Privilege and the Professoriate

Written by Ezra Rosser

Photo from my most recent professorial boondoggle -- I mean summer program!

I have been thinking a lot recently about how lucky I am (a semester off from teaching helps!) and the way this influences or will influence my writing.  There is nothing new to the idea that professors, particularly law professors, may be biased in part by their privilege.  Jeffrey Harrison has a great blog dedicated entirely to “Class Bias in Higher Education” and Sarah Palin continues to criticize Obama as a law professor standing at a podium and not a commander-in-chief (Prof. Ogletree’s interpretation of this insult is worth checking out).  The New York Times’ recent article on “The End of Tenure,” Sep. 3, 2010 also called attention to professorial privilege.

The danger that privilege will cloud professors’ policy recommendations was dramatically illustrated by a recent blog entry by a University of Chicago law professor criticizing the Obama plan to discontinue the Bush tax cuts for income about $250K that has gotten some media attention and inspired a great response by Michael O’Hare on his blog, “The whining of the rich,” Sep. 18, 2010 (links to the cached version of the entry are provided by O’Hare’s entry).

Last night I read a description of a third grade class in a Montgomery County, MD, school website in which the teacher’s mission statement read:

We are Mrs. —–‘s third grade class! We are respectful and responsible. We listen to adults and turn our assignments in on time. We come to school to learn and become smarter, so that we can earn money when we are adults. We follow all school expectations. Cheetahs do the best they can and never give up!

I have to admit, while I found it frightening that a school in such a wealthy part of the country so casually accepted the reduction of citizens to earners as the goal of a 3rd grade class, I found the honesty of this mission refreshing.  In some ways the mission statement of law schools does not seem much different.

On a personal level, I am mainly nervous that my privilege will alter my choice of how I spend my time and the topics I choose to write about.  Big picture this means do I write about poverty and/or property matters or do I write about Indian law and economic development.  The first two — poverty and property — are a better choice as far as career (it seems to me and in light of the fact that I am non-Indian) but Indian law and economic development is more grounded and potentially more important.  Even within Indian law, jurisdictional matters are likely to be of more interest to other professors while writing about poverty on reservations can be dismissed as not sufficiently intellectual or “legal.”

Finally, there seems to be a danger that I (along with other professors) am making and will make pedagogical choices and institutional choices more out of a desire to maintain my privileged position than out of a desire to educate.  The perhaps most obvious example today is the disconnect between the market for lawyers and the promotional materials of schools: even if law schools are not quite guilty of fraud in their relations with prospective students, law schools are not being entirely forthright about how the job market / crushing student debt will influence their lives post-graduation.  (Brian Leiter recently called attn to a related issue regarding domestic LLM programs.)  But the examples are of course much broader: take-all final exams, lack of resistance to the mega-class-size model, etc… My dad likes to tease me that rather than a job, being a law professor is a position.  Late at night writing or reading instead of sleeping, I sometimes think of sarcastic responses, but it is a position, and one whose comfort is dangerously enticing.