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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 like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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