Today’s New York Lawyer carried this opinion-piece of advice from Elizabeth Rotenberg-Schwartz, a fourth-year associate in an NYC law firm. Her “Words to the Wise” are “tips for newbies, including the advice she regrets not following herself.” Most of the advice is portable to the academic world, too. Among Ms. Rotenberg-Schwartz’s tips are:
- Your job is to observe and learn.
- Work with as many different people as you can.
- Relationships take time to build.
- Become involved in the firm’s administration.
- [Have good] E-mail etiquette.
- Your reputation matters.
- Be careful whom you trust.
- Play nice with others.
Here are my thoughts adapting some of this advice for the new feminist law professor.
Observe and learn. It seems to me that at least when it comes to faculty meetings, this describes a new law professor’s job. One piece of advice I received when starting out was, “Don’t speak in a faculty meeting unless directly asked a question, or unless the issue directly concerns a course you teach, or if the faculty is discussing entry-level hiring.” This sounds oppressive, I know. Do men ever get this advice? I wonder…. In any case, variations in school culture may make this advice more or less appropriate. Nevertheless, I think it is a sound baseline. Senior faculty members who have been fighting about issue X for years actually don’t want to hear a new prof sound off sound on the subject (although, I will admit, new female law profs seem to do this far less frequently than new male law profs do).
Work with as many different people as you can. No need to take sides in long-standing faculty debates or ideological conflicts. Seek out all of your new colleagues and get to know them. And seek out the senior feminists.
Relationships do take time to build. You may or may not find a senior colleague mentor right away. That mentor may or may not be a feminist. Mentoring doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t always happen organically either. Don’t worry. Ask people to read drafts of your work. If your scholarship has a feminist angle, actively seek the input of non-feminist colleagues. We all can improve our work by taking into account as many perspectives as possible. New female law profs, especially young female law profs, may find it difficult to establish a classroom authority or presence (as our gender requires us to earn our respect). Ask colleagues to give you teaching suggestions. Volunteer to read drafts of other untenured colleagues’ work (and meanwhile figure out if an “upstream” offer would be viewed at your school as presumptuous). Let your fellow new law profs know you’ve got their backs, or at least their articles’ backs.
E-mail etiquette. E-mail distribution of long diatribes to “all faculty” is the special province of tenured colleagues. If you are a new faculty member, don’t do it. It makes you look foolish. If you are really, really interested in a colleague’s email about, say, the rabbit problem in the local community garden, then go talk to that colleague in person. Figure out the e-mail culture at your school and fit in. My purely anecdotal and limited experience is that new female law profs are far less likely than new male law profs to assume the rest of the faculty needs to hear our thoughts.
Become involved in school administration. Women are accultured to say “yes” when asked to help with institutional “housekeeping,” so we need to be careful about balancing our commitments to teaching, scholarship and service. And certainly at some schools, scholarship is valued more than teaching and vice versa (and at many schools, teaching and scholarship always will be valued more than service). But don’t avoid institutional service like the plague, either. Advise student groups, show up for committee meetings and offer to do a first draft of a needed report from time to time. It’s a great way to get to know the issues facing your students and school.
Your reputation matters. Funny how true this has been — for men and women — in every place I have ever worked. Lasting reputations get established in a matter of months. Not that reputations can’t change or develop over time, but a reputation as a “bad” teacher, “unprepared” colleague or someone who is “never around” can be very hard to shake. Are women under a microscope more often than men in this regard? I think the answer is no, but this may vary from school to school.
Be careful whom you trust. Figure out who seem to be the “rabbis” on the faculty — the ones that colleagues of all levels of seniority seem to go to for advice. Seek these people out when you need advice. Find successful female faculty members and take note of what seems to make them successful in your school. Assume that anyone gossiping about colleague Y will gossip about you at some point (so this person may not be the one you should tell the details of what you really did last weekend).
Play nice with others. Treat students and staff with respect. Don’t speak negatively about colleagues, even if “everyone else is doing it.” Women get tagged with the “catty” label. Men who engage in the same behavior are “trash talkers.” “Catty” has a “petty” ring to it, whereas “talking trash” seems assertive and dominant. Yuck to both.