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Friday, February 03, 2006

The Life (?) of a New Law Prawf

For some of us young law prawfs, non-work-life is full of wonders (mazel tov, Paul!).  But Paul's post got me thinking (again) about something I've been brooding about a lot lately -- the life of a new law prawf. 

Here's the basic problem: Let's say, hypothetically, that you take a job as a young law prawf in a place where you don't know too many people... and let's say that you're fairly young, and so you're naturally predisposed toward the social scene(s) favored by your students, as opposed to your colleagues, so your natural outlet, all things being equal, would be to hang out with your students outside of school, be it at the movies, the local bar, or, if you're especially trendy (so here this stops applying to me), the local club...

Add to this the additional complication that, for inexplicable reasons, at least some of your students also seem to want to hang out with you, e.g., by inviting you to meals, parties, barbeques, or other soirees.

This raises, to me, three separate sets of very complicated, problems...

Problem #1 is, of course, the "drawing-the-line" problem. Where's the line between what's okay and what's not? Is lunch with students on-campus okay, but dinner with students off-campus not? Is even the latter okay so long as it's with a group? Does the prevalence of alcohol at the meal matter? Does the venue?

Problem #2 is what might be called the "appearance of impropriety" problem -- Even if I'm not doing anything "wrong" or "inappropriate," that may not matter. I know, and those who I'm hanging out with know, that our hanging out doesn't have any bearing on their grade (in a school with a serious blind grading policy, how could it?). But does that stop other students who see me out and about from reacting negatively -- from wondering why I'm having dinner with students A, B, and C, but not them? Is that possibility itself enough to kill the whole project? Even if another student doesn't think it's inappropriate, is the burden on me, as the faculty member, to try to keep things from even being "weird"?

The first two problems go to ethical reasons not to hang out with students socially. But the third problem is, to me, almost the most important -- it just isn't the same. Even with students who aren't currently taking any of my classes (and, in the case of second-semester 3Ls, never will), I can't ever shake the "I'm the professor and you're not" feeling -- that, for reasons that make perfect sense, it's not just "you and a bunch of people getting a bite to eat," or something like that. Relatedly, there's always lurking in the back of my mind the devastating question -- "would they be giving me the time of day if I were just Steve, a random guy, rather than Steve, the Prawf"? (yes, I'm even thinking in Prawfs-spelling now). Simply put, it's easy to doubt...

So, what's the solution? To not hang out with students? To hang out, but draw rigid lines? To get over myself, and, to quote Martin Lawrence, grab a coke and a smile? I'm not really sure. All that I am sure of, though, is that this is perhaps as thorny a problem as, if not more so than, anything academic I've encountered thus far this year. So, new law prawf, beware!!

Posted by Steve Vladeck on February 3, 2006 at 03:38 AM in Culture, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law | Permalink


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When I started teaching, a colleague gave me sage advice: never be in close proximity to drunk law students.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Feb 4, 2006 5:37:27 PM

Well, that's the problem, isn't it? If I understand Prof. Vladeck's point, he's trying to...

Posted by: Take Your Own Advice | Feb 3, 2006 10:40:48 PM

This is about the "propriety of being _friends_ with your students." Friends with your students. Friends? Uhhh....get a life.

Posted by: anonthistime | Feb 3, 2006 9:43:49 PM

Oh c'mon -- that's not what I take to be the author's point. This is not about law-school-qua-dating-service; this is about the propriety of being _friends_ with your students. Maybe you ascribe to the When Harry Met Sally rule, but otherwise, take your own advice, and get a life yourself.

Posted by: Take Your Own Advice | Feb 3, 2006 7:27:20 PM

Call me priggish and worse, but I'm a little bit perplexed by this whole line of speculation about line drawing. OK, you're single, you're lonely, you're bored. But the answers are obvious, right? If you find yourself longing, even vaguely, for student company, I feel like I must say this (advance apologies, but I can't help myself): Get-A-Life.

Posted by: anonthistime | Feb 3, 2006 7:14:40 PM

Bart's right -- I learned the term in a reiterated edition -- Martin Lawrence's character in Bad Boys. I imagine that he got it from Dr. Bill...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Feb 3, 2006 2:22:23 PM

Doesn't coke and a smile reference Bill Cosby, not Martin Lawrence? Eddie Murphy did a bit on it in Raw where Richard Pryor, in response to Cosby's criticism of Murphy, told Murphy to "tell Bill to have a Coke and a smile, and shut the %$&# up."

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 3, 2006 2:13:58 PM

I'm on both sides of the coin, since I'm not just a law student but also an instructor (teaching my own classes) and former TA in the philosophy dept. at Penn, and taught in a university in Russia for a few years. So, I have a pretty fair idea what I'm talking about- perhaps even better than one seeing things only from one side at a time.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 3, 2006 11:52:24 AM

Funny that the students -- Matt and AwC'mon -- think that professor socializing with students is a great idea. Easy to say when you're a student; harder when you're a professor, methinks.

Posted by: kate | Feb 3, 2006 11:17:33 AM

At Penn students having lunch and/or coffee with the professors is strongly encouraged. It's usually done in smallish groups (5-8 or so) at first but often continues individually after that. It seems a great idea to me. Beyond that "Aw/C'mon" seems to have the right idea to me. (Or, you could follow the Michael Moore model- it seems to have worked okay for him!)

Posted by: Matt | Feb 3, 2006 11:12:25 AM

I think everyone is being a bit of a weenie. I think some socializing is fine, so long as it isn't excessive. Lunch on campus shouldn't a problem, especially if it is at a place where people can feel free to join or not join. Events scheduled in class (my prawfs would make a point of scheduling lunch with every member of the class in small groups) are fine. School sponsored events are fine. And anything with people who you don't teach is fine -- if you've become friends with a 3L who is on their way out, I see nothing wrong with grabbing a burger with them. Even drinks. Just don't date them until they graduate and you should be fine.

Posted by: AwC'mon | Feb 3, 2006 10:38:48 AM

It's not an easy problem, but I think lawprof has probably the best advice. Of course, it's easy for me to say that, as I'm married (with baby now), probably a dozen years or more older than my average student, and something of a homebody.

Posted by: Tung Yin | Feb 3, 2006 10:18:48 AM

What about using the standards of the professional community as a guide? What are the limitations placed on social interaction between judges and practicing attorneys?

Posted by: ac | Feb 3, 2006 9:38:14 AM

These are interesting points and I think that most of the advice is good, although it does not come without some sacrifices (e.g. potential life long friendships, etc.). This is not my situation, but it seems to me that this problem would be much worse in a law school in a relatively isolated area in which there are few people (other than fellow faculty and law students) who share your interest, are about the same age and single, etc. etc.. It seems that the "bumping into" factor goes up in small towns and the "there's nothing to do and no one to hang out with" factor also increases.

Of course, back when I was in law school, which seems so long ago now but it really wasn't, there didnt seem to be such firm convictions against socialization with students.

Posted by: none | Feb 3, 2006 8:35:31 AM

I'm a single guy who has been been teaching law for 4 years now, and I run into this problem a lot. My solution: Absolutely avoid all socialization with students, with the exception of occasional law school events that are well publicized and open to everyone. If you run into students when you're out in a bar, be polite but don't hang out for long.

Your reputation is your most important asset, and law students act like they're in high school: word travels really fast about any kind of socializing you're doing, and that inevitably leads to weird rumors floating that you are better off without. There are a handful of schools in which student/faculty socialization is considered relatively normal, but at most schools it's really bad news.

Posted by: lawprof | Feb 3, 2006 1:02:58 AM

The problems do seem complex. The answer, however, is simple: As little of the stuff as possible; and, on the rare occasions when it's unavoidable, the larger the number of students and other professors along the better.

Posted by: Etaoin Shrdlu | Feb 3, 2006 12:57:04 AM

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