Friday, February 10, 2012
Professional identity and constitutive belief
Thomas Nagel, "What is it like to be a bat?"
I have had many recent occasions to reflect on the question of what is it like to be a "law professor." The quotation marks are meant to indicate a limiting definition: by "law professor" I mean something like "a successfully socialized legal academic, from the perspective of the institutional power structure that defines successful socialization in this context."
Such socialization obviously has many components. Here I will focus on just one, or rather a sub-part of one. A "law professor," in this sense, is someone who the institution can rely on to participate enthusiastically in the promotion of what the institution wants to promote. Of course law schools want to promote a number of core beliefs about the legal system in general and their role in it in particular. At present an especially crucial belief to promote, from the perspective of the institutional power structure, is that the students attending a particular law school have made a wise decision, one which for the large majority of them will produce clearly positive results in the long term. We can call this the "wise decision" belief.
At the present moment, in other words, a "law professor" is someone who as matter of core professional identity can be counted on to inculcate the wise decision belief in his or her students, preferably as a consequence of holding that belief in a constitutive, identity-organizing way.
By "core professional identity" I mean that the transmission of this belief to one's students is supposed to take place in a routine and unreflective manner. One conveys it, almost always indirectly but all the more powerfully, in everything one does and says while performing the role of a "law professor," as a matter of course, in the same way one shows up to teach one's classes on the appointed days and hours -- that is, without having to think about it, because after all doing so is simply part of what everyone understands to be their job.
Nevertheless in certain situations the law professor's transmission of the wise decision belief becomes, at least potentially, a matter of conscious reflection rather than unconscious role performance. Consider events designed to recruit students to the school. In this context, institutional participants must as a practical matter actively affirm that enrolling at their school is a wise decision for those considering this step. For example, a commenter noted recently that the University of Virginia law school sent out a solicitation to current students to participate in such an event, with the "only" requirement being that students should be ready to present their decision to attend UVA in a positive and enthusiastic light.
On one level there is nothing in the least surprising or interesting about the observation that people who sell things must at the very least convincingly fake their enthusiasm for whatever it is they're selling. On another, however, the practical requirement that being a "law professor" means adopting a professional persona that transmits the wise decision belief through the performance of that persona also means that being a "law professor" excludes a large range of utterances and behaviors that would be perfectly acceptable from, and indeed possibly required of, someone performing the persona of the "scholar," with the quotation marks here signaling a definition of that word meaning "someone who puts a higher value on discovering and conveying the truth than on purely instrumental considerations."
All of which is to say that, under present circumstances, there is a particularly sharp tension -- one might even say a fundamental contradiction -- between the professional identities of the successfully socialized "law professor" and the successfully socialized member of, if the term is not too grandiose, the academic community. Hopes for reforming legal academia from the inside rest on the belief that it is possible to get enough legal academics to, at the appropriate moments, stop performing the role of the "law professor," in favor of the role of the engaged member of that broader community.
Update: A good number of readers are prone to leap to the conclusion that my criticisms of legal academia are intended to exclude other parts of the university. It should be unnecessary to point out that the inevitable tension between an academic and a commercial enterprise is endemic to American higher education, and that law schools are merely especially problematic examples of that tension.
Update #2: If I had wanted to compose a parody of the kinds of things a "law professor" might say in defense of the status quo, I wouldn't have written this, as it's way too over the top. More shortly.