On Grades, Sorting, and Sucking Up

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Brian Leiter has another post about grading changes at several top law schools, noting: “There are rumors aplenty that Columbia and NYU may move to something like the Yale system of essentially two grades–Honors/Pass–now that Harvard and Stanford are going that route (though perhaps these two will actually utilize Low Pass and Fail, unlike Yale).” His post further reports:

A law professor at a top school writes:

I think the last point in your post about eliminating grades was right on.   At least when I was there, the grading system at Yale did not really lessen the sense of competitiveness, at least for those whose ambitions were higher than landing a job at a top firm.   It simply displaced the competition towards sucking up to the professors whom students perceived to be able to deliver the goods (esp. clerkships).   For those of us who wanted to clerk but did not really want to participate in that game, the lack of grades was actually fairly frustrating.   I also think there are some pernicious distributive consequences to the sucking-up system, since (although my only evidence for this is anecdotal) I think minority students tend to be particularly reluctant to engage in it.

“Reluctance” to engage in sucking up is only part of the problem certain students are going to have.   My guess is that “class” barriers are also going to be an issue.   Minority students with affluent backgrounds may be at a disadvantage, but still have an easier time figuring out how to make a strong positive impression on a law professor than students of any color from economically challenged backgrounds, with minority students from poor families especially at risk.

And there is another big barrier to non-grade related sucking up based success, and that is linked to gender, sex appeal and sexual orientation.   One example: It can be difficult and complicated for a heterosexual female student to pay a lot of positive sucking up style attention to a male professor without it seeming like romantic interest.   What the male professor does about this can vary dramatically, shall I say with great restraint and circumspection.   But this issue arises even when a law school has a traditional grading system, every law prof reading this knows that. And this phenomenon occurs with heterosexual male students too, and with lesbian and gay students as well, where the possibility of a homophobic reaction by a faculty member enters the already potent mix. Changing a grading system to substantially exacerbate the importance of sucking up is going to increase the potential for misunderstanding and misbehavior between faculty members and students, and my guess is the negative aspects of all this will fall hardest on women students, if for no other reason than numbers: there are significantly more male law professors than female law professors at almost every law school in the nation.

–Ann Bartow

ETA: See also.

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0 Responses to On Grades, Sorting, and Sucking Up

  1. CP says:

    I disagree with Leiter’s characterization of Yale.

    If sucking up is part of a school’s culture, you suck up whether you have grades or not (think of college!). It’s silly to assert, without any kind of support, that schools without traditional grading systems have more kissing up. At Yale there are fewer students per professor and more opportunities to work with professors one-on-one on important work than at other top law schools– so if anything there are fewer incentives to kiss butt. Students here don’t like brown-nosers; it’s not part of the culture.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    Leiter taught at Yale, so he has some basis for his observations. And he provides clear analytic support for his claim that when grades do not perform a sorting function, law firms and judges will have to rely on other criteria, like references.

    Do all YLS students have equal opportunities to “work with professors one-on-one on important work”? My second hand impression is, no.

  3. Samquilla says:

    What is “sucking up”? When I was at Yale I felt like to get a law professor’s attention, you had to be willing to bug the hell out of them. Insist on attention. Persist against signals that the person was busy. And there were PLENTY of students willing to bug and bug and bug and stand in line 30 minutes to talk to a professor. I wasn’t one of them.

    Also, as a student who came in not particularly savvy about who individual professors were and what their areas of interest were, I found it hard to figure out who I should talk to or try to work for/with. I don’t know if grades would have made a difference though.

    I think professors will always notice students who are more attentive/interested/involved in their course work. The level of interest/involvement required to stand out at Yale was insane and not something I was up for. If you can’t stand out with grades, you can still stand out by being more engaged in class, asking good questions during or after class, etc. And I wouldn’t consider that sucking up.

    I think “sucking up” is un-genuine interest. And because genuine interest gets noticed – and should be noticed – those who just want to be noticed show ungenuine interest.

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    But showing “genuine interest” can be more difficult for some students than others, and create serious misunderstandings. If you have never shown professional interest in someone and had it misinterpreted, you are among the lucky few. This is a phenomenon between law students and faculty at every law school, but likely to be exacerbated in an environment where grades do not “sort” adequately so letters of recommendation are more important.

    Something that happens to me occasionally: A student who got a high grade in one or more of my classes asks for a professional recommendation, and I can’t remember who she or he is, because the student never spoke in class or talked to me informally or during office hours. All I can really say in the letter is that the student got a good grade on the final exam, which is not particularly high praise, nor likely to set the student apart in a positive way in a competitive situation.

    When we do faculty hiring, references matter a lot, and those that make it sound like the writer really knew the candidate can make a big difference. Pro forma references can hurt candidates. I know of several candidates who did not get offers here at South Carolina or at other law schools because their references did not seem to know much about them. And I know we have on occasion decided to take a chance on a candidate we had doubts about because someone raved about them in ways that got our attention. I’d bet judges and elite law firms rely on references quite a bit too, especially when grades reveal little.