Imagine my surprise

I am preparing my fall class schedule so I can get course materials to the copy center next week. I sketched in my fall course calendar a few months and have been pleased ever since that classes do not start until September 8, the day after Labor Day. I was savoring five more weeks of summer vacation. I needed to check when classes are suspended for Columbus Day and Veterans’ Day so I looked up the official calendar on the registrar’s website. I was stunned to learn classes start before Labor Day, on September 3. Yikes! I suppose I would have learned this important fact sometime before 11 AM on 9/3, but for a few moments I pondered this question: what if I had not learned? Suppose I sauntered in to class for the first time on 9/8? This is a chilling thought for one who normally has a firm grip on his calendar.

Groundhog Year

If I am asked to deliver a graduation speech I am likely to expound on Groundhog Day as a metaphor for teaching. Bill Murray plays a weatherman who lives the same day countless times. He wakes at 6:00 AM to the radio playing “I Got You Babe”, has the same conversation with the proprietor of the B & B, runs into the same insurance salesman, again and again and again. It is a fresh new day for everyone but him. He relives the day until he gets it right, becomes a better person and wins Andie MacDowell’s heart.

It’s just like teaching, minus Andie MacDowell and the groundhog. Every semester we relive our courses, discuss the same concepts, ask and answer the same questions, travel the same path, always trying to get it right. I do, sometimes, for a question, a discussion, even an entire class period, but it is hard to maintain. I have too little coffee or too much, I’m distracted by a pencil rat-tat-tatting on a desk, students are flat from the previous night’s brutal accounting exam. By April I am deconstructing the academic year and by May I am eviscerating my syllabi and rebuilding. If I come closer to getting it right for the year than I did before I am not too hard on myself. I don’t know the payoff if I get it right. Bill Murray’s payoff was waking up with Andie MacDowell on February 3rd. Mine will be waking up in September with 50-odd students waiting to discover the law.

I thought about this as I drove to Maine this evening. I wanted to be on the road by 2:00 PM but missed. I left home at 4:30, sailed north five exits on Route 95, then hit traffic that crawled all the way to the 95/128 north split. What should have taken 22 minutes took an hour. I was eager to arrive. Our Massachusetts home, in the midst of a complete kitchen overhaul, is dusty, gritty, and disordered, any of which by itself would make me cranky. Judy is in Italy for two weeks, I’m eating microwaved food, and I’ve been at my desk for weeks grading papers and wiki projects. Leaving at 4:30 it was likely I’d get stuck in traffic but the alternative was to leave later and review wiki projects for another couple of hours. I chose the traffic.

I arrived shortly before 8:00. I let the dogs out of the car, as always, when I opened the driveway gate. In the time it took to drive the final 150 yards Cleo located a stick and Chelsey a tennis ball, both buried by snow since last December. It was light enough to walk along the lake and inspect winter tree damage, nothing significant. The dogs retrieved from the lake, close-in tosses only. Every day is Groundhog Day for dogs. Rise, eat, poop, sleep, bark, run, sleep, bark, eat, poop, sleep. They always get it right.

Not Covered By LSAT Prep

My stack of to-be-written law school recommendations makes this Wall Street Journal headline especially timely: Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers (Amir Efrati, The Wall Street Journal, 24-Sep-07 Page A1 Subscription Required). The story in a nutshell:

[T]he majority of law-school graduates are suffering from a supply-and-demand imbalance that’s suppressing pay and job growth. The result: Graduates who don’t score at the top of their class are struggling to find well-paying jobs to make payments on law-school debts that can exceed $100,000. Some are taking temporary contract work, reviewing documents for as little as $20 an hour, without benefits.

The article cites an increase in the number of lawyers–43,833 J.D.s granted during the 2005-2006 academic year, compared to 37,909 granted 2001-2002–, slack demand, and decline in practice areas such as personal injury and medical malpractice. According to the IRS “the inflation-adjusted average income of sole practitioners has been flat since the mid-1980s.” The result is a huge gap between those law school graduates who snag Big Law jobs paying upwards of $160,000 year and everyone else. Graduates are squeezed to pay back law-school tuition loans; according to the ABA “[g]raduates in 2006 of public and private law schools had borrowed an average of $54,509 and $83,181, up 17% and 18.6%, respectively, from the amount borrowed by 2002 graduates.”

I can empathize with the disappointment these folks face but a law degree has never been a guaranteed ticket to fortune. The article notes that many of these folks “are blaming their law schools for failing to warn them about the dark side of the job market.” Please. A law school isn’t your mommy or daddy. If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a law degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.

If any of the prospective law students waiting on my recommendations are reconsidering their career choices, my door is always open. And for those of you taking the LSAT this Saturday–sorry for the timing. It’s not too late to decide to spend 9/29 at the beach.