Monday, April 25, 2005

Brian Leiter and the Reproduction of Willy Lomanhood

While surfing the internet the other day I encountered web pages about a person I knew many years ago, while I was still in college. This person went on to a renowned doctoral program at an illustrious university. Very shortly thereafter she published a book that made a big splash in her field and sold very well to the general public. Her book was favorably noted by the New York Times. Passages from it are now found among collections of famous quotations. And then, to all intents and purposes, this person disappeared. As far as I can determine, she has published nary another word.

This morning (during my spring break) I was listening to WNYC, the local public radio station. I heard a snippet of an interview with Scott A. Sandage. He was discussing his new book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press 2005). See the informative review in the Washington Post. Talk in the interview briefly (and inevitably, I suppose) led to mention of Willy Loman. A few moments later Sandage said that he had not tried to study attitudes toward success and failure elsewhere in the world but that anecdotal evidence suggested to him that in at least some parts of the world attitudes toward success and failure differ markedly from those in the United States. He said that when he was still working on his book and mentioned the topic of his book -- failure -- to Americans, the response would usually be an embarrassed silence, but that when he mentioned the topic of his book -- failure -- to Europeans and other non-Americans, his partners in conversation would immediately start grilling him about why Americans are so obsessed with success.

Thoughts about my vanished friend and about the book Born Losers put me in mind of Brian Leiter.

Brian Leiter of the University of Texas maintains a ranking system of American law schools. He also ranks philosophy departments now and then. He also ranks various programs in law schools. He also uses alternative metrics to produce a variety of alternative rankings of American law schools.

Now this business -- the business of ranking law schools, law school programs, and philosophy departments -- is, I suppose, not an unnatural avocation. But Leiter does more than rank various educational institutions and programs. He also reports, in detail, the movement of faculty members -- and rumors of faculty moves -- among American law schools. He has been at it for years now.

Leiter is preoccupied with hierarchy -- but not in the way that Duncan Kennedy once was. Leiter's reports on lateral faculty moves are generally limited to law schools (and, for all I know, philosophy departments) that he apparently considers either elite or above average. The reports often have a breathless quality. For example:

Report 1: "A number of top schools, including Texas, were in the 'hunt' for this scholarly couple this past year!" (Leiter Reports, April 14, 2005)

Report 2: "This marks the first time since roughly the late 1980s that there has been any lateral movement between the two New York schools, and the first time (ever, to my knowledge) that NYU has dislodged a senior faculty member from Columbia. That's a big coup for NYU, ..." (Leiter Reports, April 5, 2005)

I suspect that many of my fellow law teachers share my reaction to Leiter's reports about faculty moves (often to-and-fro) in the American law school world. Leiter's reports about such matters strike me as mildly repellent; they strike me as the equivalent of a gossip column; they seem to amount to chit chat about the doings of the law school world's equivalent of the rich and famous. But, despite my better judgment and instincts, I find that, exactly like a moth to fire, I am occasionally drawn to Leiter's chatter.

I teach at a reasonably-good law school. I also fancy that my standing in my field is reasonably good. Yet I find that I am invariably depressed after I look at the most recent edition of Leiter's reports of law school rankings and faculty movement among law schools; indeed, I invariably feel that I am Willy Loman redux.

At the risk of personal embarrassment, the scorn of my colleagues, and impairment of my standing (if any) in the legal profession at large, I wish to say this: Brian Leiter's reports are not good for the soul. And perhaps they are not good for legal education. Oh, well, shucks: I retract the last suggestion. I can't really say that his reports positively harm American legal education; I haven't done a rigorous economic analysis of the costs and benefits of his "reports" (and I never will). But of this much I am reasonably sure: Brian Leiter's law school faculty gossip column is an example an unhealthy obsession with "success" (in this case, of the academic variety).

Work in your own gardens, folks (law teachers, I mean, and the rest of you too!). Think less about what your neighbors do and think. Yes, you are entitled to seek just compensation for your labors; and, yes, you must eat and some of you have families to feed. But keep in mind that there is a large grain of truth in the notion that good work is its own reward. So, while it's tough medicine and probably hard to swallow, here is my prescription: Try to keep Brian Leiter -- or, in any event, his reports of law faculty moves -- out of your minds. I will try to do likewise. If we succeed, perhaps we will -- as a group, on the whole -- live better and enjoy our wonderful work more. Let's try to keep the number of Willy Lomans on law school faculties to a minimum.

There! I have that off my chest. Now I can get back to Evidence.

  • N.B. Honestly! I don't know why that Leiter guy never mentions my name!
  • Post a Comment