Be careful who you nominate for “Teacher of the Year.”

A law professor was named “Experiential Professor of the Year” at her law school, but she didn’t appreciate the qualifier. Evidently, some people are offended by backhanded compliments like “tallest midget” or “valedictorian of Cooley.”

I’m kidding, but this law professor is certainly not. In a letter to faculty, she calls out the “express ghetto-ization and limitation through labeling” inherent when you distinguish between “clinical” faculty and “regular” faculty….

Professor Mae C. Quinn at the Washington University – St. Louis School of Law should probably win the award for “teacher most likely to tell you to go and sit on it.” After receiving recognition for her work, she sent the following letter to her fellow faculty:

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you very much for thinking of me and for your hard work in generating such a tremendous list of honorees. But I find being named “Experiential Professor of the Year” both offensive and marginalizing. In fact, I shared these views about this award with a number of students last year after another “clinical” colleague was given the award for the first time. In my mind it would be fine to have two teacher of the year awards, allowing the students to describe why each faculty member demonstrates excellence – in all of its many forms. But this kind of express ghetto-ization and limitation through labeling was exactly what I was told did NOT exist at Washington University when I was recruited to teach both in our clinics and outside of our clinics. So receiving such an award makes me very sad.

Read her full message on the next page. There’s something very elegant about how she says that receiving the distinction makes her “very sad.” Like this whole thing has caused her to have a big extended “sigh.”

I’m a fan, but one student who emailed us objected to her teaching techniques:

I had her for 1L crim law and she was angry at students coming in late so she placed trash cans inside the doors so people would trip over them when they came in.

Nut job.

Well… that’s an experience. Some teachers tell you that fire is hot, while others visit you in the emergency room after you get a skin graft and say, “What did we learn?”

As to her actual point, sure — but who cares? This internecine battle between clinical faculty and academic faculty (if we’re going to label them as such) feels like watching native tribes battle with sticks before the tanks roll in to steal all of their resources. Employers have shown, again and again, that while they may talk a lot about wanting “practice ready” graduates, they’re still just going to hire students from the “best schools” they can get their hands on. Law schools are trying to promote these clinical programs to prospective law students who are worried about their job prospects. But law schools are doing that at the expense of cutting costs, which is what prospective law students should actually be concerned with.

Not that I’m on the side of “traditional” faculty either. How many law reviews and law journals does one country need? Training the next generation of practicing attorneys with people who have never practiced would seem laughably stupid if we hadn’t been doing it this way for so long.

Professor Quinn writes that “every class should teach students to both think — and do — as lawyers,” which is clearly the right answer. But law schools are bad at analyzing exactly what teaching techniques, if any, actually help students get jobs. There are successful lawyers who couldn’t file a brief if you painted all of their papers blue. There are successful lawyers who wouldn’t know who Oliver Wendall Holmes was if he haunted them. And some of the most well-prepared lawyers in the world are sitting in a conference room doing e-discovery because nobody will hire them for a “real” lawyer job. Maybe law professors should worry about that instead of fighting over how much casebook reading to assign?

In any event, Mae Quinn ends with the kind of law school faculty fighting I do care about:

At Tennessee I was named Teacher of the Year. Period.

Boom. You feel that, WashU? Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top, ain’t no experiential bills.

UPDATE (3:55 p.m.): An interesting perspective from a WUSTL student:

I served as an SBA rep this past year, and this issue with the clinical professors has come up before. The reason that SBA allocates a separate award for the clinical professors is precisely because we don’t want them to be overlooked. If we only had two “Professor of the Year” awards, it’s very likely that two doctrinal professors would win every year, just by virtue of how many more students take doctrinal courses than those who participate in clinics.

You can read Professor Quinn’s full letter on the next page….


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