I get asked sometimes, by people who know I used to be a prof, if I ever think about going back to teaching after I'm done with law school. (As an aside, this comes up sometimes in conversation with fellow law students who think that they themselves might like to be law profs. I hate to discourage anyone – and really, what do I know? people do all kinds of amazing things – but I feel like these people usually don't know much about what they're trying to get into. It's not so much that I think these people are at all incapable – they're really great, smart people, I'm sure they could write good stuff and be decent teachers. It's more that some of them – admittedly, not all, but some – seem to see legal academia as a viable alternative to the standard legal market, whereas I want to point out that it's even harder to get a decent academic job than a decent law job. Don't go thinking you'll get a law teaching job because it's hard to get a law job, is all I'm saying. Unless you've got a couple of really awesome law review articles placed in great journals, in which case, go for it. But I digress.)
So, people ask if I'd want to teach. (I should say that this is all EXTREMELY hypothetical. First, I would have to get those awesome law review articles published, which… yeah. Haven't done that. Second, I would want to practice for at least a few years, or I'd feel like an absolute fraud standing in front of professional students.) And really? I don't know, but I think not.
For one thing, I have definitely had moments of watching my law profs standing at the front of the room, trying to drag my classmates and me through some complicated concept on a day when no one wants to be there, and I've thought, "WOW, I'm glad I'm not still teaching."
For another thing, have you ever met law students? We're not a very laid-back group. We're pretty tightly wound, obsessed with grades, and panicked about failure. It seems the potential for grappling with significant student resentment and/or despair would be even higher in any law school than in your average undergraduate institution. Sure, you're more likely to have a relatively heterogeneous ability level in your class, which makes pitching your teaching easier than dealing with a wild variety of abilities, and in most law schools, you're going to have a lot of students who did pretty decently in undergrad. But still, we've got to be a pretty tough (annoying?) crowd.
Moreover, professional schools are weird in that in the main, unlike in Ph.D. programs, profs are not teaching students to follow in their footsteps. (Except maybe if you teach at Yale.) Most profs don't spend a lot of time in practice, which is where most students will spend most of their careers. So that's a weird kind of dynamic. (This is leaving aside the issue of what a Ph.D. program should prepare its students for – I'm not necessarily saying that Ph.D. programs should be preparing students to be only professors, I'm just saying that in the humanities and social sciences, that's what most programs do. Can't comment on the sciences.)
Then we have the issue that I don't really agree with the pedagogical model that dominates in law schools. I don't actually have a problem with the Socratic method, given that these days that doesn't usually entail the kind of sadistic grilling that's been traditional in the past; I actually think cold-calling is a pretty good method of ensuring preparation (even though I didn't cold-call when I taught in the past). I recognize that for some people being called on is agony, but I think most people get over that after a few law school classes.
No, what I disagree with, from a pedagogical perspective, is evaluating someone's understanding of course material based on one three-hour exam at the end of the semester, graded on a curve. It's a great way to create a ranking of students, but I don't think it has a hell of a lot to do with learning. I'm a big fan of smaller, developmental assignments throughout a semester, to check how well students are learning the material and be able to address problems while there's still time. (I also happen to think this more accurately represents how people are evaluated in their jobs – it's not like you could not show up to your job for 14 weeks as long as you produced a brilliant brief or motion or whatever at the end of that time. Whereas for a lot of profs, you can do whatever you like for 14 weeks and still get an A if you write a great exam.) I also don't believe that every group of students falls naturally into a bell-curve-shaped grade distribution. (Admittedly, that's because I usually taught groups of 20-30, whereas law classes are much larger. Which I'm also not a huge fan of.) However, I doubt that I'd be in a position single-handedly to change any of these things, which have become such a part of the culture of legal education that I don't even know where you'd start to change them.
But I find that at least right now, these are not really the reasons why I wouldn't want to teach. Rather, coming back to school has made me frustrated with the whole power dynamic inherent to education. I dislike the way that my desire for good grades colors the whole learning experience. I dislike the inescapability of the power differential between student and professor. The professor has the power to of evaluation, and there's no way to get around that. Sure, there are good reasons why the professor is the professor and I'm the student; the professor knows more, and (generally) is in a better position than I am to determine what I need to do to learn. But undergoing that evaluation puts me in a subordinate position, and there is something about being the subordinate that creates the student mindset about which professors frequently complain.
I mean, I can get behind the argument that a generation of helicopter parents has newly created precious, precious gumdrop unicorn snowflakes, and the corporatization of higher education has turned students into consumers, and all the various other ills that plague the modern university. But I also think that there is something about being a student, being subject to your professors, that encourages students, even the best ones, to resist and rebel, at least the tiniest bit. I know that I find myself looking for ways to resist. That probably doesn't come across to my professors, because I also know plenty about what students need to do to succeed, and I'm genuinely interested in learning, and in the subject I'm studying, and I see the value in playing the game. But if I didn't have all those things going on? I could very easily be one of the students professors complain about, who are trying, in essence, to get something for nothing. I no longer think, as I think I did when I was teaching, that resistance to what professors want is some kind of moral flaw. I think it's a structural effect of being a student.
Of course, work ethic, focus, interest, and basic ability will make a big difference between the way different students deal with that structural effect, with being subordinate, but I think it's there for all students. And hierarchy isn't always bad; I didn't have any problem with being a student in my past lives; I can't decide whether that's because I couldn't see the subordination, having always been subordinate to, well, all grown-ups, or because the subordination wasn't actually there, in the way it is now, going back to school at my, let's say, advanced age.
Anyway. Whether or not any of this makes any sense, or has any basis in reality, it's kind of soured me on the educational endeavor. I don't know if I want too much to do with it, once I finish this round.
(Which, you know, is just as well, since as I mentioned, getting a law teaching job is still harder than getting a regular legal job.)
*A student from my last year of teaching needed a syllabus from my class for transfer purposes. I had to rummage a bit to find the disc onto which I burned all my teaching stuff, before purging it from the laptop forever. Once I found it, it was way more organized than I remembered! AND it was very very odd looking at syllabi I'd written – which I hadn't done since a month or so before starting law school. It looks like I taught a cool class! But wow, after law school, my syllabi look SUPER complicated. Because, of course, when the class is evaluated entirely on students' performance on one exam, you don't have to say very much on the syllabus!