August 31, 2010

"Americans are too damn polite..."

"... so that a conversation between them consists of each person trying to say what the other person would have said had it been their turn to speak. And that isn’t a real conversation at all."

A British professor, quoted by an American lawprof (Einer Elhauge) in an article (published last October) called "Is 1L one hell? Survival tips from a law professor." There are 10 survival tips, and the Britprof's quote is from #9: "Don't be boring." That's a good tip for everyone, but as applied to first year law students:
Don’t be afraid to disagree or be provocative, or even to try on positions you aren’t quite sure about. And don’t close your minds to those who disagree with you. You may find that they are more convincing than you thought, or that discussion with them deepens your understanding of just why they are so wrong.
Students (and others) are afraid to say something wrong or — horrors! — frowned upon by their peers 'n' profs. We need the fear of being boring as a counterweight. Oh, I'm kidding. You don't need to be afraid of being boring. You just need to succumb to seductive and intense pleasures of not being boring.

***

Professor Elhauge's #1 tip is something I've been saying to students for a quarter century:
1. Realize the Difference Between Being Confused and Understanding the Confusion
Often students have the following the experience. They read the materials and thought the law seemed pretty clear. Then they went to class. And now the issues seem confusing. So they wrongly conclude that class is actually lessening their understanding. What this reaction misses is that often the correct understanding is that the laws and issues are unclear. There is conflict about what the doctrine means, when it applies, when it trumps other doctrines, and what justifies it, and the same set of issues can be framed in multiple ways. Realizing this doesn’t mean you are confused; it means you understand the confusion.
It's a gift to delight in understanding that comes in the form of confusion. Most lawprofs have this gift, I think. Which makes it all the more annoying for the law students who resist the realization that their confusion is in fact an understanding of confusion. See? It's annoying. We're annoying, we lawprofs.

15 comments:

edutcher said...

The rap about being too polite was always hung on the Brits. I guess, since the Limeys are just more Euros now, we're the new British.

Ann Althouse said...

Students (and others) are afraid to say something wrong or — horrors! — frowned upon by their peers 'n' profs. We need the fear of being boring as a counterweight. Oh, I'm kidding. You don't need to be afraid of being boring. You just need to succumb to seductive and intense pleasures of not being boring.

Peer pressure and the need (as opposed to desire) to appear cool keeps a lot of good questions and opinions from being voiced.

BTW, did Ann just admit to being a seductress?

They read the materials and thought the law seemed pretty clear. Then they went to class. And now the issues seem confusing.

Realizing this doesn’t mean you are confused; it means you understand the confusion. It's a gift is to delight in understanding that comes in the form of confusion. Most lawprofs have this gift, I think. Which makes it all the more annoying for the law students who resist the realization that their confusion is in fact an understanding of confusion. See? It's annoying. We're annoying, we lawprofs.


I think this is why most law students want to go into politics. They don't think they're confused, they think they are the confusion.

PS As for the annoying part, some of our National Socialists can attest. They can't get over someone abandoning President Urkel.

kathleen said...

the problem is that the boring law students were always the ones most likely to raise their hand in class. And what they said was entirely predictable.

Ralph L said...

It's a gift is to delight in understanding that comes in the form of confusion
I don't understand this confusion.

WV - tumater - Brits say toomahtoh

seattleWa said...

Has anybody 'splained tip #1 to Obama?

Ann Althouse said...

"the problem is that the boring law students were always the ones most likely to raise their hand in class. And what they said was entirely predictable."

And you students who think you're not boring but don't talk... do you take responsibility for the situation or do you sit back and think about how boring they are? If so, are your thoughts about how boring they are... boring thoughts or interesting thoughts? Maybe you nurture the belief that you are not boring by never risking saying anything that other people will find boring? You know what? I find *that* boring!

traditionalguy said...

That was elliptical. The best part of an education is memories formed during the struggle to understand an issue maturing 6 months later into an understanding. Then you need never be confused again by that argument...like learning to return a racquetball shot.

Flexo said...

The Anglo-American legal system is one that was founded on right REASON. And people naturally expect that laws have a RATIONAL basis.

Notwithstanding the fact that judges and legislators have gleefully abandoned the use of reason in favor of arbitrary and tyrannical fiat, "confusion" in the law is not the virtue that has been posited here.

No wonder the law today is so f***ed up with law professors pushing this kind of BS.

Flexo said...

Don’t be afraid to disagree or be provocative

Who caused students to be afraid? Who led them to believe that speaking freely could result in retaliation against them by the instructor and/or other students? Academia is the LAST place to expect the free exchange of ideas.

Brave is the student who defiantly points out just how laughably poor the reasoning and history is in Blackmun's opinion in Roe.

Insane is the student who dares to suggest that Brown v. Board of Education, while rightly decided, is not only poorly reasoned, but insultingly racist to boot (pushing the idea that black kids can only learn if surrounded by white kids), and should have been decided instead on the colorblind basis of the dissent in Plessy.

And revealing the total irrationality and logical impossibility of the idea of "gay marriage" is asking to be ostracized or even subjecting oneself to disciplinary action.

Dark Eden said...

Don’t be afraid to disagree or be provocative, or even to try on positions you aren’t quite sure about. And don’t close your minds to those who disagree with you. You may find that they are more convincing than you thought, or that discussion with them deepens your understanding of just why they are so wrong.
>>>>

This strikes me as pretty horrible advice for most modern American universities. In the cuthroat modern world, your best bet to get the magic piece of paper that gets you the job is to find the most hyperliberal professors you can, parrot their talking points back to them, and ride the wave of academic success.

former law student said...

Law teaching had one great productivity revolution over a century ago -- the Socratic method. Law clerks used to read law while they worked for lawyers. Law schools saw a way to let one lawyer teach a hundred students. But the only way to hold the attention of a hundred students for one to two hours is by asking questions, not lecturing, and by never letting the students know who will be called on next.

Lawyers in practice in that era learned of changes in the law by reading cases, and so law students were expected to learn the law by reading cases even during the productivity revolution.

Treacle said...

In Torts, a classmate argued for the allocation of fault to a deer in a hypothetical where a deer runs from the woods onto a road causing an accident.

That seemed pretty controversial in class. But after over a decade of practice, I've come to see the wisdom in blaming the deer.

kathleen said...

You find lack of class participation boring? I'm not surprised that as a law professor you find that boring, because I guess it makes more work for you. Truth be told, i think that class participation in general is encouraged by professors because half the time they can't be bothered to lecture well. I don't pay to hear what my peers think, I pay to hear what the teacher (ostensibly) knows.

kathleen said...

I should also add that you seem not to talking about the socratic method, which requires much more rigorous and focused work on the part of the professor than the dreadfully open-ended "class participation", where the professor can just sit back and bounce around ideas lobbed by some gormless 1L.

Joe said...

There is truth in this, but I'm not sure it's politeness as much as a combination of political correctness and fear of being seen as an iconoclast.

One thing I've noticed in corporate meetings is how much people in general frown on someone speaking bluntly.

An interesting illustration is a presentation a very nice guy gave at my last company on zero-point energy. It's quackery and I asked some very specific questions and also made an observation about how one demonstration could have been easily faked. I was later chastised by several people who said "you were right, but you shouldn't have been so direct." (Ironically, the presenter thanked me for my questions and said he liked being challenged. We remained friendly while I was there.)

Unfortunately, this fake "politeness" is found everywhere, even on so-called advice blogs and sites. At some point, you need to tell the women that keep pining for men who either beat them or ignore them to quit being stupid bitches. But no, you have to say everything but the obvious.

Kirk Parker said...

edutcher,

The deal about Brits being polite is based on their behavior while out and about, in queues, etc. If you've ever heard anything about the House of Commons, though, you'd know that they were never about being polite in debate.