Monday, June 11, 2007

The Real Worlds

Doug Berman has been practicing what he preaches, taking on a case in GA, making sure he's on the other side of the ivory tower occasionally, drawing praise from commenters, including Brooks Holland at Prawfsblawg. I also applaud Doug for his venture across the line into practice. From experience, I know that there's no substitute, no matter how fine a thinker and scholar you may be.

I've been on both sides of the academic/practitioner line, heard all the "they don't live in the real world" crap and then got to work in that "real world" and found it wasn't any realer than the one I left. Everybody's got their narrow perspectives and personalized versions. It's the breadth and connection of the two (just two?) that give us the fuller pictures we need to make a minimum of sense out of the world in order to survive. (Again, I'm constantly amazed at how well humans do at surviving given the very limited brain use--and yes, I'm a human. I laughed all through "Knocked Up," except that birthing thing.)

Still, I'll never forget teaching a seminar in policy planning for one of the top criminal justice programs in the country (oh, all right, the top one) and having students come up to me and say it was the first class that was really related to the professional Master's program that the course was a part of. Why? Because I went practical on them, based on my then-experience in criminal justice and as a former elected school board member. One of the wisest men I know, my boss in MD, told me he hired me because he knew he couldn't really trust people to do politics right who hadn't been elected to something public. Although I couldn't get hired at any major school full-time anymore (too old, too costly, too few big-name publications, probably too many incendiary blog posts now), I know so much more than I ever did when I was spending almost two decades teaching. And it was clear students valued it (and still knew how to grease up the professor for a grade).

Practitioners can seriously overvalue the generalizability of their experience, and their perspectives and beliefs can be severely truncated and bounded. We need the folks who have more time to think about both trees and forests than the people in the field have and who can tie things together that we don't even know about. The best teachers and practitioners are those with toes in both pools, I think, and I wish more schools would get serious about tapping them (like my former boss or Kim Hunt, for example, both in the DC area and smarter on just about everything from both practice and scholarship than you and I together would be).

So good on ya, Doug. I hope it was worth it for you. I know it was worth it for the rest of us.

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