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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Starting off: Advice for a Junior Prawf

A virtual acquaintance of mine is transitioning from a "jolly good fellow" into a prawf this summer.  She asked:  "what are some of the pitfalls that await junior faculty (and what advice do you have to avoid them)?  Are there things you wish you'd done differently?"

This is, I think, the best question to ask of others who have been in the biz, even for a short time, and it's worth soliciting a cluster of opinions from readers.  Here are a couple of my own suggestions.  First, chances are one will be tempted to overprepare for teaching at the cost of writing the first year.  I recommend setting aside maybe a week or two over the summer before your first year teaching to choose wisely regarding which casebook you use, developing a good syllabus, and trying to get as many people's materials for notes, etc.  But I wouldn't spend much more time than that.  You'll forget a lot of the material you expect to teach later and you can instead spend time reading and writing scholarship or attending conferences over the summer like Law and Society or ALEA, etc.  Second, try to stay on the good side of the deans too, especially by asking them if they have "local" advice about the institutino, and find out what their expectations are for you this first year, if possible in writing.   You may also want to find out what events or programs they expect or hope for you to be at so there's no misunderstandings of comparative priorities.  You might think your writing and teaching obligations should supervene on all other aspects of the job your first year, and strangely, you might find yourself being asked: how come you weren't at X event?  So, try to avoid that.  For more sources on academic advice to junior prawfs, you might also want to check out the links at this site.

Posted by Dan Markel on March 23, 2006 at 08:48 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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Great advice. Overpreparation of courses during the summer is a standard trap -- and one I fell into despite the sage advice of some of my colleagues who told me not to do it. I got plenty of writing done that first summer too; but I would be much farther along in my next project if I hadn't wasted so much time preparing.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Mar 23, 2006 11:30:32 AM

Dan, thanks so much for your characteristically thoughtful advice. There's obviously a lot to say on this topic and there will likely be much diversity of opinions. I think you may undersell the importance of preparing for teaching (and by implication teaching itself).

The academy is shifting towards a consumer model. Schools, even some pretty wealthy ones, are looking very closely at the bottom line (such as how many students and credit-hours faculty members are teaching) and my sense is that tenure committees (particularly at the university level) are giving a "hard look" to teaching evaluations as well as amount of student contact each candidate has.

My advice to junior people is that you should spend your first year getting your teaching house in order. There's plenty of time for writing later. But poor teaching is something that can plague a tenure candidate and I think it will do so increasingly, as schools look very carefully at making contract that's going to last for twenty or thirty years.

I think it's a mistake for new faculty to undersell the need to prepare for teaching. Of course, as I said in the beginning of this post, this is something on which there will be a variety of opinions.

Posted by: Alfred L. Brophy | Mar 23, 2006 5:30:57 PM

I'm sympathetic to Al Brophy's comments, if not precisely for the same reason. I did not have faculty visitors in my classroom until my second year at my institution (although I'd also gotten some practice at other institutions), so I don't know that, even if schools focus more on teaching -- a big if -- you stand to lose a lot by mixing your time between writing and teaching in the first year.

But then there's that phrase used in Al's comment, "getting your house in order." I think new teachers who divide their time between teaching and writing will feel less comfortable and be less productive on both sides of the writing/teaching divide, whereas new professors who devote a considerable amount of their time in their first year to teaching will have made a wise investment that will pay off in the comfort level they achieve, in the first year and thereafter, and the reduced amount of retooling they have to do once they've prepared a really strong set of teaching notes. Put in the investment early so that subsequent years can be spent fine-tuning the course-prep you've already done; then you'll have more and better time to spend in year 2 and thereafter on your writing.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 23, 2006 6:45:57 PM

I tend to agree with these two last comments - for me, an important part of this first year of teaching has been to recognize that during the weeks of teaching, there are simply limits to how much you should try to get new projects up and running. For me, as with many of us type-A prawfs (which most of us are), it is a hard thing to do. That is, it is hard to accept your own time limitations and to put some of your passions on hold. But I have been happy with accepting that this semester is mostly about the new preps and with the recognition that every hour spent this year on class preps will be something i will benefit from many years to come.
Other advice for newbies? I think the newness of joining a faculty and teaching a full load goes beyond the challenge of course prep, but is really about getting into a new rhythm. Often in our profession, the new job also comes with a new city (and state); a new home; perhaps new jobs/schools for the rest of the family. Moving from grad student to full time prawf introduces a whole set of new perks and challenges. Remember there is a transition period-again, don't expect too much, be open to learning and experiencing different modes of managing all the aspects of our jobs, seek advice along the way, and don't forget to get some sleep!

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Mar 23, 2006 8:09:11 PM

I would echo Dan's suggestion that a new prawf take care to get an accurate sense of his or her school and its expectations. If the expectation is that new prawfs get their teaching house in order -- and achieve good teacher evaluations soon and consistently -- then do what it takes, out of the box, to move toward meeting that expectation. If, on the other hand, the expectation is that you are going to be sending out a major piece in the first fall submission after you start, then spend the summer writing. The danger, it seems to me, is to decide, "I'll get my in-class game in order, then get cracking on writing," in a context where, a year in, someone will sniff, "hmmm, no writing yet . . . ."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 23, 2006 9:42:20 PM

A really terrific thread.

My two-cents: You can waste a summer by fixating on teaching notes. Spend two weeks (max) on coursebook selection, syllabus creation, and collecting/reading materials from other professors. You really don't know how to write class prep materials without some idea of the special challenges of each particular course. I found it much easier to completely focus on teaching prep during year one ("getting my teaching house in order"), even if I was only 15 pages ahead of my students. In my case, 10 hours of prep per in-class hour was standard. But classes went smoothly, the students were happy, and I had a clear conscience. Drawing on that sweat equity, I had plenty of time to devote to scholarship in year two.

My second piece of advice might be more controversial. Like Dan said, find out what your institution expects of you, but also delineate clear expectations for yourself. I have met quite a few young academics who are very fixated on plotting the least risky route to tenure. They are not a very happy lot, and they won't break any new ground. bh.

Posted by: William Henderson | Mar 24, 2006 12:36:52 AM


Maybe I wasn't clear. WHILE teaching it is very hard to get anything else done -- and I agree that focusing on teaching makes perfect sense. But I thought we were considering the summer BEFORE the actual semester -- and it is then that I think overpreparation is a danger.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Mar 24, 2006 1:09:42 AM

I Like Bill's advice: take risks. We do tend to forget that is a good path to doing something great. And as for expectations, indeed, we are not simply passive consumers of those, but we do have some role in their creation. I think that if from the beginning, you start thinking of the institution as your own, everything will flow much more naturally.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Mar 24, 2006 2:13:08 AM

Ethan, I was the one not being clear. I endorse your advice wholeheartedly--i.e., for the new prof, don't waste your summer writing teaching notes. Write, research, go to conferences, etc.

Posted by: William Henderson | Mar 24, 2006 9:01:42 AM

Well, yes, I agree that if we're focused on the summer, there are diminishing returns from spending an endless amount of time on course prep. A serious investment of two to four weeks, along with some bedtime reading, perhaps, will get you most of what you can get before you're actually in the classroom.

One last thought on fearlessness: My somewhat overstated pet-phrase for this idea tends to be that those untenured professors who view every action in terms of whether it will get them tenure, or, more to the point, whether it might lose them tenure; or who, in their writing and other work, convince themselves not to do what they would do if they -already- had tenure, are those who least deserve tenure. I think this may be putting it a little too harshly, but I do have the sense that if tenure is, in part, a protection of independent-mindedness and fearless scholarship, it ought to be awarded to those people who actually display those traits prior to tenure, rather than being used as a carrot: act cautious now, and you can be fearless after you're tenured. Of course, that's not the most prudent advice, and plenty of folks will give you more pragmatic advice (i.e., Randy Barnett's warning against pre-tenure blogging). But I think it's the right advice. I think getting in the habit of fearlessness before tenure is the best guarantee that one will retain those habits later; conversely, I think people who self-censor or otherwise constrain themselves before tenure, using it as an excuse, will find lots of reasons (a desire not to make arguments that will hurt their political allies, a desire for reputation, and so on) to constrain themselves after tenure.

"Fearless" doesn't mean "obnoxious:" as other posts and comments here and elsewhere have observed, young Turk faculty members ought to maintain some sense of humility about what they do and don't know and what work they're capable of at an early stage in their career. But I think, and the anecdotal evidence is heavy on the ground on this point, that lots of people don't write about what they want to write about, or don't write the way they want, or don't take stands on issues that matter to them, because tenure looms in their thoughts. I can understand counseling prudence and second the advice, and I think -modesty- is always appropriate, but I hate to think that the tenure process would reward -timidity.-

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 24, 2006 11:24:54 AM

Bravo, Paul. I couldn't agree more.

Another point: one way to get writing done your first year is through opportunities for co-authorship. Although it would have been extremely difficult for me to get a full piece executed from start to finish myself, Dan and I and a third co-author (Jennifer Collins) shared responsibility for writing an article together. It came out great, I think, and I was glad to keep writing even though my priority has been teaching the first year. Shorter pieces (whether for more popular media or book reviews) also keep one writing and fresh and engaged -- without taking too much time away from teaching.


Posted by: Ethan Leib | Mar 24, 2006 11:35:51 AM

As for teaching, I have one other suggestion: early in my first semester, I asked a senior faculty member (one I'd come to like and trust) to sit in on my class and give me some informal feedback on my teaching. That was very helpful. He expressed surprise that I had the "confidence" to request such an early observation, but I had to disagree with his characterization of my decision. "Oh, no -- it's not confidence," I clarified. "I'm increasingly open to the possibility that I'm a pretty sucky teacher right now, and if I'm right on that score, then I figure I can accelerate the path to non-sucky teaching by getting some pointers as quickly as possible."

Posted by: Scott Moss | Mar 24, 2006 12:39:40 PM


Not to be too paranoid (another thing I can't help), but be careful before you trust anyone. And realize that if you look like you have favorite senior faculty members that you are bringing into your circle of trust, others may resent you -- and may think you are picking sides in faculty disputes you aren't even aware of.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Mar 24, 2006 1:15:27 PM

I agree that one shouldn't spend too much time in the summer before the first semester prepping for class, because you will just wind up redoing that prep during the semester. It's better to think about broad teaching strategies: what mix of lecture and questioning you want to try; determining overarching themes to classes; deciding which topics within a particular course you want to teach and which you will be forced to omit; how you want to test and otherwise give feedback; do you want to use techniques like in-class small group discussions of problems; how/whether will you use in-class technology (Smartboards, Powerpoint, etc.); and stuff like that.

Having said that, first year teachers routinely underestimate how much work teaching is the first time you teach a class. Prepping lecture notes is very time-consuming. So is learning what you don't know and figuring out how to present what you do know in coherent, lecture-length chunks. So unless your institution really does expect some significant writing out of during the first year, I agree on focusing on teaching then.

One other point, prompted by Orly's use of the term "grad student." Some folks go into law teaching after grad school which usually means having been a TA with significant teaching responsibilities. I was lucky that way -- I worked out some teaching kinks with undergrad history students at Georgetown. But many/most new teachers are really completely new to teaching -- that's different than, say, college profs., who typically get some significant TA teaching experience. So beyond the substance, new law profs. have to deal with basic stuff like "am I talking too fast?" and "how do I deal with students that are unhappy with their grades?" for the first time.

The good news is that this is a great, great job.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Mar 24, 2006 2:28:45 PM

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