the legal discourse, are conflicting goals. Can you do both? I don't have a clue. But just as I mentioned above, all these professors were once considered among the best and brightest Americans because they graduated from Ivy League or Ivy-equivalent colleges and law schools. And yet no one ever taught them how to teach or grade or relate to students as human beings (although I think the latter probably shouldn't need to be taught).

The other thing I heard over the three years that I was a law student is that relationships with faculty are about what you make of them. I get that. I didn't go out of my way to stop by professors' offices to have intellectual conversations and I didn't spend a lot of time trying to engage them. So in part, my perceptions are my own fault, right? Sure, but I think my experience was fairly typical in the sense that most people I know were like me in their relationships with faculty - occasional time in offices, occasional time talking after class, etc., but not a lot of people went far out of their way to develop relationships. If you're reading this post and you're one of those people who went out of their way, well, then you'll have a different opinion.



At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Michael Froomkin said...

This post reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke:

-Those who can't do, teach

-Those who can't teach, teach gym

-Those who can't teach gym, teach here.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger triallawyer said...

i agree...

the only prof. that gave me the time of day was visiting from washington (torts prof).

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with you on many of these points, and have a few complaints of my own as well. I would not say that this attitude permeates the entire UM faculty, as I have known other non-law professors on campus who know me by name and would probably still recognize me.

There may not be much that we can do about this problem or any other at the law school, but upon the receipt of my annual "dean's update letter" including the not so subtle donation envelope, I made sure to return my envelope. Completely empty, of course. It may only be 42 cents in postage that they wind up paying, but hopefully they'll get the message loud and clear.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually loved the faculty overall at Miami. There were a few professors that I was not too fond of. However, I thought most of the professors were passionate about their field. After first year, most of my professors did a great job of stimulating legal discussion in the classroom. I feel like I got a great legal education at Miami. I feel that the faculty prepared me well to quickly adapt to any field of law, since the primary focus at Miami was on legal reasoning rather than on blackletter law. Having said this, I never tried contacting any professor outside of the classroom at Miami, so I cannout comment on this aspect of the faculty.

At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, your bar number is now up:

At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the post but I found that the professors I enjoyed the best were all adjuncts who were working lawyers in the fields they were teaching. I never had a bad adjunct, but I have had horrible want-to-tear-your-hair out regular faculty at UM.

At 6:19 PM, Blogger triallawyer said...

i had a terrible experience with a certain anti-semitic arts & entertainment law adjunct....

At 7:00 PM, Blogger some guy said...

adjuncts were passionate, but as far as being good teachers, i'm not so sure. prof. state and local government and prof. admin were highly distinguished in their fields but had no clue when it came to teaching.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said...

There are some rumors floating around that a certain UM Law professor had a rather interesting day in criminal court earlier this week. A matching name did show up on the clerk's web site... Given the nature of the charges, I find it very curious the media did not pick it up.

If you want to see the kind of practical skills the faculty is imparting upon the students, take a gander here:

At 7:44 PM, Blogger some guy said...

Holy Crap, a Bricklayer sighting! Yes, those rumors are true. I can confirm it. I don't see why it's newsworthy - it's a misdemeanor. It's not like he's a prominent city official although he did run for Congress a long, long time ago.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said...

Bricklayer continues to re-educate liberals wherever he can.

I know quite a few alums who have voiced vindication over the arrest. He was a biased grader, and also made comments many students felt were racist. In short, a hypocrite. All his talk about fighting for victims...he goes and perpetuates the victimization of women (or men?..haven't heard all the details yet).

Will the UM Law administration do the right thing and fire him? We'll see. It will probably turn on whether or not the prostitute was male or female. He'll get a pass if he's a homosexual.

And FYI your first three DUIs are misdemeanors too. After that its a felony. So do you think this was Professor Oppressed Minority's first time? Ha!

At 8:30 PM, Blogger some guy said...

That may all be true but that doesn't mean the general public cares. That's why you won't see it in the paper or on the TV news.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said...

Touche. Look who's a lawyer now! Hitting me with that Mot. to Dismiss logic!


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