Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Interrelationship of Scholarship and Teaching

A couple of days ago, I had a post on the value of scholarship in today's law schools.  I discussed three views, then gave my own perspective.  A couple of the authors I discussed mentioned a post by Maria L. McCormick on the Workplace Law Blog: Job Security, Law School, and the Bigger Picture.  This article, which was written in response to the resignation of the Dean at SLU, does an excellent job of balancing scholarship and teaching.

She states the problem: "One of the most compelling pieces of this for every law professor, student, or person thinking about going to law school is the way these events are seen as having some relationship to the problems law schools and universities face right now: the high cost of higher ed. and especially law school, declining enrollments, declining financial support from sources outside of tuition, and the "worth" of earning a law degree. Above the Law . . . saw the resignation as resistance to university efforts to use the law school as a cash cow, and much of the debate in the comments there (shudder) and at least some to Paul Caron's initial post have focused on whether, to the extent the fight is over money, the money is for the benefit of students or faculty."

She continues, "the message on one side is that if the money was to be spent on research stipends for faculty, that expenditure is not legitimate and should not be made by the law school (or the university) in the first place. . . .  In the events at SLU it has at least partially been suggested that those who engage in scholarship or encourage students to do so are not teaching students what the students need to learn. . . .  On the other side, there seems an unspoken assumption that research is not only a legitimate part of what a law school should do, but that it's imperative to engage in a lot of it."

Professor McCormick argues, "Absent from all of this debate, at least what I have seen of it, is much real progress with the pressing issues that we individually and institutionally are all struggling with. . . .  Increasingly, I'm frustrated by what looks like the same old dualistic tropes --teaching v. research, skills v. doctrine, doctrine v. theory, academic v. professional school, liberal arts v. technical education, tenured v. contract, at-will v. job security -- without digging into these labels or categories in the first place. And the rhetoric that puts what we do in business terms -- business model, deliverables, outcomes, opportunity costs, returns on investment -- troubles me too because it seems to already presume that some things may not have value unless they are easily commodified."  She adds, "Anyone who has talked to me recently is already tired of hearing me say it, but I think each of us and each of our institutions needs to be able say what students and the public gain from what we provide and how."

Next, Professor McCormick defends scholarship: "I think there is great value in legal scholarship. The public benefits by getting legal and government structures that make real people's lives better. Students benefit from the scholar's ability to turn chaos into order and communicate both the chaos and the order to someone who hasn't done the same work. The students have to start with order and see how it is constructed from chaos and how to explain that before they can learn to do the same thing, which really, is what lawyers do for their clients."

Then, she discusses teaching: "Teaching, of course, is vital, but teaching requires learning, and learning is not something that occurs within the teacher. Learning occurs inside the head of the student, and students have to learn, not just information, but more importantly to perform a process that is fluid and adaptable, and to master a number of difficult skills, internal and external. We can't just open the top of a student's head and pour in the learning.  Most of the law professors I know and have worked with take this very seriously and constantly work at ways to accomplish this for their students who have different needs and abilities, but we don't talk much publicly on how we do that."

She concludes, "there are many ways in which different members of the law school community contribute to teaching and mentoring students, serving the public, and contributing to the growth of their professions. Those need to be identified, explained, and valued too."

I agree with Professor McCormick that scholarship and teaching are interrelated.  Doing scholarship improves teaching, and teaching improves scholarship.  How many of us have gotten an idea for an article from our teaching?  More importantly, doing scholarship helps our students because it makes us better teachers.  We learn from our scholarship and become better thinkers.

I also like Professor McCormick's concept of teaching.  One of the most important lessons of the new teaching theory is that the emphasis should be on how students learn.  (here)  We cannot be effective teachers if we don't understand this.  Also, as Professor McCormick points out, students need to learn processes and skills.

We should also be able to demonstrate to the public and our students what they gain from law schools.  Looking at outcomes has been an important part of legal education reforms, and this includes not only student outcomes, but also institutional outcomes.

Finally, we should reject the commodification that Professor McCormick mentions.  The recent events at the University of Virginia demonstrate the nefarious effect that commodification can have on a learning institution.  Of course, we have all seen commodification's effects in the deification of the U.S. News Law School Rankings.  (In addition, some scholars have argued that an emphasis on scholarship does not generally have an effect on U.S. News Rankings.  here and here) Instead, law schools should continue their interrelated missions of teaching and preserving and furthering knowledge.

As I said in my last post, law schools should not eliminate scholarship, but they should rebalance the scholarship/teaching mix to put teaching at the top.  Everything we do should be focused on giving the students a solid legal education.  This does not mean that we give into everything the students want or that everything law schools do must directly benefit the students, but rather that we keep their interests in mind in every decision we make. 

In sum, as Professor McCormick has noted, many people have already done a great deal of work in reforming legal education.  However, a great deal more work is left to be done, and we must overcome the forces that resist this change and focus on what is best for our students.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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