Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Treasury of Idiotic Quotes by Law Professors, Vol. VI: "[S]eriously underprepared law students occupy a role as "other" just as students from vastly different cultures do." (CUNY Law Prof. Deborah Zalesne)

ABA Standard 501(b) states that "A law school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar." 

On the basis of LSAT scores alone, it should be glaringly obvious that most law schools are recruiting a significant and increasing contingent of law students whose presence violates Standard 501. However, law school admissions officers can always claim that, regardless of the general statistical correlation between low LSAT scores and bar exam disaster, they saw the requisite appearance of capability in each and every one of the particular weak-credentialed students they did admit. All appeared destined to beat the odds, glittering like juris diamonds in the very, very rough. 

Therefore, it is refreshing when a law professor (along with a law school academic support specialist)  admits that her classroom includes students who are so "seriously underprepared" and so lacking in "academic intelligence" and "cognitive skills" as to be beyond the reach of "traditional law school pedagogy." In other words, students who do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing a doctoral-level program of legal education and then passing the bar. Even if the law professor only make the admission in the context of trying to normalize the presence of unqualified law students via highly creative forms of obfuscation. 

Consider the following synopsis of a forthcoming conference presentation by CUNY Law Prof Deborah Zalesne and CUNY Law Director of Academic Support Programs David Nadvorney, entitled "Learning Outcomes, Cultural Competency, and the Underprepared Law Student as "Other."" (The conference itself is entitled "Teaching Cultural Competency and Other Professional Skills Suggested by ABA Standard 302" and will be held from July 7-8 at the University of Arkansas School of Law (Little Rock)).
"We believe a student’s academic intelligence is about more than simply cognitive skills; it’s akin to culture, including not only cognitive, but also affective and social skills, all of which contribute to a student’s level of success. Our workshop posits that for many faculty, seriously underprepared law students occupy a role as "other" just as students from vastly different cultures do. The workshop will emphasize the responsibility of the teacher to understand and bridge the gap that exists between students’ level of preparation and the goals of the course. In doing so, we will highlight the failure of traditional law school pedagogy to reach the underprepared student, and suggest a framework and materials for teaching the cognitive component of academic intelligence."
It would be problematic for law faculty to explicitly recommend dumbing down law school classes in order to reach "seriously underprepared law students" because, under ABA Standard 501, students in need of such remedial-skills spoonfeeding probably should not have been admitted in the first place. So Zalesne and Nadvorney make that recommendation implicitly via some very delicate wording and by misusing the fashionable concept of cultural competence teaching. That way, they can talk piously about the diligent efforts that law schools must make in order to satisfy ABA Standard 302 (learning outcomes) while conveniently overlooking the fact that poor learning outcomes are the foreseeable result of law school disregard for Standard 501 (standards for admissions).

Zalesne and Nadvorney’s novel little trick is to analogize, even equate, the needs and skills of law students who are "seriously underprepared" due to cognitive deficiency with the needs and skills of law students from "vastly different cultures."

By pretending that under-preparedness is simply another form of diversity, Zalesne and Nadvorney inadvertently recall the timeless statement by a right-wing U.S. senator from the 1960s named Hruska, who demanded opportunities for the marginalized Mediocre-American, including a Supreme Court seat, stating that "there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?"

In case there is any sentient being who doesn't understand this distinction, membership in a cultural community, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or gendered, means belonging to a group with a distinctive history, values, norms, customs, and traditions. It makes sense for a law school to welcome students from "vastly different cultures" and try to provide them with whatever they reasonably need in terms of mentoring, counseling, accommodation, and protection against bigotry. By contrast, serious under-preparedness is a personal failing caused by lack of aptitude, poor training, laziness, or disinterest, and does not deserve outreach, but rather exclusion.  

Identity politics may be on the rise, but I do not anticipate a Seriously Underprepared community coalescing within law schools to protest the cruel pedagogical othering of being expected to read and analyze complicated material in the traditional manner. I do not anticipate inspirational chants of communal affirmation such as "Say it loud, I am seriously underprepared and proud!" or "We’re here, we’re seriously underprepared, get used to it!" Though, come to think of it, these would make fine law school mottos, given the horrifying decline in the quality of incoming law students over the past several years, and could even be adopted as formal ABA interpretations of Standards 302 and 501.