Words to the Wise New Feminist Law Professor

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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.

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Words to the Wise New Feminist Law Professor

  1. Ralph Michael Stein says:

    Professor Crawford’s comments apply, largely, to men as well as to women. When a tenured colleague and I were having a somewhat heated exchange of views about a faculty matter many years ago in the cafeteria, another colleague, male, approached our table and did a quick about face. When I later asked him why he didn’t join us, he replied “When elephants fight, the grass get trampled.” He was subsequently tenured and is an esteemed colleague and friend today.

  2. LB says:

    I admit to having mixed feelings about this advice. While it is sound advice in terms of “safety” in a very practical way, it may not be sound (or safe) for one’s mental health and general well-being. We each must decide where to draw the lines about speaking out or acting out for ourselves, but I wonder if we balance the scales unfairly if our only advice to new faculty is to “keep quiet” and stay away from controversies.
    It probably goes without saying that a policy encouraging new faculty members to keep quiet is likely to maintain the status quo. Because it is often outsiders (minority faculty and depending upon one’s faculty, white women, and surely feminists) who are new, the result can be that policies and practices that were developed without attention to, insensitive to, or fundamentally hostile to outsiders’ perspectives, needs and experiences will remain in place. Part of the reason many feminists and other outsiders have worked so hard to get into the academy is to change the culture. The culture of a faculty can be changed in many venues, but faculty meetings may be of those venues that requires interventions to make our faculties more hospitable to traditional outsiders. Tenured and employment-secure senior faculty members committed to these goals will continue to work on them, but without the support of new faculty members or a growing constituency of support, things are unlikely to change for the benefit of the new faculty and others following them.
    My other concern is that if one is quiet for the first few years, what will be the magic moment when challenge becomes acceptable? After a few years of silence, it may seem that waiting until after the tenure vote is the best option. After seven years of silence and indoctrination into the culture, after learning how to rationalize practices and goals (that you might previously have found unacceptable) and learning to believe that certain issues are somehow beyond the capacity of your faculty to change, how can we be sure there will still be a desire to offer challenges to exclusionary features of the status quo?
    What do others think?

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