Though I consult occasionally on academic subjects/media [usually history and its variants], my primary vocation is graduate/professional school admissions consulting. I help students elucidate their goals, identify the best schools that fit and get them in. Occasionally a school commits such an egregious misstep that I, as an admissions consultant, cannot in good faith recommend that a student apply to that particular school. Such is the case with Florida A&M University Law School [FAMU].
The St. Petersburg Times reported this week on the incompetence of Florida A&M Law School’s legal writing instructor. Victoria Dawson, hired at a salary of ~$105,000/yr., has trouble writing coherent sentences. This is not a joke.
Dawson submitted a paper to several journals [through a distribution service] and the peer review process ate her alive. Why? Poor grammar, misspellings and unreadable sentences. In short, it is a total embarrassment for one charged with teaching law students – our future legal scholars – how to research and write.
Peer review can sometimes be unkind, but criticism here is warranted. Here are a few examples of Dawson’s writing:
- “Environmental Dispute Resolution: Developing Mechanisims [sic] for Effective Transnational Enforcement of International Environmental Standards.” [This mistake appeared in the title.]
- “He consulted with government officials and he sent his general manager of asset management representative repeatedly crossed the creek to negotiate with village leaders of Ugborodo during the women’s 10-day occupation.”
- “Borrowing from the environmental dispute strategy of the local threats and the focus of Agenda 21 with the sustainable development flavor it is dispute settlement that is one of the key elements to ensure that the environmental dimensions of security can be maintained.”
You can view more throughout and at the bottom of the article. If you’d like to generate your own, I suggest giving a 30-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon to an 8th grader, forcing him/her at gunpoint to write a legal brief and then laughing – or crying? – at the result.
It is difficult to know where to begin when analyzing a situation like this. Regardless of the reasons for Dawson’s problems with writing, the conclusion is the same: those charged with preparing law students to conduct necessary research and expressing the results of that research clearly and coherently must themselves be expert practitioners. Students’ future jobs, not to mention the fates of their clients, will depend on those skills.
If Dawson can’t write, she should not serve in her current capacity – this should be clear. FAMU is doing a disservice not only to students who aren’t getting the education they need, but also to alumni whose professional reputations will suffer. Staff associated with FAMU will also experience the fallout from this embarrassment. And FAMU Law, which currently operates with provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association, has not strengthened its case for full accreditation in the future.
Regardless of the reasons for Dawson’s hiring – though also a contentious point, as her ties to Texas Southern University invoke thoughts of favoritism in hiring – the University’s response to Dawsongate is appalling. Apparently, many students have submitted written complaints to the University with little result aside from a typically bureaucratic stall. We will see in coming weeks whether FAMU’s administration, including Interim Law School Dean Ruth Witherspoon, will respond appropriately to restore both quality and dignity to a troubled program.
The school’s mission statement includes the following:
“To provide a law program with high academic standards that produces excellent legal professionals who demonstrate professionalism, provide public service, enhance justice and promote scholarship…”
Until they align their practices with their theory, I cannot consider FAMU Law a viable option for any student.
UPDATE at 6/09/07, 4.29pm:
A few years ago, Professor Dawson posted on bepress [ed. - The Berkeley Electronic Press, which "produces tools to improve scholarly communication. These tools provide innovative and effective means of content production and dissemination"] a draft of a paper — still in need of a proof-read — as it was being circulated to law reviews for publication. The paper later appeared in the Missouri Environmental Law and Policy Review. Nothing too unusual there, right?
Well, some FAMU students are “now using [the draft paper] to help build a case that Dawson is not qualified to teach and was hired primarily on the strength of her personal ties.”
The Prawf who authored this post is quite kind, possessed with a charity I must lack, for describing the paper as “still in need of a proof-read.” Any sensible scholar, amateur or professional, should recognize that a paper written this badly might net them a C in 8th grade and is unacceptable anywhere beyond.
After throwing some snark toward the St. Pete Times, the Prawfs continue:
And so because someone posted a shitty first draft on bepress, she is facing questions about her competence to teach. I understand that legal writing may be part of her responsibilities and I understand that FAMU’s law school has had various serious problems, but I’m quite worried now that articles of the sort run in the St. Pete’s Times will undermine the goal of getting “tomorrow’s research today.” If this is the flimsy evidence of incompetence used to shame someone publicly, we can thank the St Pete Times — for now even more scholars, especially junior ones, will be worried about what their local paper will publish when there are incomplete or somewhat mangled drafts up on SSRN and bepress.
Yes, you’re right – that’s exactly why she’s facing these charges. I could go on and on about how putting up such a rotten draft with total disregard for professionalism reflects poorly on herself, the institution and all scholars, but I won’t. I’ll let commenter “miss grammar” take it away:
This is more than a “shitty first draft”. It is an incomprehensible first draft that reveals consistent (rather than merely episodic) grammatical problems (based on the select excerpts) and someone with solid writing and thinking skills would not have produced it or posted it online. I just looked up the “polished” version, which was published, and it is still very poorly written and hard to follow. Even based on the published draft, I am confident that my law school would never hire someone with these subpar writing skills into any profesional position, let alone a professorial or legal writing director position and under the circumstances I think the St. Petersburg Times is justified on reporting on this. The bigger story for me is how the law school and university seem ill equipped to deal with the problem of students who have lost confidence in their legal writing program. No one at the law school or university seems to be reassuring their students, which sets off major alarm bells for me about the management of this institution.
I am also not sure how highlighting an extreme example of a law school hiring a person who is obviously a terrible writer and sloppy thinker to direct their legal wiriting program in any way undermines the incentive for faculty who can write in complete sentences and think logically to post their works on SSRN or BEPRESS before publication, even where that work may contain epidosodic errors or be subject to criticism. Don’t we want to subject our works to vetting by our peers before publication? Even if this means the occassional typo is brought to our attention? (Look and youi will find a number of typos in this work even after publication, and I doubt you will be able to follow the argument the author seems to be trying to make.) Maybe I am missing something?
Well done, miss grammar.
And, since I am confident in what the evidence shows [which is indeed more solid than "flimsy"], I have no trouble with shaming someone publicly, especially when their actions are a detriment to the education that many work hard to get. FAMU is a fine institution that need not be marred by pseudoscholarly-garbage; students come to FAMU – and everywhere else, for the most part – to get an education, not to be burdened with parsing their professor’s child-like writing.
You hit the nail on the head when you said that inexperienced/younger scholars might be worried about the consequences of their actions. In the adult world, we call that “accountability,” and those of us who care deeply for standards/professionalism and have pride in ourselves and communities have no trouble doing what it takes to satisfy that metric.