Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Rank(ing) thoughts

Mark Graber

As is the case with many academics, I have too morbid an interest in all the various rankings of departments, law schools, and universities that come out. Still, I wonder whether, given the deemphasis on teaching, whether various reputational indexes or citation counts may fool students. After all, should the presence of Professor Bigshot on the faculty be much of a reason to attend Hotshot U. if Professor Bigshot rarely, if ever teaches, and rarely, if ever advises. Moreover, as faculties, law school faculties in particular, begin to have more turnover than most teams in the NFL (or any team run by Isaiah Thomas!) is the presence of Professor Bigshot much an inducement when the odds are good that he/she will be visiting another university during your first year, have a course reduction in your second year, and accept an outside offer during your third year. Of course, the absence of Professor Bigshot may be compensated for by the presence of Professor Famous who visits during your first year and Professor Genius who accepts your university's outside offer during your third year. Still, I suspect free agency may have undesirable teaching influences (Bigshot may share your interests, Genius does not, and both may lack vital experience teaching in your school).

With this in mind, would an interesting means for ranking schools be first, the average citation count for the professors in each course taught at a school in a given year (note the reward for a well-known professor who teaches a full course load) or the average citation count for those professors who have taught at least close to a full course load for at least four of the past five years. Be curious to see whether the standard ratings would be substantially changed if rankings were computed on the basis of who actually teaches courses rather than whose names are on the masthead


If you are hoping to work with a particular professor it is very important to know whether they are more than a name on a door. I did graduate study in philosphy at Rutgers where the entire faculty lives in New York City. Fewer than 5 (out of 20 or so) professors would be at school on any given day (although perhaps I should add that on the rare occasions they show up the faculty were excellent)

Yale Law School was very different. In my experience, the faculty there made themselves available to the students. At one point, I had 4 professors helping me with a research project.

I wouldn't trade the University of Baltimore for any other school. I want to be a family lawyer, UB has a great family law program; yet U.S. news simply does not rank family law programs. Never mind that half the cases tried (there are still trials) are family law cases.

There are plenty of worthless Bigshot professors who can't teach their way out of a wet paper bag and plenty who are horrible people. Go to a school where you like the people.

As at least one other commenter noted, the flaw in the analysis is the assumption that citations correlate with good teaching.

I continue to think that unscientific reputational surveys, for all of their obvious faults, are at least as important as numerical surveys. The latter surely help to counteract the biases of the former, and some numerical measures are surely better than others (e.g., citations are more reliable than number of pages written, etc.) But is it long-term influence that matters, and this is extremely difficult to quantify.

If you doubt this point, look at which records sold the most within the first few years of issue, and which are still remembered twenty or thirty years later.

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