Via Paul Caron, I learned of Gregory Bowman’s article The Comparative and Absolute Advantages of Junior Law Faculty: Implications for Teaching and the Future of American Law Schools, 2008 BYU Educ. & L.J. 171, in which Bowman argues:
In the ongoing debate about how to improve law school teaching, there is a general consensus that law schools should do more to train junior faculty members how to teach. While this may be the case, this consensus inadvertently leads to an implicit assumption that is not true—that in all facets of law teaching, junior faculty are at a disadvantage compared to senior faculty. In fact, there are aspects of law teaching for which junior faculty can be better suited than their senior colleagues. This Article reviews scholarship concerning law teaching and identifies three teaching factors that generally favor junior law faculty: generational proximity to the law school student body; recency of law practice experience as junior practitioners; and lower susceptibility to the problem of conceptual condensation - extreme depth of subject matter knowledge that makes it difficult to see subjects from the students’ perspective.
This Article employs the economic concepts of (a) economies of scale or productive efficiency and (b) absolute and comparative advantage to suggest how these junior faculty advantages could be harnessed to improve law school teaching. With respect to productive efficiency, it is suggested that greater intra-faculty dialogue can increase a law faculty’s output of effective teaching. Currently, senior faculty members often provide assistance or advice to junior faculty in areas of senior faculty expertise or advantage—such as depth of knowledge in a course’s subject matter—but this is largely a one-way flow of information. However, if junior faculty were also to provide insight and advice to senior faculty regarding areas of junior faculty advantage, the quality of law school teaching might be significantly enhanced. Junior-senior faculty dialogue might be promoted through a variety of means, including faculty workshops and even perhaps teaching reviews of senior faculty by junior faculty.
With respect to the concepts of absolute and comparative advantage, this Article suggests that law school teaching could be improved through the specialization of teaching functions. Instead of professors individually teaching separate courses, professors might coordinate their teaching (that is, team-teach) across a number of courses in the law school curriculum, as a means to more effectively harness the respective strengths (and minimize the respective weaknesses) of junior and senior faculty in the classroom. Through the leveraging of junior faculty advantages, overall law school teaching might be significantly improved. This Article concludes by discussing the implications of these recommendations for law school culture in general and for the legal profession as a whole.
The trouble is that I don’t buy any of the alleged advantages Bowman says junior teachers possess. As for “generational proximity to the law school student body,” it often translates into difficulty for the young teacher to gain respect from the students. Anyway, it seems more relevant to dating than teaching. As for “recency of law practice experience as junior practitioners,” most law professors (at elite schools, anyway) come into practice with only a few years of practice experience. Being bottom man on a deal or litigation team fora couple of years doesn’t translate into meaningful knowledge. At best, it gives you a few war stories. Personally, I’ve learned a lot more that I use in the classroom from consulting than I ever did in practice. Since sniors likely have more consulting opportunities than juniors, this is at best a wash. Finally, as for “lower susceptibility to the problem of conceptual condensation - extreme depth of subject matter knowledge that makes it difficult to see subjects from the students’ perspective,” I’d rather know too much then too little. When I was just starting out, I lived in dread of the student question for which I had no answer. Today, it almost never happens.
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Needless to say, I disagree with his critique, and I commented on his post as follows:
Thanks very much for the post about my BYU article. I appreciate your comments, and I have some thoughts in response.
First, with respect to generational proximity, you note that this “often translates into difficulty for the young teacher to gain respect from the students.” I agree with you. But this does not mean that understanding student mindsets better—due to generational proximity—is not an advantage. We accept the notion of generation gaps in our society, so why would this not have an effect in the classroom? As law professors, we are trying to reach an adult population of students who at times are disinclined to accept our views and the large workloads we impose in class. If junior professors understand student mindsets better, won’t that help counter that? I am not at all suggesting that more senior professors cannot do this just as well; rather, what I am saying is that as professors become more generationally distant from their students, it may take more active effort for them to stay closely tuned to student mindsets. And that is a comparative disadvantage—more input needed for the same output. In the article I discuss how this particular junior faculty advantage might be leveraged to improve law school teaching.
Your second criticism concerns the value of junior professors’ recent law practice experience. You point out, rightly, that “most law professors (at elite schools, anyway) come into [teaching] with only a few years of practice experience.” But I disagree with your judgment that that “being bottom man on a deal or litigation team doesn’t translate into meaningful knowledge.” For one thing, I learned a lot in my first two years as a corporate lawyer. For another, what will all of our students be when they get out of law school? Junior lawyers of one sort or another. So can’t junior practitioner experience help professors contextualize class material in a way that is relevant and accessible to students? And if a junior professor has done that very type of work within the past 5 years, rather than 20 or 30 years ago, won’t that resonate more with students? Again, this is not to ignore the many benefits of seniority or experience, and it is not to say that more senior faculty can’t work to keep their fingers on the pulse of modern junior associate practice. But they will have to work at it, and not come to it more naturally, as junior faculty often will do.
Third, regarding conceptual condensation, you simply note that you’d “rather know too much than too little.” I absolutely agree. Touting professorial ignorance as a virtue would be flat out dangerous, and I expressly disavow that in my article. But my point is not what we know as professors—the point is how effectively we convey that knowledge to our students. Knowing the answers to all student questions is a very different thing from being able to see issues from the level of student neophytes. I think many students have had professors in law school who were clearly brilliant but were hard to follow in class. And that was not because the students were all stupid. It was in many cases because professors were talking on a higher plane of knowledge than their students. Again, I am in no way saying that senior professors, with more depth of knowledge, cannot communicate effectively in the classroom. But I am saying that they are more likely than junior professors to take mental shortcuts that are clear to them but not to their students, and that they therefore will have to put more effort into guarding against that than junior faculty.
My article is, of necessity, dealing with generalities. But the one-way flow of information and feedback from senior faculty to junior faculty is a widespread characteristic of American law schools, and there is a casual dismissiveness of what junior faculty may have to offer in the classroom. If junior faculty as a whole bring particular teaching skills or strengths to the table—and I think they do—then we do ourselves and our students a grave disservice by ignoring this.
Thanks very much again for your post and your feedback.
* * * *You be the judge--what do you, the reader, think?