Professors Cancelling Classes for Conferences
Bobby Chesney poses a question for students: “does it bother you when a professor cancels a class in order to attend a conference or workshop?” This solicits an interesting discussion in the comments section and a response from Yale Law student Will Baude, who contends teaching is a “sacred trust” and that there should be a “strong presumption against sacrificing class” to achieve “professional ambitions.”
Teaching is already neglected in hiring-and-firing-and-tenure decisions far more than it ought to be by any right. Professors have monetary and other incentives to skimp on teaching class and put more effort into writing articles, lobbying students to place them, consulting, trying cases in their spare time, and otherwise living the sort of active scholarly, lawyerly, or intellectual life that legal academia makes possible.
Michael Froomkin, a Miami U lawprof, argues that allowing professors to attend conferences and such is necessary, especially for non-elite universities, in order to attract the best teachers. He hopes this is balanced by the fact that “it’s in the students’ interest to be taught and supervised by people who are involved in new and important things things in an active way.”
One should hope. While my perspective, as one who taught many years at schools less prestigious than Miami, much less Yale, is that teaching is indeed secondary in most institutions to scholarship and, increasingly, grant seeking. Still, especially for professors under the burden of 4/4 teaching loads, attending conferences is a vital way of recharging one’s intellectual batteries and reconnecting with scholarship in one’s field.
The mythical case of the old professor teaching from yellowed notes crafted decades earlier when he was still seeking tenure is thankfully much more rare in practice than in the popular mind. Still, there is a tendency to find a comfort zone based on the ideas extant when one was a graduate student and struggling assistant professor and to stop growing. Indeed, far too many professors stop going to conferences altogether once they’ve achieved tenure. That’s a far more serious problem, in my view, than cancelling a couple of classes a semester.