by student blogger Orijit Ghoshal
On Monday, February 22, Jack Getman of the University of Texas Law School spoke to a gathering of faculty members about what makes a great law school. Dean Krent observed that as a novelist, professor, and clinician, Professor Getman is uniquely positioned to comment on different approaches taken to law professorship.
Professor Getman claimed that two unique characteristics made law schools great, in spite of administrators’ efforts to game widely published and relied upon law school rankings. First, great law schools produced new ideas and innovative approaches to the law. Second, great law schools focused more on teaching students than publishing in academic circles.
With regards to innovation, Prof. Getman observed that students are more satisfied with class when they feel they are taught new ideas emerging from the law school’s own faculty. As a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s, Prof. Getman noted the rigorous focus on the rationality of economic-decision making as basis for legal theory. While Prof. Getman was not entirely convinced of the accuracy of this approach, he conceded that the school’s focus on creating ideas and taking them seriously imbued the school with a sense of importance that benefitted both professors and students. While teaching at Indiana University, Prof. Getman opined that the faculty’s sense of camaraderie allowed professors room to fail when publishing academically and he observed that truly useful work in the labor law field was often accompanied by a high risk of ‘failure’ in the academic sense. This cushion for failure allowed Getman to perform highly detailed empirical studies and investigations into reality, as opposed to pontificating in articles titled “Towards the theory of X legal concept.” Telling workers’ stories in their own words took longer than more traditional law review articles, thus articles like these require institutional encouragement. Getman noted that risk-taking was not advisable to new faculty since they needed to build up cache by starting in traditional, doctrinally grounded topics.
With regards to teaching as opposed to publishing, Getman noted that at some point in the legal profession academic potential overrode pedagogical ability. Getman lamented this development insofar as prospective professors are no longer hired for their ability to teach but rather for their research agenda. At the University of Texas, Getman lauded his school’s colloquia about teaching offered to new faculty. However, Getman noted that these colloquia rarely raised new approaches to the casebook and semi-Socratic method of teaching prevalent at all law schools. Getman also observed that in many schools, a high percentage of actual teaching is done by adjunct professors, resulting in a lack of coordination between different teaching styles at the law school as a whole. Although he feared his demanding Socratic method professors as a student, Getman noted that the trend towards soft-Socratic methods leads to a less exciting and engaging learning experience. In improving the focus on teaching, Getman suggested that law schools should borrow from legal writing programs as well as clinical efforts.
Answering questions from faculty members, Getman argued that while the tenure system was powerful and necessary to defend academic freedom, the number of eligible professors needs to be expanded at most schools. Additionally, Getman noted that key decisions (like choosing a new dean) at law schools should be made by faculty vote. Asked to give specific suggestions for improving teaching methods, Getman stressed the need for school-initiated discussion amongst the faculty. Getman believed that while schools should teach from a common set of materials, they should utilize professors with different approaches spread between sections. As far as what could be done outside the classroom to improve teaching, Getman argued that professors should be a part of the real-world struggle in their particular field of law. Handling cases and having contact with affected parties was necessary to effectively teach the law to students. Getman remarked that intelligence is not limited to academia and he encouraged faculty to step into the real-world while not succumbing to seductive pressures to be on commissions or workshops that stifle controversial ideas. Finally, Getman noted that clinical teaching methods were the most successful and he attributed their success to a team sense that allows honest feedback, as opposed to a didactic classroom model that rarely gives professors the opportunity to receive honest and useful student evaluation.