Sunday, July 01, 2007
Dispelling New Law Professor Angst
The AALS New Law Professor Workshop, just concluded, had segments that made it worth the price of admission. The session on Friday morning on learning theory was a breath of pedagogical fresh air. As my wife pointed out, a fourth grade teacher spends four years learning how to teach nine year olds, and, as somebody else pointed out, law professors learn teaching primarily by having been students.
I kept flipping, internally, between the viewpoint of participant and observer. What tended to break my willing suspension of disbelief was the occasion reference like "of course, you know what it's like to take the bar; you've just done it" or "we, your teachers, take pride in seeing you out there" or "remember that the senior faculty are baby boomers." All of these spoke to the expectation that most people in the audience were within a certain band of age and experience. My remedy was to pull out my copy of Modern Maturity (the official journal of AARP), and pop another Centrum Silver.
It didn't matter to me. I took this on knowing I was a cohort outlier. And, I suspect, the thing as to which I was most outside the norm was angst about the future, and particularly the prospect of tenure. That subject would have been the unmentioned elephant in the room except it was mentioned so often. Most people I'm sure, if you asked, would say their goal was to become a great scholar or a great teacher. But, to use the jargon, the revealed preference was getting tenure.
With a disclaimer, I want to take an old baby boomer's privilege and offer advice that will probably be worth as much as you have just paid for it. Unlike many, I do not have a young family, with all the attendant concerns about professional, domestic, and financial security. (I do have three children in college, however.) I was once a young associate in a law firm, concerned (but I hope not obsessive) about becoming a partner. Nothing really could force the desired result, other than work on the inputs that really mattered. Everything we learned about succeeding, we learned in grade school - be thoughtful, work hard, care about others, control what you can control. I go back to the wonderful comments of that non-pareil mentor, Larry Solum, at the New Law Professor Section gathering at the AALS Annual Meeting in January: do the work for the intrinsic value, and let the chips fall where they may.
To be sure, that is easier said than done, and there is sensible advice to be had. But almost every aspect of the politicking and instrumentality advice boils down to the kind of good sense every one of us has in our respective hearts. To listen once again to Larry, the aretaic virtues are not a bad model - for example, courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice. Q: "Is it advisable for junior faculty to voice opinions at faculty meetings?" One answer could be: "have a buddy you trust give you the norms of your institution, and if the answer to the question is no, shut up." I think a better one is: "Don't be a wallflower, and don't be a bull in a china shop. Be self-aware. Be respectful of those who have come before you. Have courage." (By the way, that wouldn't be bad advice for a new general counsel about to attend her first board of directors meeting.) I give great credit to Kent Syverud for bringing this out in his concluding remarks.
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As someone who began a tenure track job four years ago at age 40 (i.e., like you, in a protected class for age discrimination purposes), I second your advice.
When you are indisputably middle-aged, heart disease and cancer are more pressing worries than tenure. By this time, you have also learned (if you paid attention) near universal group dynamics that apply even to the legal academy. Cowardice never produces substantial results (mere tenure is not substantial), but careful analysis tactfully rendered can earn the respect of your peers. Indeed, the organization begins to depend upon you for good results. Your security becomes a function of institutional self-interest. That is a good outcome for all parties involved.
This ubiquitous fear of not getting tenure is very unhealthy for the legal profession. How in the world can I advise my students to discharge their ethical duty, sometimes at the expense of partner or client relations, when I am willing to bend myself into a pretzel in order to secure a life-time job annuity? For God sakes, be an adult.
This is all commonsense for those of us old geezers who graduated from the School of Hard Knocks. The worse part of obsessing over tenure is that it precludes the day-to-day enjoyment of a wonderful job that helps launch successful careers for students. As you say, do your best work for the right reasons and let the chips fall where they may.
What is the worse case scenario: Opening the boutique of Lipshaw & Henderson LLP in a couple of years? That might be fun anyway. bh.
Posted by: Bill Henderson | Jul 1, 2007 3:04:57 PM
Great post, Jeff, and great comment, Bill. I've written about courage and tenure before on the blog; you could look it up.
My own tale along these lines comes from my own attendance at the New Law Professors conference a couple years back, where a questioner in the audience asked the panel, in essence: How can I fight the hidebound, conservative old bastards in the faculty I will be joining, and dismantle their wicked systems of privilege -- without jeopardizing my tenure prospects?
Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 2, 2007 9:52:56 AM