Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On the Education of Environmental Law Professors

Earlier today, the AALS issued a call for papers for a 2012 mid-year meeting focused on environmental law, torts, and disaster law.  Part of the call for papers addresses the burgeoning field of disaster law.  The other part addresses the relationships between junior and senior environmental law faculty.  Here’s the blurb:

Earlier this year, the envlawprofessors listserv carried an active and somewhat surprising discussion regarding the relationship between senior and junior teachers of environmental law. That discussion opened up a host of questions regarding generations within environmental law. How welcoming and supportive of junior professors is the environmental law field? Are junior professors being given adequate opportunities to receive feedback on their work? Do senior professors signal appropriate degrees of openness to new or challenging ideas? What can be done to overcome any perceived deficiencies in the mentoring practices of the field? Are enough entering law professors being encouraged to enter environmental law teaching? Does the legal academic tenure process pose special challenges for environmental law specialists?

It’s an intriguing set of questions.  But because I only have relatively uninteresting stories of people being supportive and nice, I won’t add much to the discussion. I wonder, however, if an even more important subject is the relationship between the environmental law academy and the wannabe professors preparing to enter the academy.  That, I suspect, is where deficient mentoring and educational practices can more readily be found.

A quick anecdote captures the problem.  For the first time in my short professorial career, I’m on a dissertation committee.  Last week the committee held its first meeting.  We spent most of the meeting discussing the candidate’s thesis proposal, but for the last few minutes we discussed her plans for her remaining coursework.  Should she a qualitative research methods class?  Would a law school course be helpful?  Had she taken enough stats courses?

As we talked, I found myself wondering two things.  First, how many aspiring environmental law professors have been the beneficiaries of this sort of discussion?  Probably very few, with the exception of the small set of JD/Ph.Ds out there.  We may have received a little informal advice during law school, or we may not have realized until close to or after graduation that perhaps we should tailor our course selection to a future academic career.  Either way, I suspect that very, very few of us ever had a group of professors sit around and spend several hours helping us plan our educational trajectory.

Second, how many aspiring law professors have taken the sort of advanced courses on research methodology (again, leaving aside the JD/PhDs) that are standard fare for Ph.D. candidates in other fields?  Of course, we’ve all taken legal research and writing and probably all did some sort of upper level writing project while in law school.  But legal research and writing courses usually focus on traditional legal research for traditional legal advocacy, and I wonder how much research education most schools provide to students doing upper level writing projects.  And many of the skills an environmental law researcher now might find useful—the ability to understand literature from other fields; the ability to gather useful quantitative and qualitative data, whether through coding traditional legal sources or through surveys, focus groups, or interviews; the statistical sophistication to do quantitative analyses; and perhaps even the ability to use GIS or other spatial analysis technologies, among others—aren’t taught in law school.  If we do have those skills, we probably developed them through self-education or just drew upon some prior period in our educational life. 

Of course, the absence of that educational background doesn’t prevent people from doing good work.  Indeed, an earlier generation of environmental law scholars did a lot of wonderful work without having any prior coursework in environmental law.  We can all learn as we go.  But I still wonder if the quality of our collective research output might be greatly improved, and if junior faculty might enter the profession with a clearer sense of their identity as researchers, if we had a little more education prior to entering the field.

So when and where should that additional education be provided?  One possibility is to encourage more aspiring professors to get Ph.Ds.  That would address some of the skills questions, but it seems rather exclusive to limit entry into the legal academy to people willing and able to spend so many years in graduate school, particularly as the costs of legal education continue to rise.  An LLM focused on environmental research would be another intriguing option.  But I wonder if the simplest alternative would be to integrate some research-focused coursework into fellowships and VAPs.  Perhaps I’m being naïve here (I didn’t do a VAP, so I may have an overly rosy view of what they accomplish), but it seems to me that unless the school is imposing a heavy teaching load, there ought to be enough time in the first year of a two-year VAP to do some coursework as well as teach and write.  And perhaps the benefits of that coursework would last for a career.

-Dave Owen

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Great Post. Isn't there a research methodology seminar offered by a law school in Chicago that is tailored to Law Profs? Maybe good CLEs in quantitative and qualititative analyses are what's needed, and not necessarily more years in school and more debt getting a Ph.D..

Posted by: Glenys Spence | Nov 8, 2011 3:01:35 PM

I think that's a great idea. As you say, it wouldn't accomplish as much as taking full courses, but it would take a lot less time, so the return on investment could be very high.

Posted by: dave owen | Nov 3, 2011 9:28:14 AM

Great Post -- here is an idea some of us have been batting around: Creating some type of boot camp where entry level or junior professors (or maybe you would say that is too late) come together to learn about different types of methodologies and approaches useful for research environmental law. Of course, it wouldn't be able the same as taking 2 semesters of stats (for example) but could perhaps give folks an introduction to some of these ideas and guidance on where to learn more...

Posted by: Jessie Owley | Oct 27, 2011 12:43:50 PM

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