That doesn’t mean that, some days, I don’t wonder what the point is.
There are times I leave the classroom completely jazzed because the discussion was SOOOOO good – and yet, I hear a voice in my head asking “Why did we just spend 75 minutes in conversation about legal pluralism, or class action law suits, or systems of oppression that they are – individually – powerless to change?” What’s worse, I have a fantasy that my colleagues in math and pharmacy, the business school, and the physical sciences never feel this way – that each lesson they teach is obviously and clearly relevant to the next, and to the work their students will do when they are young professionals.
Many of my students go on to law school. I know that I am preparing them well for the work of reading closely, thinking analytically, and writing clearly. But I also know that law school will change their understanding of law, their relationship to linguistic and professional power, and their view of the same systems we’re learning to understand and occasionally critique. Many of our students will go directly into the workforce – some as political campaign workers and advisors, some to policy analysis groups, some to governmental affairs offices. Yes; they’ll know how to meet deadlines, how think about ways to evaluate the impact of policy on different groups of people, and how to – yep – write clearly. But how will their understanding of the 5th Amendment’s Takings Clause factor into their work? How will their ability to talk about the novel An American Marriage and its relationship to mass incarceration be meaningful to their professional life at MidAmerican Energy or in the legal affairs department at Meredith Corporation?
I will readily tell you that I don’t think a college degree is necessary for everyone, nor is it necessary for success. I will also tell you that going to college changed me so profoundly I am still, 25 years later, learning from the experience. My desire is to provide my students with the kinds of meaningful experiences and opportunities that I had during those four years, but I also know that the most important thing I learned in college was how to learn. It wasn’t until my fifth year of graduate school that I understood how what I was studying could lead to a career – and let’s be honest, that’s only because the only career for a nonquantitative PhD in Political Science in the late 1990s was “being a professor.” We send only one student every three years or so to doctoral programs (hi Phoebe! hi Richard!) – replicating the field isn’t where my colleagues and I find meaning – no matter how much joy I feel in being part of a field/discipline.
Increasingly, honestly, I feel an ethical responsibility to provide students with a shot at an education that offers opportunity for both material and cognitive growth and betterment. In a field where we often critique the transactional approach to education, I still feel an ethical responsibility to make sure the transaction is a beneficial one to the folks who come into my classroom.
A new opportunity has come my way – probably just in time, given that these end-of-semester musings tend to creep in as early as February, now. I’ve just been named the Herb and Karen Baum Professor of Ethical Leadership in the Professions at my home institution (Drake University). The three-year professorship comes with two primary obligations: to host a Symposium in the second year on a topic of my choosing related to ethical leadership, and to teach a course once a year on that same topic. I’ve decided to focus on the issues that I’ve been pondering lately: the role of higher education in developing capacity for ethical decision-making and leadership in our students – simultaneous to our role in helping them develop cognitive capacities around core subject matter; the ways that a liberal arts education is pre-professional education, and appropriately so; and the ways that universities themselves have ethical obligations to our students around issues of access, equity, diversity, affordability, and job readiness.
I’ve put together a team of undergrads (hi Jaime, Gabrielle, Rae Ann, Jackie, and Marisa!), and we’re spending summer and fall reading together from a nice list of books on higher education in the present age; and I’ve put together a reading list for myself, on finance in higher education and the ways our ‘business model’ operates (and fails).
I’d love help from readers here, in particular, in developing a list that also understands how how undergraduate legal studies and sociolegal faculty have thought about the university and the professoriate’s role in creating lawyers, scholars, citizens, and ethical humans.
Please reach out: comment here, send me an email (email@example.com), find me at LSA or the WPSA. I want us, as a community, to find meaning in the work we do, beyond the tremendous, real, important and fun it is to think and write and teach about law and society J - I invite a conversation about how what we teach our students really does matter, and how we can continue to teach them things that will serve them throughout their professional lives.
Renée Ann Cramer
Professor of Law, Politics, and Society