Interview with James Levy
It is easy for those of us who are toiling away as full-time adjuncts (if you’ll allow me that supposed oxymoron) forget how flexible and multifaceted that term is. It’s also easy for those of us working in traditional academic fields like English or history to forget the specialized demands of specialized fields. This week we’re fortunate enough to hear from James Levy, who will help us correct both of those failings. Levy was gracious enough to answer a few questions on adjuncts and writing, especially legal writing.
AA: Why do you write?
Levy: I write for two reasons. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from exploring a topic in the kind of depth that can only be achieved by writing about it. There’s an old saying that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. I’d modify that by saying that an even better way to learn a subject is to write about it.
And the other reason I write, to be frank, is that I have to – it’s an expectation of my job. I wish I could say that I love the writing process itself; I don’t. I find it mentally grueling. I love the last stages of the writing process when I’m polishing and the ideas that I’ve been struggling with really start to coalesce. Any remaining fog lifts and I begin to feel a certain mastery of the material. That part of the writing process is very enjoyable and satisfying. But getting to that point is terribly hard work.
I remember reading something in William Zinnser’s book On Writing Well in which he says, in effect, that anyone who thinks writing is enjoyable probably isn’t working hard enough at it. Like Zinnser, I also don’t understand people who say they write for “fun.” To me, it’s about as much fun as standing in the hot sun with a sledgehammer breaking rocks.
AA: How does your academic writing relate to your teaching? How about writing that doesn’t qualify as traditional scholarship, such as blogging?
Levy: I’m a legal writing teacher and because my classroom teaching is based on hypothetical problems that change from year to year, I don’t have the luxury of being able to concentrate in one field or discipline. Instead, what I enjoy thinking about and writing about is teaching itself. Both teaching generally and teaching legal research and writing – so that’s where I’ve done almost all of my writing. I’m fascinated about the role the teacher plays in the learning process. Why are some teachers successful at getting their students to learn and others are not? My observation is that it doesn’t necessarily correlate with traditional notions of intelligences (i.e. IQ) but instead it’s a difficult to quantify combination of traditional intelligence, an inherent understanding in how people learn, empathy, and ability to understand student personalities and how to motivate them, among many other qualities. A lot of it has to do with the interpersonal relationship the teacher develops with the class and individual students. It’s not a social relationship but instead a relationship that offers support and encouragement to students while also pushing them in the right ways.
So that’s what I like to write about. I’m fortunate in that my school, Nova Southeastern University School of Law, let’s me count “scholarship” about teaching towards my publication requirement. Some schools don’t and that makes it especially hard for legal writing professors, or clinicians and librarian who don’t have a doctrinal specialty – to publish. Traditional faculty publish in the areas they teach so their classroom preparation compliments their scholarship and vice versa. But if your teaching specialty is skills and you’re not permitted to write about skills training – it’s doubly hard to find the time and energy to write about subjects that you are not also teaching.
For the past 10 months or so, I’ve also been an associate editor at the Legal Writing Prof Blog which I’ve enjoyed very much. It’s a much lighter kind of writing – I report topical stories that relate to legal writing and legal education generally. That kind of writing is fun and I also derive some tangible benefits from it. I feel I’ve become much more knowledgeable about law practice and trends in the job market, the pressure lawyers are facing these days due to the terrible economy. It helps me better understand the anxiety of my students and also better prepare them for the skills they are going to need when they get into practice.
Whether my dean will count blogging towards my publication credits remains to be seen.
I should add that I’ve sensed a certain esprit de course among legal bloggers and have made cyber-friendships through blogging which also makes it a lot of fun.
AA: How do you find time to write as an adjunct?
Levy: For truth in advertising purposes – my normal day “gig” is a full-time legal writing professor at Nova Southeastern and University of Colorado School of Law before that. This summer I was invited to teach two legal writing courses as a visiting adjunct at William Boyd School of Law in Las Vegas. I find it hard enough to find the time to write as a full time faculty member. As an adjunct who would also be working full-time —I don’t know how people do it. I do know that some, like Mitch Rubinstein who edits the Adjunct Law Blog, have been very successful at publishing as an adjunct. To me he -and adjuncts like him – have super-human qualities.
AA: How have the institutions who employ you responded to your writing? (Do
they support it? Ignore it? Even know about it?)
Levy: I’ve gotten different responses depending on the school. My experience has been that schools more highly ranked by USNWR, generally speaking, care less about skills training for law students than the lower ranked schools. More elite schools are much more focused on having faculty produce “paradigm-shifting” scholarship and the placement of those articles in the most elite student-edited law reviews. In that kind of environment, there isn’t much interest or support for professors—full-time or adjuncts—who teach skills training nor any writing we may produce that’s oriented toward the practice of law rather than theory.
At my present institution, the administration and colleagues are highly supportive of both the skills faculty and any writing we produce that relates to the practice of law or law school skills pedagogy My school is pleasantly realistic about its role in producing students who can practice law so there’s a lot of support for what I do – both in terms of morale and financially.
It’s extremely difficult to find time to write during the school year as a legal writing professor. There are so many demands upon one’s time. Working closely with students who can be very stressed about grades can demand a lot of the teacher’s time, not only during the week, but also on weekends answering questions before assignment are due. Legal writing profs are also constantly grading assignments throughout the semester, in addition to the time it takes to prepare for class. And what doctrinal colleagues sometimes don’t understand is that our curriculum is built around hypothetical writing problems that often change from year to year in order to prevent plagiarism concerns or to just stay current. Thus, we often have to learn a new problem, and the new cases that relate to that problem – each semester. It’s a bit like being stuck in the movie Groundhog Day – each year can seem like one is starting over again as a brand new teaching with all the extra prep time that takes. Although we gain classroom expertise over time just like our doctrinal colleagues, the need to change assignments each year and extra preparation learning new assignments requires can make it especially difficult to find time to write during the school year. All of that can be exacerbated further if the writing teacher has a large number of students which, I did last year because I was teaching an overload.
And if the writing teacher is an adjunct who is also working full time during the day, teaching and meeting with students at night and grading on the weekends – it would seem almost impossible to find the time to write. Although some do and to me these people are extraordinarily talented and dedicated.
AA: What particular challenges/special attributes are there to legal
writing/teaching legal writing? Does being an adjunct affect any of these at
Levy: I think one of the most importance attributes for a legal writing professor to have is patience with students who are struggling with new material and are often frustrated that they are not getting the same results – in terms of grades – that they achieved at the undergraduate level. I’ve found this to be more of an issue with younger students, fresh out of college, who generally comprise the day sections I teach.
One thing I’ve noticed this summer working as an adjunct is that maintaining morale can be a serious problem for adjuncts. One can be made to feel like a ghost – although we’re faculty, we don’t really feel like we’re part of “the team.” Full timers generally don’t know our names – or even that we’re teachers rather than students – and it can be lonely and isolating to not feel connected to the institution in the way full time faculty are. I guess that may be the nature of the best – we’re independent contractors hired to do a very specialized and limited task and then be on our way. I hope this experience will make me more empathic to adjuncts at my own institution.
AA: Any final thoughts on writing you’d like to share?
Levy: While I stated at the beginning of the interview that I don’t like to write because I find it incredibly difficult – I think that’s also what helps me be a good writing instructor. I can really empathize with students who are intimidated by writing or don’t feel they are good writers because I do know exactly how they feel as opposed to a teacher who doesn’t struggle with their own writing as much. I fervently believe that good writers are made, not born, so I try to inspire students that no matter how bad a writer they think they are, I can guarantee they can become an excellent writer if they are willing to work at it.
AA: Thank you!