Dean's Desk: Notre Dame dean provides perspective on ‘grading the graders’

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dean-newton-notre-dameThe university has set aside a small pool of money to provide merit increases to faculty and staff. Allocating this fund is a difficult task because it requires making distinctions among valued colleagues. On the one hand it is important to reward the year’s most productive faculty and staff and those who have taken on additional duties. On the other hand it is necessary to take into account that very few can have a stellar record every year.

The process is not unlike grading a course. As with grading the students in the contracts course I taught last year, I try to review all of our faculty in a concentrated period of time in order to keep the entire cohort in mind during the process. But instead of grading students’ answers to my exam hypotheticals, I review information on faculty scholarship, teaching, and service.

I have a system. First, I read each faculty member’s annual self-evaluation. As you would expect, our professors are asked to report on the number and quality of their publications, the titles of their courses, and the number of credits and students they have taught. But we also ask them to respond to numerous other questions ranging from “how have you helped students in their job searches” to “have you collaborated with foreign institutions on teaching or scholarship in the past year?” And I pay particular attention to their responses to the self-evaluations’ last question, which asks them to reflect on the past year and their goals for the future. The reflective statements this question prompts are often very inspiring. A professor may set forth the challenges she faced planning a new course or the steps he is taking to improve the clarity or rigor of a new course. One professor might set forth an ambitious research agenda; another might report that last year’s plans have been refined in light of a path of inquiry only recently identified; another might report with excitement that teaching a new course has caused her to develop a strong interest in writing in a completely new field.

Next, I review each person’s service to the law school, the university, and the legal profession. These service reports are often long, filled with activities from coaching high school moot court teams to briefing a special rapporteur at the UN.

Teaching is next on the list of major items to review. To do this, I look at the faculty’s course loads and carefully study their student evaluations. Mentoring students, judging moot court competitions, serving as faculty advisor to student organizations, and advising students on papers and law journal notes are all an important part of teaching and duly noted. But the student course evaluations are especially informative on the quality of instruction in the classroom. We have an excellent instrument for this at Notre Dame that breaks down student responses into a number of categories and subcategories, such as “fairness and impartiality,” “helps students develop mastery,” “intellectual challenge,” “clarity of communication,” “amount of time spent on the course out of class” – just to name a few. The instrument presents both means and medians and breaks down four large categories into deciles. You can learn a lot from reading these carefully. For example, the professor who says that her low overall score reflects only that she is a very hard teacher might be asked why the students graded her course’s levels of intellectual challenge so low or why the students do not report spending much time on the class. Or a teacher who opines that he is one of the best teachers in the school because he achieved a score of 4 out of a possible 5 might be gently reminded that at the law school the mean score is 4.1.

I then review the faculty member’s publications over the last year. There are a number of venues for faculty scholarship and so I need to carefully consider the type and quality of the professor’s law review or other journal articles and note whether a given publication is a university or legal press book, a book chapter, an edited volume, a contribution to a legal encyclopedia, or a practitioner’s handbook. Some faculty members also list blog posts or op-eds on legal matters. I then make a judgment about the quantity and quality of all these publications, the latter measured by the quality of the publication venue and the impact of the scholarship on courts and the law as measured by various citation counts, etc. It is not always easy to figure this out, given the number of subfields within law and the increasing development of interdisciplinary scholarship, but over time most of us develop an understanding of the strength of various publications. Having written and taught for many years, I strongly believe that my scholarship has informed my teaching and vice versa, so I give equal weight to scholarship and teaching in my yearly determinations and I suspect most deans do the same.

Much of the popular press would have us believe that law professors only write impenetrable and useless articles on arcane subjects. In truth most faculty do hope to influence their fellow scholars, but they also write to shape the development of the law, whether it be regarding the appropriate use of precedent, the taxation of nonprofits, fiduciary duties, restricting testamentary freedom, the proper resolution of cases before the Supreme Court, the role of confusion in trademark doctrine, an empirical perspective on antitrust law, or the impact of closing parochial schools on the quality of life in neighborhoods – just to name some of the scholarship published last year by Notre Dame law professors.

Each spring as I undertake this faculty review I am humbled by the amount of work undertaken by my colleagues to mentor our students, contribute to the development of the law, increase the academic reputation of the law school, and build a great community. It is a privilege to be a member of such a community.•


Nell Jessup Newton is the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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  1. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

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