Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Problematic Award for Experiential Professor of the Year

Above The Law, in its particular style, here via Tax Prof Blog, reports this story from Washington University, in which Prof. Mae Quinn declined to accept an award as “Experiential Professor of the Year.”   As quoted in the article, Prof. Quinn wrote to the school, “.. . I find being named ‘Experiential Professor of the Year’ both offensive and marginalizing,” calling it “express ghetto-ization and limitation through labeling.”

Context is everything, and, per the article, this has been an on-going discussion at WashU.   I understand and am sympathetic to Prof. Quinn’s point, although I have not decided whether I share it.   No one should venture to judge her stand, the school or its SBA, without direct relationships with them all. 

This moment illuminates some critical, perennial questions, endemic to questions of rank, status, roles and the work of law schools.  

As clinics and experiential education become more central to law school curricula, should we not honor the particular craft of teaching through experience?    On the contrary, in light of historic hierarchies in law schools, does the appellation perpetuate faculty castes and inhibit the reform of legal education? 

Is the award a way to ensure honor to clinical teachers, or does it ensure that we will not be considered "real" professors?  

Does the award rightly praise the important and specialized work of teachers, for employing pedagogy rare among “podium” teachers, or does it really marginalize what should be central?  

Context, institutional culture, personal relationships and motivation all matter when discerning what might be at the heart of the award and Prof. Quinn’s stand, and we all should weigh them carefully as we build programs and teach in our own schools.  Advocacy takes many forms as we seek to discern how to advance justice and good teaching.

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