Applying the “Emerging Zone” Model to Legal Education

June 28, 2012 | Law

I’ve recently become interested in the economic challenges facing higher education. It’s well established that the cost of college (and most graduate education) has increased dramatically over the past thirty years, and fewer students (or more accurately, their parents) are realistically able to cover the cost without incurring significant student loan debt. Although interest rates on education loans appear to be leveling off, they remain higher than they were just a few years ago, meaning that some students — particularly those who take out loans for both undergraduate and graduate or professional school — face the very likely prospect of never paying off their education-related debt.

I just finished Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf 2010), in which philosopher and professor Mark C. Taylor describes this so-called “education bubble,” and posits that unless colleges and universities embrace new network and communications technologies for content production and delivery, develop and implement new business models, and generally identify opportunities to reap economies of scale, higher education as we know it may well become extinct.

One of Taylor’s observations is that the scope of academic inquiry in many disciplines has become narrower and narrower as subfields are developed — complete with their own conferences, journals, and professional societies — to alleviate the pressure on the faculty to publish. In Taylor’s words, “[t]he problem is not only the growing number of subfields, but also the thinking behind how they are defined,” because as the world changes, so too should the organizational principles upon which we think about intellectual inquiry.

Taylor argues that many academics have become entrenched in their subject area and don’t explore connections to other areas. Taylor proposes the development of a model called “Emerging Zones” that “would be organized around problems and themes that lend themselves to interdisciplinary investigation.” More specifically:

the Emerging Zones program would be university- or college-wide, and all faculty members as well as undergraduate and graduate students would be required to participate. In addition to completing a major or concentrating in a specialized field, students would have to do significant work in at least one Emerging Zone. Faculty members’ contributions to these programs would play an important role in the hiring, renewal and promotion decisions.

Taylor provides two concrete examples — here’s one of them, a zone simply titled “media:”

Experience is always mediated by technologies that are constantly changing. This focus area examines how religious experience, thought, action and institutions are related to different technologies of production and reproduction. “Media” is understood in the broadest possible sense: visual (painting, sculpture, mosaics, film, photography, architecture), auditory (music, ritual, spirits), physical (bodily disciplines and practices, material factors–food, drugs, etc.), transportation (land, sea, air), information and communication (writing, mechanical, electronic, digital) and networks (social, political, economic, technological). The primary concern of inquiry in this area is to determine the ways in which religious beliefs and practices shape media and, correlatively, the impact of different media on religious ideas and life.”

Although Taylor’s arguments and examples are primarily focused on the humanities and sciences, it struck me that much of what Mr. Taylor proposes might work equally well in certain law school fields as well. Traditionally law schools, even those affiliated with larger institutions, have been isolated from non-legal fields of study, with “interdisciplinary” study occuring mostly in the form of dual degrees (e.g., JD/MBA programs requiring courses in both the law school and the business school).

But there are, of course, many areas of the law that implicate other areas of traditional academic inquiry and there certainly are areas of traditional academic inquiry that have legal implications.  Take genetic engineering, for example — plainly a topic properly placed in the sciences. But technology aside, the impact of genetic engineering is far reaching, raising significant ethical questions, policy issues, questions about the nature of our health care system, and personal privacy, among others. I’ve seen law courses in ethics, healthcare, and privacy, but I’m guessing there’s never been an “omnibus offering” that contains bits and pieces of everything led by a group of expert faculty from a diversty of affected disciplines.

I’ve described this from a classroom perspective, but if I understand Taylor’s proposal, the emerging zone would be more than a single class offering from several professors in different departments — it would, itself, be a mini-department of sorts, fostering innovative scholarship that cuts across traditional academic lines, and encouraging conversations that rarely happen today because we’re all in our individual, ever narrowing, silos of knowledge and experience. When the relevance of a particular emerging zone fades, so too does the zone, making way for the establishment of new zones more closely aligned with current issues and areas of scholarly inquiry and social relevance.

In my own world — the intellectual property world — I can think of some exciting ways to use Taylor’s model. For example, one might have an emerging zone focused on brands and branding. Such a zone would reach beyond the law school, which would provide trademark experts, to other departments throughout the institution, including psychology, to understand how consumers use brands, slogans, logos, etc., to identify goods and services in the marketplace, and how the brain perceives such brands; marketing, to understand the business context in which brands are used and how; sociology to understand how brands impact our culture and how certain brands emerge as cultural icons; art or graphic design for the visual aspects of branding; music for the sonic qualities; and so on.  I’d imagine there are areas of scholarly relevance that I haven’t even thought about.

Beyond the obvious value to scholarly discourse, the emerging zone model could be used to enhance student experiences and provide more real-world applications and perspectives. There has been a great deal of pressure on law schools as of late to produce “practice ready” graduates, and many schools have responded by adding skills-based courses to their curriculum. But taking a deposition or drafting a brief is only part of the law practice experience — students should also have a firm understanding of the social and cultural context in which their practice takes place, and an understanding of the business and economic factors that influence certain behaviors. Such background is lacking in many traditional doctrine-based law school courses, largely because of the very silos that Taylor seeks to eliminate with the emerging zone construct — a construct that a progressive law school would do well to consider seriously.