On Being Mean

kingsfield.jpgThis is a new one.

After class last Friday, I first took questions from a long line of in most cases needlessly anxious first year students, then stopped to chat with a group of students who seemed to have stayed behind in the classroom to study. I asked them how it was going, the usual questions.

In the course of that conversation I got a complaint that I've never had before. It seems, they all agreed, that I wasn't mean enough. How were they going to be able to cope with mean people in the future if I didn't toughen them up? They expected law school to be tough, and were they getting the full experience?

It has to be said that the other professors in my section are particularly nice people. If there's a candidate for the bad guy, the scary one, it clearly has to be me. I'm the one teaching in a suit (the Dean has her own unique style that I will not attempt to characterize; Patrick Gudridge wears ties and jackets, but frequently the very professorial ones. George Schatzki doesn't wear a tie and sports a pony tail.)

But I don't want to be mean. Tough, sure; rigorous and exacting, you bet. But it's not meant to hurt.

Anyway, back to Friday: Slightly taken aback by this critique — one reason I stopped teaching first semester first years about a decade ago is that they found me too scary — I deflected the issue by saying that it reminded me of the story about the sadist and the masochist.

The masochist says to the sadist, “Please hurt me.” And the sadist says, “No.”

Then again, maybe I've just gone soft.

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12 Responses to On Being Mean

  1. Joe1 says:

    I wouldn’t worry about it. One of the nicest first year professors at my law school was also the toughest grader on the faculty. I avoided his classes. The guy who taught real property, and was tough in class, was not an easy grader, but he was far from the hardest grader on the faculty. When I visited the school two years ago, we sat and visited for about a half hour and talked about a lot of things. He also told me that the faculty thought that my class had done well over the years, and that the faculty was proud of us.

  2. Matt says:

    You should recommend that if they want more mean, they can try being mean to each other. Or, you can break out some of these actual statements from my undergrad days:

    Professor: “Does anyone have any questions?”
    Student: “some question”
    long pause
    Professor: “Does anyone have any good questions?”

    Student: “Some half-baked remark”
    Professor: “You should think more before you speak.”

    Student: “Some half-baked remark”
    Professor: “Well, I guess that’s a sort of simple-minded way to look at the issue”

    Professor: “Someone, on his paper, has made an egregious grammatical error that clearly marks him as an idiot. It was Lister.”

    And so on. I’ll add that I wasn’t (usually) the target of these remarks, except the last one, though I’m sure I was of others. Also, these professors were among my, and most of my friends, favorite professors.

  3. michael says:

    Also, these professors were among my, and most of my friends, favorite professors.

    So here’s the question: Why? Why do law students enjoy being brutalized like that?

  4. Davis X. Machina says:

    They’re paying a king’s ransom for law school, and expect enough horror stories to dine out on for the rest of their days in exchange.

    And you’re not playing ball.

  5. Matt says:

    I don’t know about law students, but for me and my friends as undergrads (of a decided non-privileged sort), the feeling was summed up in something like this:

    “And what kind of man am I? One of those who would gladly be refuted if anything I say is not true, and would gladly refute another who says what is not true, but would be no less happy to be refuted myself than to refute, for I consider that a greater benefit, inasmuch as it is a greater boon to be delivered from the worst of evils oneself than to deliver another.” (Socrates, in Plato’s Gorgias, section 458a)

    I’m not very much of a fan of the so-called “Socratic method”, but to refute and be refuted, without any need for being gentle, is a good thing for those who come to learn.

  6. Dan B. says:

    I think it’s an expectation brought on by reading books like “One L” etc.

    I never read any of those books before law school and therefore my only expectation going in was simply that law school would ‘be difficult’ but I had not expectations for the socratic method, yelling professors, etc.

    Then I had Professor Graham as the professor for my first ever law school class, where he promptly moved class time from 8:00 to 7:50…

  7. Bret Fausett says:

    The “mean” professor is a shared experience of the students in the class. It works the same way hazing works to bring people together.

  8. C.E. Petit says:

    I found even the “mean” law school professors a vacation: They weren’t shooting at me, as the “meanies” in my prior profession were wont to do. (Well, the foreign “meanies” anyway.) And no law professor has anything on a flag officer or political appointee going off on an ego-fuelled rant because an underling said “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t do that.”

    Just a little perspective here…

  9. Ann Bartow says:

    On Tuesday, after explaining in great detail what the Federal Circuit was and why it was established (as did the book in the assigned pages, but in less detail), and then walking the students through all the possible steps a patent application can go through (Pat Ex, Pat Apps Bd, Fed Cir to Sup Ct) before is issues, then walking them through the related statutory provisions, I began teaching the Chakrabarty. I asked why the appellate ct was the CCPA rather than the Fed Cir. and many people raised their hands with the correct answer that the Fed. Cir. had not been established yet. At which point a student who had been surfing the web asked: “What is the Federal Circuit?”

    Take the mean route and ask somebody else who had been paying attention? Or just answer, which is what I did. And regretted it, because after class another student stopped by the podium to inquire “What is this Federal Circuit you speak of?”

  10. FS says:

    Back when I had you, you had a reputation for being rough, but I was rather disappointed that you actually were not very rough at all. Stotzky was far worse than anything you’d dish out. You just talked too fast and refused to slow down to normal note-taking speeds (for some reason preferring to be constantly interrupted to repeat things instead). I actually asked if you got worse over time or if this was where you’d stay. You told me you’d get worse, but you never changed at all.

  11. ULG says:

    MY experience/opinion w/ 1st year UM LAW profs:

    Coombs: I have mixed things to say about… but she can be nasty to students but at least she is amusing.

    Schnably: VERY Nice guy, good grader.

    Widen: mean sometimes in class, but he was the by far best professor I had all of law school. Taking his Ks class really helped being ahead when I sat down to study for the bar exam – even though it was 3 years later. He also had great real-world experiences to tell us about and always willing to meet after class to explain the material.

    Massey: Love her, but she retired.

    Steve Vladeck: was one of the nicest professors (granted he favored the good looking female students), and extremely intelligent – but his class was a completely WORTHLESS learning experience. I did OK in the class gradewise – but when I sat down to study for the bar I had to re-learn the subject he taught.

    Stotzky (Elements a.k.a. BS) takes last place – was the WORST PROFESSOR EVER! –> low grades, extreme jerk in class, and subject materially very worthless. Pretty much the general consensus of most of my fellow alums (other than the ones who married him…)

  12. sue ann says:

    Oh come now, if students want to be treated badly you know where come to get lessons. I don’t treat professors well you know and I can teach you the technique. Here’s a hint. Don’t let them think they know anything, treat them like 6th graders new to Junior High. I will supply you with enough “mean” to satisfy them. if you just ask.

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