Saturday, September 30, 2006

Women in Academia Redux: a classic Levit article

posted by Alan Childress

Previously, I posted the abstract--then just up on SSRN--to Nancy Levit's classic 2001 article on women's "domesticated" roles in law teaching.  It was probably somewhat afield of "legal profession," and, I now see, in the way of posting new abstracts of older articles lies madness.  (At the time I thought my job was to post the latest SSRN abstract up that ID'd itself as on "legal profession," so I did.)  Anyway, it was a classic worth a second look, so it stays, with promises of more focus from me.  True, a "classic" is any article I read five years ago that I still remember actually reading, so take that with a saltgrain too.  Yet I do recall reading this--no mean feat considering the metals I have inadvertently ingested over the years--and thinking she's right and especially that I liked her "domestic" spin, but worrying about its implications.

You'll recall (assuming fewer metals in your youth, or just current youth) that she nicely argued--actually showed through some good statistical work and not just observation and theory--that women in law teaching appear disproportionately in the supposedly-lower-prestige jobs of untenured legal writing and clinical positions or courses with traditionally female content to them like family law.  I think we all intuited that distribution before (if not necessarily agreeing with all her Levit characterizations--e.g., in many schools, clinicians are tenured and valued), but anyway Levit has numbers.  She adds a clever and persuasive spin: characterizing those positions as requiring more "housework" and "childcare" around the law building than the male counterparts have to perform.  To that I observe that any 1L class requires more hand-holding and domestic-like work than most upper year classes, but I think this supports her point because I'd bet we find that women disproportionately teach, or at least start a career teaching, certain 1L classes like civ pro and torts.  Her thesis and statistics are worth taking seriously and should be read by our Appointments Committees as well as Promotion & Tenure.

But I do fear that some reading it may think the solution is to just hire men for legal writing, while I would hope the goal would be to expand women's presence in the academy generally, for every open position, and not create some kind of backlash against (or diminution of value for) women in clinics, legal writing, or assitant deanships that deal with student issues.  It's sort of the problem some African American actors say they faced in the 1970s:  as Hollywood realized it had demeaned blacks by making them portray stereotypes, many actors found themselves out of work by the PC response.  They lamented that their first priority was to get a job, maid or pimp or otherwise.

Maybe the long-term solution is found in hiring more women period, but--the harder part--then really valuing what they/we do, including legal writing, clinics, and family law.  After all, family law will profoundly touch more lives of more human clients and the students themselves than will first amendment law, much less third amendment law.  More after the jump.

Part of the problem with noting the relegation of women to certain positions in law teaching is that the era of expanded hiring of women has overlapped with a trend in all parts of the academy: to make shorter-term hiring decisions as an alternative to the expense and inflexibility of the tenure track.  It's fair to argue that some of that is itself a reaction to the perceived influx of women and other minorities into university-level teaching.  "Perceived" because the numbers Levit cites don't support anything close to Tipping or for that matter Influx.  But the fear is there, undoubtedly, in dark entrenched corners of the academy, and it may look like an influx when one goes from zero minorities to two, since the increase is infinity%.   

So I am not discounting the unequal effect and possibly intent of expanding second-class and non-tenured instructional and deaning positions in law schools.  But the reality is that for many law schools, the open jobs are disproportionately in the same positions Levit deems less prestigious, so if women are going to be hired at all those are the jobs that are there -- absent some revolution in re-thinking the status of all sorts of institutional responsibilities around the building.  I doubt her article has or will spark[ed] revolution, but it absolutely raises the question of differentiated prestige or hand-holding workload, and whether women are given too much of it, which deserves discussing in that building. I hope it does that.  Hence my call to assigning it to various actors in hiring and firing.  I just hope in the process some schools don't accidently hire fewer women to show that they don't stereotype and men can be legal writing teachers too.  That can't be Levit's point (though of course they can).

In addition to the Appointments issue and assignment of teaching duties, Levit's second part--about the Promotion and Tenure wing of this--is to me a little less convincing.  She posits that feminist scholars have a hard time getting tenure because their scholarship is cast as too radical and "un-reasoning" by male reviewers and critics.  Just from my own observations, she may be right, but it may have less to do with the feminist aspect of it than the radicalness.  I'd advise any budding scholar--male or female, left or right wing, family law or viagra law--to be careful before tenure.  I don't trust the system to fairly judge any untenured person's radicalness or difference of any stripe. 

Levit may be right that women are forced to deradicalize in the tenure process, but I'd add that is a phenomenon that pre-dated the hiring of any women ever in law teaching.  There may be some bigot--or well-meaning but intellectually constipated old white guy--lying in wait to write a negative tenure letter for a woman's scholarship, but I assure you his counterpart is lying in wait for some boy's tome too.  He may just be resenting all of them for their youth, and it actually is age discrimination.  I certainly resent their exceptional metal-free power of recall.  Still, the firing committees (er, P&T, sorry) really ought to be sensitive to whether a wide variety of good scholarship--narrative pieces, feminist theory, articles on clinical teaching, reparations writings--are getting their fair due in the traditional scholarly evaluation system.  Hence my assigning Levit to the firers too.  In this sense she is raising, fairly but incompletely, the larger problem of how any non-traditional scholarship should be paper-processed in the hiring and tenure sieves. (One echoed recently by an exchange between our Jeff and Shubha Ghosh on the PrawfsBlawg site, over whether practice or theory matters for evaluating writing.  One thing they agree on: the test of significant scholarship is whether it is remembered 100 years later. Don't ask me to recall past five years, guys.)

Update this concern with a phenomenon that Levit would not have anticipated in 2001:  blogging.  There is a question now floating around, quite similar -- for very different reasons but consistent with her thesis and concern about workload -- to ones asked by Levit about radical writing.  This one is, "Should Female Legal Academics Blog?"  A very interesting post on that question/title by Rachel Godsil of Seton Hall is found on Concurring Opinions (discussing Rosa Brooks and Brian Leiter), along with some fairly strongly stated Comments in reply.  Obviously the blog posts themselves don't count for tenure, but the link to this post and Levit (beyond workload concerns) is the real possibility that someone who blogs and otherwise produces won't be taken as seriously, and perhaps that stereotype will fall harder on women in the tenure process, like Levit's "un-reasoning" thesis.

One final [admittedly controversial] point I'll make, purely from anecdotal observation and comparing notes and not at all from social science that counts, is a concern that Levit does not explore:  my worry that some of the issues she raises about how feminist scholarship is reviewed in the P&T process fails to take account of the negative reviews of fellow feminist scholars and other women.  I am not sure she adequately considers how much they eat their own.  Some of the nastiest and deadliest reviews of women's teaching and scholarship I have seen and heard of were penned by [wait for it] ... women.  Partly this is a function of our failing to recognize that there is no single brand of feminism and no uniform woman.  The surprise, if any, only comes when one stereotypes women and even radical feminists as having a single worldview and a shared vision of what good scholarship is.  Plus it is possible that the old boys have built a better network and ethic of old-boyism that could be emulated within other more radical communities.  Just a thought.

As for my nostalgia that 70s African American actors lamented losing roles due to PC cleansing, I swear I've heard this (the 60s, maybe?).  But one of my brothers tells me I am full of crap, e.g., the rise of the blackploitation film pre-dated the PC backlash I am positing and provided more film work; my point's just an urban myth.  Whatever. Since I'm now A Blogger, being crapful nearly equals getting my wings.  Plus I already built in a defense that my memory is shot from eating mercury in tuna and shards of aluminum foil.  Or all that open-air nuclear testing when Mom was carrying me.

At any rate, I think we can do a better job of accepting a wider variety of scholarship, judging it on its own terms with less of a lens of how we'd write it or what subject we'd pick.  I am just saying that means all of us.

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