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31 December 2007

The miserable professoriat

Although we continue to object to the increasing introduction of lawyers into the field of intelligence, we also continue to find interesting parallels between the problems (and successful approaches) of the legal academy itself on the one hand, and those encountered in the hard task of teaching intelligence on the other. (These parallels do not mean we suddenly have shifted course to advocate that intelligence professionals should be taught in the same manner as lawyers – but rather that we see commonalities of issues and solutions that may be approached in a similar manner for entirely different purposes.)

Thus we are greatly interested in the debate over the relative happiness, misery, and edginess of “most” law professors that is currently ongoing between Mike Livingston of Rutgers, Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA, Paul Caron of the University of Cincinnati, Ilya Soman of George Mason, and Dave Hoffman of Temple.

We stipulate that the discussion starts from an unproven conjecture – that law professors are somehow less happy than other professionals in other fields, and that this unhappiness if manifest to a greater degree than in other academic specialties. The resulting responses cover a range of interesting factors both responding to this conjecture as well as challenging its initial formulation. However, while the debate has been re-framed and argued to the wider question of happiness / misery, the original impetus was intended to describe and seek to explain individual unease – “edginess”.

That first question is indeed a slightly different wicket – and one that we certainly ourselves have observed in the intelligence academy. Livingston offers the following towards a more comprehensive explanation of the cause:

“For the professorate, according to my friend, is one of the few activities that is (a) very competitive, (b) primarily personal (that is, noncooperative) in nature, and (c) almost entirely devoid of objective standards that might be used to measure success or failure in the activity. Competitive, both because of the kind of people who go into it and the endless run of tenure, promotions, offers at supposedly better institutions or publications, and so forth. Individual, because our teaching and scholarship is with very limited exceptions done alone. But almost entirely subjective, because beyond the sheer volume of articles or citations, no one has ever come close to a rigorous system for evaluating academic performance or even what such a system would try to measure. The situation is, one suspects, even worse for law teaching than (say) physics or sociology, where there is at least some accepted body of materials one is expected to have read and a more or less established system of peer review for books, articles, and other publications.”

We would concur with these points, and in particular, the difficulties created by a lack of consensus regarding even the skeleton of a canon, and an otherwise immature literature. This dynamic is witnessed by the continual reinvention of basic concepts and revisiting of arguments – starting from first definitions and ranging across every other aspect of the field which is publicly known.

We would also to this attempt at explanation add that the competition for faculty positions in the intelligence field is even more intense, due both to the limited number of billets open as well as the increasing tendency of many schools to fill those billets with individuals who are palatable to the other faculty – but whom have had little place in the intelligence field itself. Many of these individuals would not be qualified to perform even as a junior analyst on a high priority account in a working level shop, yet have been granted a position from which to influence and shape the next generation of intelligence professionals. Little wonder then that they should be uneasy – and that their teaching and scholarship should reflect this. The result is conveyed as a distinct sense of brittleness – when questionable competence in what are basic aspects of the tradecraft is combined with ego, the result is not pretty. (We are the first to admit that a little ego is absolutely necessary to perform the hard task of singing for one’s supper in front of a crowd, day in and day out, but that this typically expands into a far more poisonous sort of thing in the unchallenged and isolated incubator of academia.)

The response created by the pressure of this brittleness too often leads to exactly the worst path an intelligence studies academic can choose. Instead of connecting further with practitioners, and pursuing those aspects of the field which would lead to greater relevance within the field, such a person cuts themselves off still further – welding their own ever more elaborately gilded echo chamber. The detrimental effects of such a path are most clearly observed in the students which emerge from such a style of instruction – arrogant without cause, boastful without substantive mastery, and both narrowly and shallowly constructed. These are students, which like their formative professors, who may never face Smoking Mirror. (Though the smarter – and more salvageable - among them may rapidly evolve after their first bruising encounters with the real world of the intelligence profession.)

There are of course other factors which contribute to uncertainty for those academics that do not have the problems of their counterparts with insufficient credentials. These include the highly variable supply of contract research dollars – much of which is vulnerable to competition from the increasingly far more sophisticated offerings of privatized intelligence shops. Other factors may come into play, such as the role of online and distance learning programs in changing the traditional distribution of student bodies across programs. (Though the growth of such programs for the moment does serve mostly to increase the total pool of students. This does creates its own problems when such programs are not paired with a solid applied and practical component as well as a career and clearance track.)

We view this uncertainty among the intelligence academy in a mixed light. We want a stable and growing professoriat, comprised of professionals from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. But we also are acutely aware of the rapid effects of stagnation in “comfortable” positions, and view a little edginess as a good thing. Of course, this is one of the classic paradoxes of innovation.

Potential solutions to such issues – addressed briefly in the legal academy’s responses - are another discussion entirely. We seek here only to surface the debate, and bring it into the context of our profession and its academy. This is by no means our last word on the subject, as it deserves a far more substantive discussion in its own right.

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