One of the most durable metaphors used in making sense of the world treats social life as a kind of theatrical performance. Each of us is playing a part -- more or less comfortably, more or less convincingly -- while burdened, often enough, by the need to improvise "in character."
This idea is more than a Shakespearean conceit. It's implicit in the sociological notion of "role," for example. And it also helps make sense of what happens when people learn to play that type known as "the professional" -- a much-sought social role, usually accompanied by substantial benefits in income, and even more in prestige.
How people rehearse that character is the topic of Carrie Young Costello's Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender, and Success at Professional Schools (Vanderbilt University Press). Costello, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, takes on the thorny topic of why women and people of non-Caucasian ethnicities who enter professional schools with solid academic records often tend to underperform. She did extensive field research among first-year students enrolled in the law and social-work schools at the University of California at Berkeley.
Costello finds that there is an undeclared yet unmistakable WASP accent to the professional roles that students are training to acquire. Along with technical expertise, they have to assimilate the necessary demeanor and attitude. For students of some backgrounds, that presents no real difficulties -- so they can, as Costello puts it, "focus on the intellectual tasks of professional school with little distraction." But for those with "a mismatch between the personal identities they possess upon entering their professional programs and the professional roles those schools proffer," there can be a jarring dissonance. "Seeking to find a way to manage or resolve their identity dissonance distracts students from focusing on their studies," writes Costello.
Race and gender aren't the only factors making for identity dissonance in professional schools; so is strong religious commitment. "Particularly at risk in my sample were evangelical Christian women who used a 'what-would-Jesus-do' standard to guide all of their behavior and decisions," notes Costello, "but students from other religious backgrounds whose religious dictates took precedence over other commitments could also be at risk."
Costello's book is an interesting study in the ethnography of higher education -- and her analysis of the implicit cultural signals sent by how law and social-work professors dress will raise some eyebrows, especially around UC-Berkeley. I contacted her by email with a few questions about her research.
Q: How did you come to this project? That is, what combination of previous interests and personal motivations led you to want to study professional identity and its discontents?
A: The question of why patterns of social stratification emerge during professional schooling is one that has interested me ever since my own experience at law school. I went to law school at Harvard, and every fellow student I encountered was a longstanding overachiever with sterling qualifications. Nevertheless, by the end of the first ("1L") year, it was easy to look at the class standings and see that males received a disproportionate share of good grades when compared to females, and that white students did disproportionately better than did students of color.
This pattern of grade stratification was a topic of perpetual debate among my peers. Students of a liberal bent cried that there was a professorial conspiracy in favor of white men, while socially conservative students claimed that affirmative action promoted people beyond their real intellectual capacities. Each side could poke holes in the other's argument. White men outperformed others in classes taught by notoriously liberal professors. Students of color who had omitted information about their race and ethnicity on their applications and could not have benefited from affirmative action nevertheless underperformed. The debate was interminable.
When I returned to school as a sociology doctoral student, I reconsidered the question of social stratification in professional programs from a new perspective. I learned from sociology of the professions that professional students have two tasks: one, that of "mastering" the intellectual substance matter of their professions, and the second, that of internalizing an appropriate professional identity. The "folk" debate I encountered at law school had only considered the first, intellectual task. I wanted to study the second, identity-based task to see if this could more satisfactorily explain why patterns of social stratification re-emerge during the course of professional schooling.
Q: You set things up by doing parallel studies of law and social work. In what sense is it accurate or meaningful to subsume them under the same term?
A: The way that students are socialized in law school and in a social work program are indeed different in many ways. I'll give a couple of examples:
Class privilege and income expectations: Students in M.S.W. programs are socialized to expect a workplace and lifestyle of modest means, while students at law schools are socialized to have high expectations of wealth. At the professional schools I observed, the built environments of the two schools sent very disparate socializing messages regarding wealth expectations. The eating facilities provide an example: at the school of law, a lovely continental cafe provided gourmet foods and coffee beverages, while at the school of social welfare, a basement room held three vending machines protected by steel grilles.
Empathy: Not surprisingly, given that social work is deemed a "caring profession," students in M.S.W. programs are trained to cultivate empathy. For example, I observed that professors warned students to be careful of the potentially hurtful nature of humor, and modeled an earnest solemnity to their classes. At law school, on the other hand, professors deployed sadistic humor with relish. Not merely failing to cultivate empathy, law professors trained students to demonstrate a callous disregard for others' feelings, beaming at students who made cruel jokes of their own while answering questions -- particularly if the most sensitive members of the class were wincing.
Having acknowledged that two professions socialize their students differently, what is I believe more striking is the similarity in outcome. That is, at both schools of law and schools of social work, men do better than women, white students do better than students of color, those with class privilege do better than those without it, etc. One might expect that since social work was created to be a "feminine profession" that men would underperform in M.S.W. programs, but this does not prove to be the case. Rather than hitting a glass ceiling, men ride a glass elevator to the top of the class.
Q: What do you make of the professional-school success rates for Asian and Asian American students who presumably do not, for the most part, grow up absorbing the complex of attitude and demeanor one associates with WASP/bourgeois dominance?
A: Actually, one of the ways in which you can see the power of the effect of professional identity is by looking at the success of Asian and Asian American students. In American high schools, students from many (but not all) Asian backgrounds outperform other students of color, and perform at least as well as white students. In college, Asian American students also do well, although their grades drop somewhat from their high school levels.
But in professional schools, the picture is quite different. While Asian graduate students in the sciences often excel, Asians underperform in many professional school settings, including both law and social work. While these students are able to do very well in prior schooling, the academic skills they have developed are insufficient to secure them success, because they are not able to internalize an appropriate professional identity with the ease of their WASP peers. Their professors often saw them as too reticent, as not taking sufficient initiative, as insufficiently creative, etc.
Q: There is the professionalization undergone by people going into law, medicine, and certain other fields (i.e. professions, that have clients), on the one hand. And then there is academic professionalization. Have you given any thought to the similarities and differences between them?
A: Being a professor is indeed considered a profession, and academics face professional socialization. This is what, for example, makes so many first-year graduate students feel uncomfortable in their seminar classes. They may feel that their contributions to discussion are inadequate, and be unsure of why this is so. They may try to improve their performance by spending hours reading and preparing, and still find their comments falling flat. The problem is not one of intellect, but one of habitus, although few understand this. The approved habitus varies between academic departments -- just compare a roomful of English dissertators with a roomful of economics doctoral students. But the basic process of needing to acquire both a knowledge base and a professional identity is consistent across disciplines. This contributes to the disproportionate success of white men in academia.
Q: You indicate that it would be a step forward if the problem of professional identity dissonance were addressed head-on, perhaps through a course that would explicitly address professional socialization. At the same time, you seem to think that the effects would be very limited -- that, in the absence of some very substantial social change, the deck is hopelessly stacked. Or is there some element of optimism in your work that I've missed?
A: I believe that if the issue of professional socialization were made overt, it would definitely help. At a minimum, it would do two things: force professional schools to acknowledge the problem, and help professional students to realize that they are suffering from identity dissonance. However, you are correct in that I don't see a swift solution to the problem.
I give the example in my book of an exercise I do with the students in my gender class. I ask for a male and a female volunteer to come up onto the stage. I then ask them to walk across the stage with the manner of a member of the "opposite sex." Campy performances ensue to general laughter. Then I tell the volunteers to imagine that their children have been kidnapped by terrorists, and that the only way to get them back will be to successfully pass as a member of the other gender as they walk across the stage. This time, the students try with very serious expressions on their faces -- and no more success.
The problem with wanting to change one's habitus is that it is an unconscious phenomenon, not subject to conscious control. It is no simple thing to change one's tastes, gestures or worldview. Furthermore, doing so alienates one's community of origin and fundamentally changes who a person is. So no, I don't expect a quick fix. But at least schools would have to decide whether they are willing to say that to become a professional, students must, for example, give up their ethnic or regional accents. And professional students could decide if that sort of change is a price they are willing to pay for mainstream professional success.
The biggest academic freedom fight of the year was also the shortest -- and the hardest to understand. Duke Law School professor Erwin Chemerinsky accepted an offer on Sept. 4 to serve as founding dean of the new law school at UC Irvine; UCI Chancellor Michael Drake withdrew the offer a week after the contract had been signed; the firing was greeted with outrage on the campus and among law school faculty nationwide, and was condemned in editorials in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times; and Chemerinsky was rehired six days later, on Sept. 16.
Chemerinsky is a prominent legal scholar and liberal advocate who has argued for judicial review for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and represented Valerie Plame, the CIA agent outed by the Bush White House. He’s also something of a legal celebrity in southern California, where he taught at the University of Southern California for 19 years and often appeared on local TV and radio, speaking in favor of reform of the Los Angeles Police Department and against the state’s “three strikes” law.
Drake is a former professor of ophthalmology at the University of California at San Francisco who had been UC vice president for health affairs before becoming the first African-American chancellor in the history of the 10-campus University of California. With a search about to begin for a new president of the university system, Drake was considered a strong candidate -- until his firing of Chemerinsky destroyed his chances. The forces that pushed him thus must have been powerful.
It’s widely assumed that political pressure from the right led the chancellor to withdraw the offer. But where exactly did the pressure come from? The answer could reveal a lot about the battle lines over academic freedom in America today.
Drake has offered several explanations for his actions. Chemerinsky reports that when Drake withdrew the offer, he explained that his appointment would have caused “a bloody battle” with the Board of Regents. But it turns out the regents had the appointment on their consent calendar, indicating that they considered it uncontroversial and planned no debate -- which is in fact what happened when they approved it on Sept. 20.
The problem with Chemerinsky, according to Drake, was not his political positions, but rather the fact that he was a “polarizing” figure. But in the furor over withdrawing the offer, Chemerinsky turned out not to be polarizing at all. Not only was the faculty virtually unanimous in supporting him, but he received crucial support from leading conservative legal scholars and commentators in southern California. Pepperdine’s Douglas Kmiec wrote for the Los Angeles Times op-ed page describing Chemerinsky as “one of the finest constitutional scholars in the country.” Chapman’s conservative law dean, John Eastman, called firing Chemerinsky “a serious misstep.” Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt called Drake’s action “revolting.”
Drake denied that “political pressure” played any role in his decision. After he withdrew the offer to Chemerinsky, he explained that it was “a management decision, not a political one.”
He told the Los Angeles Times that “no one called me and said I should do anything." But that turned out to be untrue. A group of 20 prominent Republicans had organized against Chemerinsky in recent weeks, according to the Times, which reported that "Drake's cell phone number was distributed so the protesters could call the chancellor.” A separate campaign was organized by conservative Republican activist and L.A. county supervisor Mike Antonovich, who said he had e-mailed a “small group of supporters” urging them to contact the university and demand that the Chemerinsky offer be rescinded. Antonovich told the Associated Press that appointing Chemerinsky to head the UCI law school "would be like appointing al-Qaeda in charge of homeland security." So much for “no political pressure.”
Chemerinsky argued that he was fired because of an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in August that criticized California’s procedures for death penalty appeals. The op-ed appeared the same day Chemerinsky was offered the job. He said (in another L.A. Times op-ed) that Drake had told him that op-ed had made him “too politically controversial.” Drake told the L.A. Times that "we had talked to him in June about writing op-ed pieces and that he would have to focus on things like legal education in this new role, and then here comes another political piece.” Drake found support for this position from one prominent source: Chris Edley, dean of the Boalt Hall law school at Berkeley, also an African-American. Edley said it was necessary for a liberal law school dean “to subordinate his autonomy and personal profile for the good of the institution." But where exactly was this controversy over the op-ed? Who told the chancellor that he should fire Chemerinsky because of the op-ed?
The highest-ranking Republican in the story is state supreme court Chief Justice Ronald George, who objected to the Chemerinsky op-ed. According to the Times, a letter expressing the chief justices’s criticism was given to the chancellor by a prominent local attorney. The letter said Chemerinsky had his facts wrong, but apparently didn’t call for his firing.
It’s hard to believe that calls from a couple of dozen local Republicans and a letter from the state’s Chief Justice could persuade the chancellor to withdraw the offer to such a prominent and respected figure. The pressure, many argue, must have come from somebody much more powerful.
Number one on that list from the beginning has been Donald Bren, the Newport Beach billionaire, Republican funder and chairman of the Irvine Company, who gave the law school $20 million to fund the salaries of the dean and 11 faculty members -- indeed it’s officially called “the Donald Bren School of Law.” (But Bren’s spokesman explicitly denied that Bren had pressured the chancellor, telling the press "Mr. Bren said he doesn't know enough about Erwin Chemerinsky to have an opinion and he never expressed one to anyone -- pro or con." That seemed unlikely. But two former UCI deans familiar with Bren’s modus operandi told me it was equally unlikely he had pressured Drake to withdraw the offer, partly because he has a deep aversion to bad publicity.
A few other facts have surfaced. Chemerinsky represented the family of Rachel Corrie in their lawsuit against Caterpillar. Corrie is the 23-year old college student killed in 2003 in the Gaza Strip while confronting an Israeli bulldozer that had been ordered to wreck an Arab house. The lawsuit argued that the bulldozer manufacturer should have known that its product would be used by the Israeli government for "human rights violations." The case was dismissed by a federal judge in 2005 and a subsequent appeal affirmed the dismissal.
A few bloggers -- including David Horowitz -- speculated that Chemerinsky’s role in the Rachel Corrie case “would also explain the reason UCI rescinded its offer.” The chancellor might have been concerned about complaints from Jewish groups arguing that UCI has failed to protect Jewish students from Muslim student organizations that sponsored anti-Israel speakers. In 2005, the Zionist Organization of America filed a federal civil rights complaint against UCI on behalf of Jewish students.
Others have voiced the opposite suspicion. USC Law professor Susan Estrich wrote in her syndicated column, “Drake has a twisted view of academic freedom, one that allows Muslim students to engage in open anti-Semitism.... But there's no room for a liberal, Jewish law professor.” Both theories seem extremely unlikely as explanations for Drake’s motivation for withdrawing the offer, but they do illustrate the intensity of speculation around an action that’s hard to explain.
The UCI Academic Senate met on Sept. 20 to discuss a resolution of “no confidence” in the Chancellor. Drake himself spoke, apologized for not consulting the faculty, and offered the following explanation of why he had withdrawn the offer to Chemerinsky: in the week following the signing of the contract, “my comfort level did not grow.” Period. You might call that “stonewalling.” Then a letter from Chemerinsky himself was read, in which he urged the Irvine faculty “with all my heart” to reject a vote of “no confidence,” which he said would be a “crippling blow” to the future of the campus and the law school.
Apparently what Drake means by “comfort level” is that he did not trust Chemerinsky to modify his public stances so as not to anger conservatives. To fire a dean for that reason is indeed a violation of academic freedom. Because Chemerinsky has immense stature and decades of experience with the media, he was able to regain the position that had been withdrawn. He is now in as strong a position as he will ever be with any chancellor. Well and good -- but what about others who do not command the attention of the national media? This decisive victory for academic freedom has ominous implications.
The fact is that we still don’t really know the sources of the pressure that lead Drake to act against his newly-appointed dean. And at this point, with Chemerinsky himself calling for a focus on the future, it seems unlikely we will ever know what happened to cause the biggest academic freedom fight of the year.
Jon Wiener is professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a contributing editor of The Nation. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower.