Legal Analysis, Writing, and Tummy Rubs with Professor Ziff

I’m not sure what Scott Greenfield is upset about, but he’s clearly upset. That’s kind of his schtick. Today his opprobrium is aimed at legal academia, or academia generally, or students, or perhaps some combination of that and more. And for some reason I’m in his sights today. Look at this nice picture he made of me:

Ziff Tummy Rubs

First, I’m a bit confused about the meme. Am I offering to rub other people’s tummies? Is the reader/author offering to rub my tummy? And what is with Greenfield’s obsession with tummy rubs?

But that’s neither here nor there. Greenfield seems generally perturbed with a series of events: an article reporting that some criminal law professors are not teaching rape; that Columbia Law School is applying its general “exam rescheduling” policy to folks who merit some accommodation as a result of the events in Ferguson, or Staten Island, or related protesting; and that a college student at Oberlin expressed anger on Facebook after a professor dismissively rejected her request for a similar policy at Oberlin. (Seriously, a college student complaining on Facebook is a relevant data point here.)

The common thread connecting these events is, allegedly, the weakness of the academy. (I’m not sure how the Oberlin thing fits into that, but whatever.) According to Greenfield, the “primary enablers” of “this burgeoning insanity” are the “academics, who have given away their classrooms to their special little snowflakes.” If only we academics would stand up to these pampered students!


This is where I entered the fray. Oops. Greenfield seemed to be asking a question, so I responded: Sure, sometimes I’ll just tell a student “you’re wrong,” but it’s usually more useful to help the student figure out for themselves what they are missing. You know, so they can actually become effective lawyers on their own, without my guidance.

That, apparently, was the wrong answer. According to Greenfield, my attempt to help them figure out the law for themselves–something I like to call “teaching”–was, in his words “coddling” the students. And what pedagogical methods should I employ, instead of my “coddling”?



And then he accused me of caring more “about not hurting [my students’] feelings than teaching them.” Which, you know, is a pretty bold claim coming from a guy who has no idea what I teach or how I teach it, especially given that, oh, a few moments earlier I told him that indeed I do sometimes just tell my students “Nope, you’re wrong.”

So how does this Twitter exchange get represented in his post today? Apparently, I conceded that telling students “no” is “ineffective pedagogy” because “[n]obody has ever told them they’re wrong. Nobody has ever said to them ‘denied,’ without a heart-rending explanation and a gratuitous tummy rub. They can’t handle it.”

[Note: There he goes again with the tummy rub thing. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.]

Of course, that wasn’t my point at all. But it’s not surprising that Greenfield totally missed my point, because he’s not arguing against me or against any particular movement in legal education. He’s arguing against a bogey man–a mythical weakness and selfishness purportedly unique to the modern law student.

This is not a new topic for Greenfield. Around this time two years ago, he similarly complained that:

[A] core problem is that lawprofs have allowed the inmates to take over the asylum. Law students today have a very different perspective of their relative worth. They believe their opinions are important. Stemming from an excess of unwarranted self-esteem and entitlement, borne of years of coddling, they view themselves as peers of their professors.

It goes on like that for a few pages. What brought about this iteration of anti-academism? Newberry College was offering a major in social media. According to Greenfield, the introduction of this new major was clear evidence that professors were caving to students’ silly childish desires, and not, say, a response to this:

So what was my point? I believe legal education should serve at least two purposes. First, students should learn the law. What is consideration? What regulation does the Commerce Clause permit? How do different jurisdictions deal with self defense? But there is only so much black-letter law we can teach in three years. Ultimately, students are going to be practicing lawyers, where they are going to have to figure things out on their own.

That’s where the second purpose comes in: Students should learn how to analyze, research, strategize, critique, and explain the law themselves for the benefit of their future clients. I’m not sure how Greenfield’s “smack” pedagogy gets them there. Yes, they need to be told “you’re wrong,” but just telling them “you’re wrong” does not help them get to “you’re right!” Greenfield’s law school sounds like a gauntlet, where every wrong answer is met with mockery and opprobrium, until… well, until what exactly? The student goes into a cocoon and comes out a self-confident spitfire like Greenfield himself? Sure, there are students who might succeed under such a system. But what about others who might not? Should we do as Greenfield suggests and send them away from law school to work at Dairy Queen?

I don’t think so. It’s strange, but if this “real tough guy” vs. “delicate tea cup” debate were mapped onto A Few Good Men, I actually think I’d play the role of Colonel Jessup (a tough guy!), with Greenfield playing Lieutenant Colonel Markinson. If you don’t respond well to Greenfield’s “slaps” he wants to transfer you off the base. Me? I say we train the lad.

And training the lads (or gals or whatever the other gendered forms of “lad” are) means, like it or not, understanding them, listening to them, and partnering with them on a common mission. Greenfield recoils at the idea that law professors “work with” their students. I fail to see a problem with that construction of education. Partners work with associates, lawyers work with legal assistants and paralegals, the Dean of the law school works with the faculty and staff. The idea of “working with” someone doesn’t mean there is equality in power, position, or experience. Rather, it means that there is a common mission–and that the mission is more likely to be successful if people work together, rather than with one person just dragging the others kicking and screaming.

Greenfield, however, does not seem to think students are worthy of that respect–of that partnership–because they have not earned it yet. They are too whiny, too weak, too selfish, etc. To Greenfield, those assertions are not calls to action. There is no engagement with the question of “Well, how can law professors get a student from point A to point B?” Rather they are complaints to be dealt with through a slap.

And at the end of the day, the complaints are really nothing new. As the cliche goes, folks have been complaining about “the youth” since the time of Socrates:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

Or, as Marty puts it in True Detective:

In the end, Greenfield just doesn’t seem to have time for students who don’t act and think like Greenfield. That’s fine for him, but it’s not a luxury shared by law professors. We actually need to help our students get from where they are now to the point where they can go out and practice and, I hope, give Greenfield a run for his money.




7 thoughts on “Legal Analysis, Writing, and Tummy Rubs with Professor Ziff

  1. This might serve you right for getting into a Twitter war, or whatever it’s called.

    Sincere thanks, though, for providing the link to the Newberry College post. Even after having had two years to cool off, this statement of Mr. Greenfield’s is really something:

    A law professor cannot, by definition, be “condescending” to a law student. There is a reason why one is the teacher and the other the student. The teacher possesses superior knowledge. The student is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with the teacher’s knowledge. At least that was the old concept, before they needed the permission and approval of students to teach them.

    That is not even a correct statement of how classical Socratic dialogue is supposed to work. It’s not a matter of superior knowledge. Both the professor and the law student have read the case or the fact pattern. It’s a matter of superior understanding, which the professor’s sophisticated questions will lead the law student to exhibit through, I hesitate to say, a collaborative process depending on mutual respect. The law student is not an emply vessel. The law student is a thinking reed.

    Every good Socratic-dialogue law professor I had had great respect for his or her students. Condescension didn’t accomplish anything.

    • I think that post is informative as well. At the heart of Greenfield’s critique really seems to be a disrespect for and dismissiveness toward students. That’s fine for him as a practitioner, I guess. But that just doesn’t work for professors. I could mock or demean a student who doesn’t understand, as a 1L, that there are two different court systems, federal and state. But what good does that do? Ugh.

  2. Thanks for this post. I feel that many law profs are dismissive of all students, believing them to be legal neophytes whose opinions are unimportant. Even worse, the students are all treated as children, regardless of how old they are or the path they took to law school. By the time I attended law school in my mid-30s, I didn’t need life lessons in humility, I needed an understanding of the law.

    Moreover, the whole reason I wanted a legal education was to challenge and question the laws and the systems we have in place. As you may have noticed, a lot of them are antiquated and terrible.Yes, unsurprisingly, my generation wants to shape the world in our image, just as every generation prior. Some of us aren’t particularly impressed with the world we inherited and believe we can make it better. This doesn’t make us petulant, it makes us normal.

    I am grateful for the professors who worked with me and treated my inquisitiveness as a search for knowledge rather than merely confirmation of my ignorance. I am glad that there are professors who understand that challenges to the status quo are not per se challenges to the people teaching the status quo. I was always more comfortable asking complex questions in an environment where stupid questions weren’t treated with insensitivity.

    Or maybe I have just been coddled too much and am incapable of understanding the true nature of the world. But, tummy rubs are amazing and no one should ever have to apologize for wanting one.

    • Thanks for the comment Brian. And you raise a really interesting point: Just telling students “No!” or being dismissive of their struggles to wrap their heads around legal concepts really does mean the students are “treated as children.”

      My sense is that the better way to teach professionalism and get them to act like adults is to treat them like adults, which means being clear and direct when they are wrong, but also showing some respect and helping them figure out how to get to the right answer, rather then just leaving them in the lurch.

      If by the end of 3L year, a student still hasn’t figured out how to get to “right” by herself, well then we’ve got problems. But along the path, I think a helping hand is warranted. And there’s nothing childish or weak about that.

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  5. Thank you Professor Ziff, for posting this.

    It struck me that Greenfield and Keith Lee’s recent comments lend themselves to a broader discussion about law school tradition that require some serious unpacking. They don’t just characterize law students as “weak” and “wimpy” in general, but specifically in reference to state-sanctioned violence against women and people of color. Recent events in Ferguson, Los Angeles, Pasco, and Staten Island clearly illustrate the law’s continued maintenance of institutional racism. Greenfield and Lee derail this conversation, flippantly dismissing marginalized students, and touting a standard for lawyering that is divorced from reality. This isn’t just about a lack of respect for students, but more specifically about defending an exclusive and oppressive system cloaked in notions of tradition. Their attempts to portray the law and its’ practitioners as race neutral and objective is deeply delusion, and works to privilege and normalize whiteness at the expense of people of color.

    “Greenfield seems generally perturbed with a series of events: an article reporting that some criminal law professors are not teaching rape; that Columbia Law School is applying its general “exam rescheduling” policy to folks who merit some accommodation as a result of the events in
    Ferguson, or Staten Island, or related protesting; and that a college student at Oberlin expressed anger on Facebook after a professor dismissively rejected her request for a similar policy at Oberlin.”

    It would be a cold strategic move for a student to insincerely request an exam extension if they didn’t need it—almost as cold as openly mocking those student’s trauma as illegitimate and wimpy. The law students that requested exam rescheduling are far from weak. Their collective power and strength in organizing demonstrations across the country- channeling justified and passionate outrage into courageous acts of solidarity and action- is extraordinary. In the days, weeks and months following the recent non-indictments and continued police brutality, students have aired out tensions—cognitive dissonances and hypocrisies that thrive in our law schools, and in all of us who benefit from wealth, whiteness, or whatever other privileges we hold. This takes incredible courage and strength. I am proud to be amongst a generation of future lawyers and decision makers who are reimagining a legal system devoted to humanity, compassion and justice, not divorced from it.

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