Monday, April 27, 2009

Two Crimes, Two Universities, Two Reactions

Sherman Oaks, California

Days into murder investigations allegedly involving university students or faculty, two schools react in different ways. The University of Georgia's web page opens to a large explanation of the manhunt for the shooting suspect, a management professor. The web page of Boston University, true to form, has no acknowledgement of the fact that one of its student may be the "Craiglist killer." (BU is also reported to have hidden copies of the campus newspaper which covered the crime.)

Good to see BU hasn't changed in the years since I've been there.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Coolest Thing I Learned In Class This Week


The Dutch East India Company kept plentiful accounting records, but they are so inaccurate that historians won't use them to run the numbers. Instead, historians tally the bills of lading of individual Company ships.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Playing Against Type: A Professor Who Writes Interesting, Informative Law Review Articles (About India)

Professor Kingsfield Goes to Delhi: American Academics, the Ford Foundation, and the Development of Legal Education in India by Jayanth K. Krishnan (46 American Journal of Legal History 447 (2004)).

Globetrotting Law Firms by Jayanth K. Krishnan (23 Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, forthcoming Autumn 2009).

Not all law review articles are boring.

Most are. Scholarly writing by law professors has become so arcane that judges and legislators – the people who actually make the laws – have stopped reading law reviews. “No one speaks of them. No one relies on them,” said the Chief Judge of the federal appellate court in New York.

The reasons are obvious. Law professors enjoy abstract discussions of metaphysical concepts; judges and politicians need practical examinations of actual statutes, regulations and rulings. Some law profs are atrocious writers, simultaneously opaque and windy. And many a tenured professor’s idea of fieldwork is asking an assistant to pull some books from the library.

Jayanth K. Krishnan is different. His work is interesting, relevant, practical, readable and – here’s a word you rarely see in this context – enjoyable.

Krishnan, who is currently transitioning from the William Mitchell College of Law to Indiana University-Bloomington, specializes in the study of the legal profession, particularly in India. If you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend his articles, many of which can be downloaded for free from the Social Science Research Network.

In any country, legal education is the means by which the profession propagates itself and transmits its values. In the words of The Paper Chase’s fictional Professor Kingsfield, “You come in here with a skull full of mush, and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Unfortunately, in the middle of the twentieth century, law schools in India were a ragged hodge-podge of institutions, most suffering from inadequate libraries, rigid pedagogy, an absence of faculty scholarship and a low quality of student. As detailed in Krishnan’s piece Professor Kingsfield Goes to Delhi, one Indian law prof opined at the time that (in Krishan’s words) “three-quarters of these schools were miserable, degree-stamping institutional failures, while the remaining one-quarter barely could qualify as mediocre.”

The Ford Foundation sponsored several fact-finding trips by U.S. academics – who were careful to act as students of India rather than high-handed First World consultants – but the foundation’s efforts resulted in little more than a series of reports and two unsuccessful pilot projects.

Fundamental change, Krishnan reports, came from within and was premised upon a geographic quirk. Law schools in northern India tended to be departments within universities -- and were constrained by the politics and patronage of the parent institutions. But law schools in southern India were usually independent operations – which meant that reforms could be instituted with less resistance.

In 1985, the governing Bar Council of India agreed to create a new law school in the south which would break from tradition. Hiring standards would be stringent, faculty would be required to publish, and only the best students from a nationwide pool of applicants would be admitted. The result was the National Law School of India University, located in Bangalore, which is usually ranked as one of the top law schools in the country – a triumph for an institution less than twenty-five years old.

If none of this sounds like theoretical hair-splitting over the impact of Michel Foucault’s discursive theories on the dormant Commerce Clause, you’re right. Krishnan uses the methods of history and journalism to add to the library of legal knowledge – and tell a good story in the process.

The same laudatory qualities are seen in his new article Globetrotting Law Firms, which discusses the manner in which large, Western law firms are prohibited from practicing in India. In researching the article, Krishnan traveled to India and interviewed the major players, both Indian and Anglo. He explains in crisp terms the structure of the Indian legal system, and the different types of attorneys who practice within it.

In one footnote, Krishnan uses the eyewitness techniques of travel writing to describe the environs of the Tis Hazari district court in Old Delhi (pictured):

This complex is the largest of its type in Asia, housing some 250 civil and criminal courts and serving as the site where an astonishing 500,000 people work or have business to which they attend on a daily basis. In addition, there are approximately 14,000 mostly solo practicing lawyers whose primary work is at the complex. Around the complex yard is a seemingly endless number of what are referred to as individual “chambers,” which serve as each practitioner’s individual office. (Some practitioners do office-share.) Generally these chambers have no library, no staff, and no computers; usually there is just a wooden desk, an operational typewriter, and a few statutory books to which they can refer. Furthermore, these lawyers have to compete with unlicensed brokers, better known as touts, who stroll around the courtyard offering potential clients the ability to resolve their legal disputes for nearly half the costs.

If you’ve never read anything about the Indian court system before, this paragraph paints a portrait of its size and flavor. It’s easy to understand, and it’s memorable, and it can serve as the starting point for another scholar’s research. In short, it does everything a law review article should do.

I look forward to reading a lot more articles by Krishnan, and I hope aspiring academics use his work as a model. I know I will.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tax Day Video

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sleep Dealer: Lead Article At DV Magazine

Sherman Oaks, California

I currently have the lead article on the webpage of DV magazine, an interview with Sleep Dealer director Alex Rivera. The film -- a reflection on life in a futuristic Mexico after the United States seals the border -- opens Friday.

Who Won Tagore's Nobel Prize?

History and the Postcolonial: Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London, 1912-1913, by Michael Collins (published in The International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 9 (2007)).

William Butler Yeats is rumored to have won two Nobel Prizes -- one in his own name and one for rewriting the most famous work of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

“Balderdash and poppycock,” says University College London lecturer Michael Collins, although he uses more refined language in arguing his case.

Little-known to Americans, Tagore (pictured) is renowned in India and Bangladesh, more so since his death in 1941 than during his life. In 1913, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person from the Indian subcontinent so honored. (Rudyard Kipling, who won in 1907, was born in Bombay, but you know what I mean.)

Tagore, who lived near Calcutta, visited Great Britain in 1912 and socialized with the day’s men of letters. He met H.G. Wells, Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw, among others, but his interactions with Yeats are the cause of literary controversy.

Yeats, the rumor alleges, substantially rewrote Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali in the guise of translating it, and the Nobel prize committee based its award entirely on that English translation. When the prize was announced, the misattribution accusation was made by British newspaper commentators -- whose disparagement can be dismissed (accurately or not) as the product of an imperial mindset appalled to see a colonial treated as an equal of Kipling and other Europeans.

More problematically, one of the accusers was Yeats himself. “No Indian can write or speak in animated English,” Yeats wrote in another context, repeating the contemporary stereotype that Indians were a languid race. For the rest of his life, Yeats would insist that he was the light behind the English version of Gitanjali.

While Collins’ article “History and the Postcolonial” does not contain a detailed comparison of the Bengali and English texts of Gitanjali – perhaps that will be in his forthcoming book about Tagore – Collins’ detective work at the Nobel Academy’s library has uncovered a hole in the story.

Contrary to the popular belief, the Nobel Academy’s literary committee based its recommendation on more than the Yeats-assisted translation of Gitanjali, Collins argues. One member of the five-person committee, a novelist named Esais Tegnér, possessed some ability to read Bengali, and he borrowed three native-language texts of Tagore’s works from the Nobel Library, according to the institution’s accessions register. Library documents also state that committee members borrowed other works by Tagore, namely Glimpses of Bengal Life and The Gardner. A third work, Lyrics of Love and Life, is referenced in the Academy’s presentation speech.

Consequently, the argument that Tagore’s Nobel Prize was premised upon the English translation of a single work is seriously challenged by Prof. Collins’ research. While questions remain – e.g., Was Yeats a credit hog? – we can probably lay to rest the accusation that the Nobel committee cut corners in making its decision.

Perhaps Yeats’ proponents will have to accept that only Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes by himself.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Law Professors Write Way Too Much

Sherman Oaks, California

Law professors do it, too.

Previously, I posted about a study which argued that English literature professors published thousands of unread scholarly articles merely to justify their cushy jobs.

Maybe there’s something in the air, because University of Colorado law professor Pierre Schlag made the same point about his colleagues in the most recent issue of The Georgetown Law Journal.

“Now it’s true that we’re producing at a vastly faster rate than ever before. More papers. More conferences. More panels. More symposia. More blogs. And faster and faster too. More and faster,” Schlag wrote in a breezy style rarely seen in the precincts of academic publishing. “Over seven thousand American legal academics – and all of them cranking out those talks and papers as fast as possible. The speed of legal scholarship is just off the charts right now.

“And yet, nothing’s happening.”

By which Schlag meant that there is no great intellectual movement roiling the academy. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law was summarized, categorized and systematized into the various doctrinal compartments we use today (contracts, torts, civil procedure, etc.). Before World War II, the advocates of “legal realism” argued that law was nothing more than an extension of human will, warts and all. Since the 1960s, the classroom has been washed by trendy waves such as critical legal studies (law is political and therefore bad), critical race theory (law is racist and therefore bad) and feminist legal theory (guess). But, according to Schlag, there’s not much intellectual ferment at the moment.

So why the vastly expanding body of scholarship?

“The legal academy clearly did not need five hundred contracts teachers to write treatises on contracts (six would do). How then to keep the other 494 duly employed? A three-pronged answer: (1) heighten the intricacy of analysis, (2) let the academics issue lots of normative recommendations, and (3) have them argue incessantly amongst themselves,” Schlag wrote. Taken together, these professional activities – aimed, in terms of quality, at the high end of mediocrity -- guarantee full employment for law profs.

(The word “normative,” by the way, is a word you hear four million times in law school, but all it means is “related to the making of rules.” Like a lot of legal jargon, it’s a shabby idea dressed in a Latin tuxedo.)

Meanwhile, law professors become fixated not on the intellectual or methodological rigor of their work but on various types of numerical rankings. “Quantification rules as the major parameter of academic excellence,” Schlag wrote. “To put it simply: lots of articles + lots of pages + lots of words + lots of certification = double-plus-good knowledge.”

The numbers race becomes a way to avoid the big issue of whether the work is worth doing. “We don’t have to worry that the enterprise might be entirely worthless if we’re totally fixated on how well or how badly we are doing it relative to everybody else,” Schlag wrote.

Schlag’s conclusion is that the character of modern life is essentially neurotic and that the legal professoriate mirrors society in “the excruciating intricacies of everyday demands, the symbolic overinvestment of meaning in the trivial, the obsessive monitoring of everything to within an inch of its life.”

If anything, Schlag’s criticisms are too mild. For most law students, the most shocking aspect of the education is the creeping realization that almost none of the professors have much experience practicing law. The average prof worked at a firm for one or two years before moving into academia. So the fundamental critique of law profs is that they are profoundly unsuited to conduct their core function: training future lawyers.

What law professors like to do is think big thoughts. A few are astonishingly good at that. But then there's the other 6,900. Unfortunately, the incentives of the tenure track reward faculty for scholarship – not for teaching and certainly not for lawyering ability -- so junior professors write and write and write. Even if there's nothing going on.