Sunday, October 17, 2010

Virtual Student Communities and Legal Education

One of the most interesting changes in the landscape of education  is technology driven.  I do not refer to the use of sophisticated techniques for conveying knowledge, or even changes in pedagogy (however ideologically driven).  Rather, the greatest change has been in the reduction of isolation for law students.  The rise of blogging, and other forms of virtual communities has made it much harder for students to remain isolated, either within their school, or even their country.  Students can now speak to each other and share experiences and concerns--and more importantly work toward the development of common cultures, across territorial, class, language, social and other divides.

And those who serve law students have become sensitive to the rise of these new expressions of virtual solidarity.  One site, the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide (link removed at request of the site July 2013), has produced a very useful list of ten useful blog sites for prospective or current students.  Their rationale is insightful:
Law school can be one of the toughest and most dedicated times of your life. While it can seem a bit overwhelming and prove to be a tough transition, it is important to remember that plenty of people have achieved law school before you, and plenty are also going through the same ordeals and transitions you are. Sometimes, it helps to know what to expect and to collect from former law school students some pointers for time management and advice that can help you along the way. The following blogs are dedicated to helping people get through law school.  Criminal Justice Degrees Guide, 10 Blogs to Help You Through Law School
These sorts of efforts, and the resulting communities formed through modern communications methods, has produced an interesting effect. 

On the one hand, it is now much more possible to find virtual communities of students with whom one shares an affinity or a particular sort of angst with whom one can, in solidarity, communicate and perhaps even change one's way of thinking or doing. This was evidenced by the list offered by the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide (removed after July 2013): What I Learned in Law School; Legally Challenged; Law Student; Exhibit L- A Blog on Life, Law, Learning, Laughter, Love & Leisure; 1 (year in) L: A First Year Law Student Blog; 0L to 3L: My Journey to & through Law School; Life of a Law Student; Legal Geekery; Beyond the Underground; and Vermont Law School- JD Students Law Blog.

On the other hand, it suggests that the ability of a particular law school to acculturate its students--that it to mild them into a product or type distinctive to it, is now a far harder proposition.  Law schools no longer have the sort of control over the environment or even the cultural borders within which students can be molded and assimilated into one to another sets of behaviors or attitudes.  Students are now much more the product of a shared virtual environment than of the distinctive "culture" or "ambiance" that some schools take great pride in advertising.  Indeed, one might suggest that, in the face of virtual communities, and their powerful mechanics of acculturation, schools have lost a certain amount of distinctiveness.  The recall of that distinctiveness acquires a certain element of nostalgia.  It suggests an anachronism that may be dear to the institution but whcih is understood as a charade by its students.  

But this poses a problem.  If the distinctiveness of the culture and education of a particular place was a hallmark of its status and reputation, and if that distinctiveness now is lost within larger systems of virtual communities over which an individual institution has little control, then what is left of the connection between  distinction, status, and the consequential hierarchy of "value" of a particular institution's educational offerings? The answers are, to some extent exogenous to the student experience.  To some extent they might bethought of as satisfying the need for hierarchies among academics, governments, institutions and the like as a method of controlling the size and quality of an individual institution's market share.  The quality of faculty, measured increasingly by factors that have little connection to teaching or students, retains a value for institutional status that only indirectly suggests a connection to students.  Other indicators may go to issues of comfort (the institution provides luxurious accommodation) or  influence (important officials recognize the institution), or reputation among peers (within our self referencing community my institution is held in especially high regard).

And yet, for all of its  disconnection and anachronism, distinctiveness, however measured remains a critical tool for the institution within the markets for the absorption of its students.  Employers,  judges, donors, governments, civil society actors, publishers, alumni, and other stakeholders need a relatively quick and easy measure of status.  These measures serve as sorting devices for the maximizing behavior of these other stakeholders within their own communities.  Law firm status, for example is self referentially based in part on the perceived status of its hires, and that status must be easily measured to be useful--whatever the "real" value of the measure, the acceptance of the measure is what counts.  Organizations like the Criminal Justice Degree Guide and similar organizations, then, serve an important purpose as they both provide students and other stakeholders with a listing of institutional hierarchies, and at the same time provide the student with the virtual student communities that  substantially undercut the real effect of any distinctiveness on which those hierarchies are maintained.

But all of this is well known.  Still, while institutions and their stakeholders construct their own orders of realities based on their measures, the evolving cultures of students will continue to subvert those systems, even as students continue to conform and conform their behavior to the expectations of reward and status built into the current system of measuring educational value.  It will be interesting to see how the development of these virtual communities of students continues to shape the power and effect of law schools and other institutions to actually shape and acculturate the students they teach.

1 comment:

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