Avi's Story: A Day in the Life of a Middle Tier (But in All Other Respects Outstanding) Law Professor

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
"Avi's Story" is a short, mildly satirical view of life in a major . . . but perhaps not overly important . . . American law school. It should appeal to people with some experience of academics and a dry sense of humor. And if it doesn't, they've only lost a half-hour.

Submitted: December 16, 2011

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Submitted: December 16, 2011

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Avi’s Story: A Day in the Life of a Middle-Tier (But In All

Other Respects Outstanding) Law Professor

By Michael A. Livingston[1]

It was only 10:30 but for Avi Shalatzki, Professor of Law at the Middle Atlantic Law School, the day was already going badly. It wasn’t just the usual run of mediocre student papers, law review deadlines, or university ethics filings, whose endless questions (how much did you earn in speakers’ fees?how much from sales of your book?) served mostly to remind him that he hadn’t earned anything, at all.It wasn’t just that his 15-year old son, when asked to bring his breakfast dishes into the kitchen, had responded with a an off-color request for oral sex, or teased him for buying an environmentally “correct” car when he had only recently been the Republican candidate for Congress in his own, heavily Democratic district.It wasn’t even that Oxford University Press, to whom he had submitted his book on Comparative Statutory Interpretation, had rejected the book based on a critique by an outside reviewer who had himself mistranslated several Italian words that were vital to the thesis.On top of this all, it was clear that Shalatzki’s plans for a conference on “Racism, Antisemitism, Islamophobia: An Exploration of Common Themes” were not going well.

At the start the conference seemed like a good idea: an effort to pull together scholars in three different areas and increase understanding in place of the usual round of anger and name-calling.Such idealism was nearly always punished, and this case was to be no exception.First came the e-mails from right-wingers, calling Shalatzki a “dupe” of Islamic fundamentalists who “trivialized” antisemitism by his obscene comparison.Then came the left, who asked how a “racist” and an “apologist for fanatics”—he had expressed reservations about diversity hiring and bought a lifesize Sarah Palin cutout as a sort of office prank—could sponsor such a meeting.All at a time when his Law School, desperate to reverse a 10-point slide in the US News ratings, was desperate for him to publish an article, stimulate SSRN downloads, promote his moribund blog—anything but hold a conference that promised to tweak established interests and (worst of all) offend potential donors, who weren’t that numerous in the first place.

And, of course, the conference meant he had to face Alessandra again.

***

Alessandra della Ferrara—“adf” as her e-mail put it—was an Italian-born professor of comparative law who held joint appointments at Rome I (“Roma Uno”) university and at a law school in New York.She was of Jewish origin, as the Italians invariably put it, and of a distinctly leftist political coloration.Her mother—or was it her grandmother?—had received some kind of citation from the Resistance, a fact of which everyone who met her rapidly became aware.She spoke Italian, French, and English, the last with surprisingly little accent, although she tended to use words in a way that unwillingly displayed her origins: when giving an opinion, for example, she would oftensay “according to me,” an obvious translation ofthe Italian “secondo me,” although he doubted anyone else noticed.She was pretty, as people sometimes still said, in a Mediterranean way: dark complexion, full figure, with oversized limbs that suggested a peasant and perhaps a less than wholly Jewish ancestry somewhere along the line.Her husband, Carlo, was a scientist who, like seemingly all Italians, was interested in art, music, and everything else beautiful: “lui sa tutto,” he knows everything, she would usually say, and indeed he did.

Just why he found Alessandra so fascinating was hard for Avi to say.Perhaps, he thought, she had come to represent Italy to him: you can’t see or touch a country but you could see and at least imagine touching her, something he did rather more often than he cared to admit.Perhaps it was her connection, however distant, to the Resistance and (implicitly) the Holocaust, which he often dreamed of rescuing her from although she was born thirty years after it ended.Perhaps, to a fifty year old male, all thirty-something females are attractive, even to one who loved his wife with sufficient passion that he had resisted tooth and nail her proposal to buy a king-sized bed which seemed to leave her in a different county much of the night (they eventually bought it, anyway).Or perhaps, in some perverse way, being in a hopeless attraction made him feel young again: he knew the rules and the danger seemed minimal, whereas if Alessandra had ever said yes to him he would have had to face such inconvenient issues as spouses, children, and nationality, not to mention his diminished sexual capacity and his sense that her politics would grow wearying with the passage of time.

In any event, Alessandra—who seemed to know every law professor in Europe—was invaluable in organizing his conference, so he was going to have to deal with her one way or another.And, of course, with his own faculty, which he needed both for their substantive contributions and to address the growing suspicion that one reason for his frequent travels was to escape them.Which, under the circumstances, he could be forgiven for.

***

Middle tier law faculties are a lot like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: each of them is dyspeptic in its own particular way.The peculiar disease at Middle Atlantic consisted of a large number of aging, highly paid professors, all of them productive in one way or another but none of whom ever seemed to be around, leaving a handful of not-yet-jaded 30- and 40-somethings and an army of adjuncts, super-adjuncts, and other anomalies to fill the holes.It was a textbook argument for marxism: a classe dirigente (ruling class), as Alessandra would have put it, of tenured faculty who did pretty much as they pleased while the working class and peasants struggled to support them.The attitude toward race and gender was similarly perplexing.The school talked constantly about hiring women and minorities—some talked of little else—but seemed actually to be hired, and the percentages remained more or less where they were 30 years earlier.

Not that there weren’t any characters.There was Peter Harrison, a right-leaning philosopher who spent half the year at the Law School and half the year in Trento—ironically the cradle of the Red Brigades—and whose book, “Law and Philosophy: Why They Don’t Mix (And Probably Shouldn’t),” led to a visit at Harvard which ended only when he punched the then-Dean at a faculty outing.There was his sidekick and sometimes adversary, Paul TerreHaute, who wrote essays supporting violent revolution but sent his children to the finest private schools.There was Lucretia LaJolla, a former radical turned civil rights reformer whose last name, which was belied by her decidedly anglo features, was said to date from an earlier marriage to a Latin marxist.Because of a quirk in the Folger Rating System which overrated books with specified publishers—primarily those Folger had already published with—this trio and others had for a time pushed Middle Atlantic into the “top 20” of American law schools; but those days were long since past, and the school was reduced to arguing that its declining ratings were the product of computational errors rather than its own, General Motors-style obsolescence.

Indeed, Folger himself had for a time been listed on the faculty, having accomplished the rare feat of leaving before he arrived, to take a job at the fancier university at which he now held court.

The “young Turk” faction of the faculty was led by Karl Oonderdijk, yet another philosopher whose opus, “Law, Tolerance, and Toleration,” had been published one year before.Like his hero Barack Obama, Oonderdijk seemed to believe that, if he merely ignored the unpleasantness swirling around him, he could make it go away and bring on a new era of . . . well, toleration, and indeed an aura of earnest if occasionally mindless cheerfulness surrounded him and his compatriots.In his more cynical moments Shalatzki wondered about the contradictions inherent in this alliance, all of whose members supported progressive politics but nearly all of whom attended elite Ivy League schools, and who called for more hiring of women (see above) while their wives tended to ever-growing families at home.Still, the goodwill seemed genuine, and he was grateful to have anyone around who didn’t remember when he had called the dean a liar at an open faculty meeting or circulated a memo calling for a purge of dissidentfaculty members.Besides, he needed them for his conference: at least, he knew where to find them.

***

One of the first tasks related to the Racism conference was to ensure that it was publicized at the Clawprof websiteA word of background is perhaps in order here.As its name suggests, Clawprof was in theory a comparative law website: but its editor, Philip Tarrant, had wider ambitions for it.An aggressive marketer with an upbeat, Dale Carnegie manner—he was apparently some kind of elder in his local church—Tarrant had taken a website on a more or less obscure area of law and made it only marginally less popular than jenniferlopez.com. Every Monday and Wednesday he published “new” rankings of the most popular comparative law articles and professors, and every Tuesday and Thursday did the same for law professors generally, while his associates scanned the newspapers for salacious articles with marginal connections to comparative law (“International law partner pleads guilty to participation in New York prostitution ring”) but which were sure to generate an enviable number of hits.That the rankings were eminently gamable—many of the highest ranking articles were about teaching techniques or contained summaries of other, more popular pieces—didn’t bother Tarrant in the least; indeed, he proceeded to publish a series of articles on the gaming of ranking systems and how to prevent it, which themselves generated a large number of downloads and even more hits for the website in a sort of never-ending cycle.

Still, business was business, so he e-mailed Alessandra in an effort to draft an appropriate notice that would appear simultaneously in Clawprof and its less glossy European equivalent:

Ciao Alex . . . I’ve been thinking of the notice for the Racism conference . . . Do you think we should make a general request for papers or line up a few “big” scholars and take it from there . . . I’m a little worried that most of the antisemitism people will be wary of the comparison to Islamophobia and vice-versa. . . Maybe we should just admit the problem right off, something like “Racism, antisemitism, and islamophobia are usually treated as separate, even opposing phenomena but there are many remarkable consisistencies and common themes between them . . .”I’m worried that this will sound too PC [politicamente corretto] and scare off the serious scholars on both sides . . . Che ne pensi tu/what do you think?

As always with Alessandra, he couldn’t resist the temptation to play with boundaries a little bit, which he invariably covered—from whom, he wasn’t sure—by lapsing into Italian:

A proposito . . . come va il nuovo seimestre e come stanno Carlo e Serena . . . bella come sua madre immagino . . . spero di vederti fra poco . . . M.

[By the way . . . how’s the new semester going and how are Carlo and Serena . . . as pretty as her mother I imagine . . . hopeto see you again soon. . . M.]

It took Alessandra three days to respond, whether because she was busy—she had only just returned to Rome from New York a few weeks before—or, perhaps, because she was distrustful of Avi’s intentions and wanted to avoid encouraging him further.

Ciao Michael . . . come stai? . . . Yes I am thinking maybe invite some big people and don’t worry so much yet about the title . . . comunque racism and antisemitism here in Europe are about the same thing. . . Serena is fine but her mother is very tired

When will you be coming over here again?

Ever, Aless.

***

A crowd, noises, people shouting in Italian with a vaguely north-central accent.The militia were rounding up Jews in the street for deportation.The soldierswere all Italians although one of them carried a document which appeared to have German and Italian notations.Looking in one of their faces Avirecognized a senior professor, at that time only a teenager, that he had known in Rome in the “90s.He had told everyone he was in the Resistance.

A woman turned, holding a frightened child who now came fully into view.It was Alessandra, who in the confusion had somehow forgotten that she still had thirty years to be born.A mistake, thought Avi, I can’t stop the Holocaustbut at least I can fix this.He rushed out, yelled something in Italian, took her in his arms and carried her to a helicopter with what looked like Israeli markings that had somehow arrived on the scene.The rest of the people were deported.

***

Having posted his announcement and finished grading his exams—a task he could complete only by barricading himself in his office and rewarding himself with hourly trips to political websites—Avi turned to the organization of the conference itself.Arranging conferences was not especially unpleasant so long as one focused on the entertaining parts, which consisted principally of flattering the various participants, and left the actual organizational work to the clerical staff.(Despite the university’s repeated professions of poverty, there seemed to be an endless complement of such staff: at one meeting he had counted six people, all full-time employees, who concerned themselves with details down to the seating at dinners and the parking space for the limousine from the local airport.)

The biggest substantive challenge was finding people who were taken seriously in their respective fields (racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia) and who would still consent to sit down with each other.In theory, being a victim of prejudice would make one more tolerant and empathetic to others who had suffered a similar experience.In practice, this almost never happened: instead, each set of victims argued that their tragedy was the one that counted and the others, if not inventing their own sufferings altogether, had at least exaggerated them in an effort to claim a share of the attention.Thus, depending upon the preference, antisemitism was merely a ploy to rationalize Israeli aggression; Islamophobia, to rationalize terrorism; and racism (or sexism) to leverage unjustified affirmative action, “diversity,” or similar programs.Even white male conservatives, to Avi’s consternation, had learned to play the victim game: with the difference that, having more money and power than the other groups, they were in the best position to make their interpretation stick.

Still—and notwithstanding these contradictions—the conference was beginning to come together.There would be a keynote address by Prof. Matthias Gutenmacher, a secular Jew with a Muslim wife and the author of a work on comparative racial prejudice.There would then follow three panels, one each on African-Americans, Jews, and Muslims, and each with a Middle Atlantic law professor serving as commentator.(His run for Congress, while not producing a victory, had at least left Avi with some residual political skills).A final panel, chaired by Avi himself, would tie together the themes from earlier discussions, followed by a dinner—carefully designed so as to comply with kosher, halal, and other dietary laws—at the end of the day.Publicity would be handled by the school’s legion of clerical staff (see above) while students would be involved as hosts, drivers, and general support personnel, earning them a right to attend the dinner and edit the symposium issue that would be published a few months after the meeting.The only thing that remained was to sell it to the faculty.

***

Law school faculty meetings were not especially painful if one accepted them for what they were—a form of entertainment (bolstered with free food) combined with a group therapy session—rather than a serious effort to conduct business.In fifteen years, Avi could not remember a single thing being voted down: every tenure candidate was invariably “excellent;” the school’s performance always improving (repeated declines in national surveys were explained as technical errors or with the admonition, probably true, that other law schools were lying even more than Midlantic in their placement statistics); and substantive questions inevitably deferred with the admonition that “this is not the appropriate forum to discuss that issue” or suggestions that someone in attendance might be offended by the discussion.(What the proper forum to discuss faculty business was, if not a meeting of the tenured faculty, was never explained.)Indeed, the principal drama at most meetings was whether an adequate quorum would be achieved: there appeared to be a different rule for each kind of vote, and the only person who knew the rules, or claimed to, was nearing retirement.

With this in mind, Avi was rather nonchalant in presenting the proposed conference.He had barely finished three sentences when a hand went up.

“I’m curious why the conference addresses racial and religious prejudice but nothing about gender,” asked Carol Ganzliebe, a constitutional law professor with a markedly leftist bent.(“Curious” the faculty-ese for “I’ve got you and you know it.”)“I wonder if this won’t send a signal of exclusion to our female students.”

Well, for one thing, because gender doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the conference, Avi muttered to himself, but thought better of saying so out loud.“We had a limited budget,” he said instead, “and had to draw the line somewhere.But we’d be very happy to include a commenter on this issue if it is importantto you, or indeed to have you yourself serve in that role.”

The impasse was eventually resolved by a compromise under which Ganzliebe would serve as a commenter on the first panel and the Dean promised to look into the possibility of an equivalent conference on gender and sexual orientation issues.With this amendment the proposal passed 16-1, with Harrison—who had lately taken to voting against everything—casting the only negative vote.Avi picked up his materials and, after a brief stop at the campus Starbucks, headed back to his office. The remainder of the faculty meeting was devoted to the issue of magic markers, which had been substituted for chalk in the newer classrooms, and were apparently difficult to erase before the succeeding class.

Before stuffing his backpack and heading home, Avi treated himself to a quick look at Clawprof.After a couple of items about forgettable papers and conferences the following caught his eye:

“California Professor Posts First Ever Ranking of the Rankings on SSRN

Prof. Jonathan Cantwell of the University of Northern California School of Law has posted his article, “Evaluating the Evaluators: An Empirical Approach” on SSRN.Prof. Cantwell’s article proposes a methodology for evaluating the validity of several common measures of law school rankings—US News, Folger Survey,SSRN downloads, etc.—by estimating the number of times they are cited in journalistic reports and internal law school documents.Prof. Cantwell’s breakthrough methodology . . .”

Great, Avi thought, we’ve come full circle: first the rankings take over the law schools, now we have rankings-of-the-rankings, which themselves generate more downloads and (if all goes according to the plan) still higher rankings.It’s just like the LSAT: first you produce a test that mimics first year law school exams—three hours, closed book, a series of wholly arbitrary questions on issues no one in their right mind would care about—and then announce that it “predicts” law school achievement and is therefore vital to the admission (and of course, the rankings) process.No one ever stops and asks if the whole thing makes any sense, in the first place.But then he remembered that he went to a fancy law school, and hence into teaching, largely on the strength of his LSAT score: and besides, he needed to leave soon to beat the rush hour traffic.And to get an espresso at his favorite cafe, which had recently topped the rankings in his favorite local newspaper.

***

A summer evening in Rome.Alessandra was leading him down one back street after another, furtherfrom the centro storico, deeper into unknown neighborhoods.Crude soccer graffiti alternated with torn political posters and the names of long-forgotten lovers.Now they were out of the city altogether and in the ancient fields that lined the road to the airport.Somehow they arrived, before long, at the sea near Ostia.

She pulled him to her and he lay next to her, then on top of her, but her eyes stayed closed and when he tried to unbutton her blouse she pushed him gently but firmly away.“Cosa vuoi fare,” he asked her, “what do you want to do?”“Solo ascoltare le onde,” she answered.“Just listen to the waves.”Even in his dreams, he could not make her make love with him.

***

The conference, or workshop as it was officially called, was scheduled for a Friday with most of the out-of-town presenters arriving Thursday afternoon.(Avi had never been quite sure what a workshop was—it seemed, in Boris Bittker’s memorable phrase, to be a conference attended only by the participants--but calling it such relieved him of the need to find an audience and so he was glad to do so.)Alessandra, whose paper was on “Antisemitism and Postmodern Europe: An Italian Perspective,” was arriving at 3:00 pm from Rome.

Thoughts like this disappeared when he saw Alessandra at the gate.As usual, she looked splendid: hair tossed over her shoulder (the Virgin didn’t cut her hair and so neither did most Italian women, even the Jewish ones);dress only slightly ruffled by the eight-hour flight; just enough cleavage to keep people interested but never enough to stand out.He had fantasized about her so often that it had taken on the character of a routine, like a child pretending to drive a firetruck, or a Midlantic professor pretending to teach at Harvard, so that he could carry on a conversation while barely interrupting his reveries.“I’m great,” she said, without waiting for him to ask, “ma ho fame da lupo, I didn’t eat anything on the flight, is there a café in this benedetto airport?”

And so it went for the two hour drive to the Law School: the usual verbal fencing, with Avi pressing at the boundaries of the personal and professional (what really happened with her grandmother?how had her schedule changed since the baby?) and Alessandra resolutely prodding him for details about the conference and its participants.It was almost, he thought, as if their relationship—and indeed the whole world--existed on two levels: an official world in which men and women were “friends” and “colleagues” without regard to gender and a submerged, barely hidden world in which the same games continued under a different name.Perhaps Europeans were simply more honest about this: the world was full of shkarim ke’tanim, little lies and betrayals as the Israeli song put it, and it was best not to be too idealistic about it.Then again, perhaps they were simply more feudal.

By the time they got back they had already missed the preconference reception—the Law School was too financially pressed to pay for two full-blown dinners—so he dropped Alessandra at her hotel and made plans to pick her up for the conference opening in the morning.He had thought of asking her to dinner but her body language said no and besides there was a hockey game he had half-promised to watch with one of the kids.So they contented themsleves with a quick coffee in the hotel bar, which Alessandra, by now visibly preoccupied with her upcoming presentation, made clear was not up to her country’s standards.Suddenly he felt a profound need to make her laugh, which he proceeded to do with a story another colleague had told him, about the corrupt Italian politician who asks his apprentice if he would like to go take a coffee together.“A chi?” he replied: who should we take it from this time?

***

The next morning he picked up Alessandra and a pair of other European professors and drove them to the Law School for a modest, coffee-and-donuts reception before the conference began.(While pleading insufficient funds to pay raises,Midlantic had somehow constructed a spanking new edifice, assisted by a crooked state legislator who had fortunately gone to jail only after the building was completed.)

Given the background, Avi expected the worst from the conference.But to his surprise it all went rather smoothly, if one allowed for the fact that only thirty people (most of them students he had coerced into attending) showed up and Avi himself had to be tapped on the shoulder to keep from dozing off during the afternoon session.The whole thing, of course, required a certain suspension of belief: from Prof. Gutenmacher’s fiery denunciation of the people who opposed the World Trade Center mosque (wouldn’t it have been more courageous to take this position somewhere other than inside a liberal law school?) to Carol Ganzliebe’s reminder that she had marched with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem in the 1970s (what exactly did this have to do with the conference?) to Alessandra’s efforts to make a group of law students, most of whom were third years with limited job prospects, understand the difference between “modernist” and “post-modernist” antisemitism in a European context.Even the conservative commenters, whom Avi had sprinkled throughout the meeting, had a predictable quality, as when Harrison insisted that the “Quinean web” and the “integrity of law as a practice” be respected in the discussion: two points that were likewise unrelated to the topic but seemed to add an air of intellectual seriousness to the proceedings and were much appreciated by all concerned.

Even Alessandra seemed to bother him less, perhaps because being surrounded by scholars he had invited made him for once feel in control of his emotions, a situation he was sure would not last but was pleasant all the same while it did.It occurred to him that his feelings for her were, on balance, more paternal than romantic in nature: his strongest desire was to stroke her hair and tell how her good she was, and even when he fantasized more intimately it was typically about her and another partner rather than she and he together.Perhaps this was why sexual harassment had captured public attention in a way the rest of feminism failed to: it was nothing more than the incest taboo updated,the only universal moral rule, as a visiting Soviet scholar had told him in law school, and yet the one that required most frequent restatement.

***

He was in bed with Beth on a Sunday morning, the kids away for the weekend.Somehow Alessandra and Carlo were in a bed next to them.To his surprise, Alessandra appeared hesitant as a lover, and Carlo stared absentmindedlyaway.Time to intervene again.

“Figlia mia,” he called to her, “non sai come fare amarti un uomo?”“Don’t you know how to make a man love you?”He showed her how to touch him—hands, mouth, body—until Carlo collapsed in a violent orgasm.“Grazie, professore” she called out to him.“I thought you said they were Italians,” Beth teased him,and curled up to go to sleep.

***

Monday morning, a month or so after the workshop, with Alessandra safely back in Rome.Midlantic was down five more points in the new US News Survey, an outcome which everyone swore was the result of yet another computational error, although no one could say exactly what.The white male philosopher had been hired and the women and minority candidates had once again disappeared, although they were instantly replaced by two adjuncts who taught seminars on diversity and hate crimes, respectively.Harrison decamped to Tuscany to teach at a new institute on Law and Interpretation, while Oonderdijk, the tolerance expert, endured a brief scandal when he referred to an especially combative female student as “a right-wing bitch.”Tarrant attacked his nemesis Dean VandeVanter for the umpteenth time, while his article, “How to Get More Downloads: An Cost-Benefit Approach,” became the most downloaded article in history.The workshop papers were published by the Midlantic Law Review, although Avi’s book on the same subject was yet again deferred by the publisher, who said it lacked sufficient “cultural grounding” and made “ahistorical” comparisons.His children had to be separated when the older, who attended a Quaker school, decided to include in his graduation speech a reference to the rights of the Palestinians, who his brother, who went to a Jewish school, insisted were “all terrorists.”

And Avi, who remembered that he wasn’t teaching on Mondays this semester, took a look at his home office—the one he had never quite decided was deductible--and decided that he had earned a day of vacation.He walked slowly to his bedroom, and went back to sleep.


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