Faculty Mentoring and Student Writing

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As I discussed in my last post,  I’m currently engaged in a long-term project examining student note publication—including the role of gender in that process—that builds on my previous article on that topic.

One piece of the puzzle is how students go about writing.  After all, at the time a note is written, it is often a student’s deepest engagement to date with a particular area of the law.  How do students select the legal problem they will grapple with for several months, and once they’ve made their choice, how do they go about the process of research, writing, and submission?

For insight into that process, I sent an online survey via email to 1,020 student note authors.  (Twenty authors were selected from each of the 51 schools in the study by randomly selecting two from each academic year in the ten-year time period.)  Two hundred forty-eight people—161 men and 87 women—completed the survey, yielding a response rate of 24%.

Although the questions were almost all qualitative, I was struck by one quantitative feature of the data.  About 62% of respondents reported that a professor helped them in one or more of the following ways: by helping them select a topic; by editing their draft for grammatical and technical issues; and by providing substantive feedback on drafts.  As a side note, this rate seems surprisingly low to me.  Given the vast number of student notes published every year—and the really helpful and important role these notes can play in illuminating topics too specialized for article-length scholarship—it seems a lost opportunity that so many of them apparently reach publication with no guidance at all from faculty knowledgeable about the field.

That aside, however, I found it interesting that the men and women who completed the survey—all of whom did succeed in publishing notes—received help from professors at more or less the same rate (61% and 64% respectively).  We don’t know, of course, exactly how much of a difference professorial input makes in the submission process, but surely it helps rather than hurts.  This all got me thinking about the role that we, as professors, might play in the success of our students’ efforts at publication.

Consider the data reporting that, in the aggregate, women are less comfortable interacting with professors outside the classroom.  Lani Guinier’s classic study reported that 60% of men—but only 40% of women—felt “very comfortable” approaching professors outside of the classroom.  Of course, much about legal education has changed in the past fifteen or so years.  But a 2006 study also found men were more comfortable than women at approaching professors outside the classroom in six different ways (during office hours, by email, etc.).  See Sari Bashi & Maryana Iskander, Why Legal Education is Failing Women, 18 Yale J.L. & Feminism 389, 419-20 (2006).  And the 2010 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, released a few weeks ago, reports that women are less likely than men to engage with their professors in class; perhaps the same holds true outside the classroom.

If all of this is true, then perhaps the following causal story would partially explain the gender disparity in student note publication:  In the aggregate, male law students are more comfortable interacting with their professors outside of class and are therefore more likely to do so.  This is also true when it comes to seeking advice for student notes.  Receiving assistance from a professor probably improves a student’s chances of having her note published.  The gender disparity in note publishing, then, is in part the result of the greater likelihood that men receive input and advice from professors in drafting their student notes.

Of course, my data do not conclusively prove that this causal story is correct, but they are consistent with it: men and women who are successful at publishing a student note are more or less equally likely to have received assistance from professors.  So there is at least a correlation between equal publication success and equal mentoring.  Perhaps if women law students did receive the same amount of help with the note-writing process as their male counterparts, the gender disparity in note publication would be less than it is now.

A few colleagues have suggested to me that perhaps the disparity in the amount of attention women law students receive from their professors is an unavoidable function of the lingering gender disparity in legal academia:  Women law students are less likely to receive help outside of class because they are less likely to seek help from male faculty members, and faculties are still predominantly male.  But this seems descriptively questionable, and the normative implications give me pause as well.  I don’t, for example, think that only women professors can effectively mentor women law students.  Nor do I think that female professors have a special responsibility to mentor women law students—a responsibility of which male professors are, by implication, absolved.

Perhaps a more effective approach would be for all professors to seek out opportunities to mentor promising but reticent students in their writing—a group of students that, if available research is accurate, probably includes more women than men.  And perhaps equalizing this sort of faculty input would help dissolve the gender disparity in student note output.

– Nancy Leong

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1 Response to Faculty Mentoring and Student Writing

  1. Briana says:

    I’m a student at Marquette Law, and as I read this I am deeply entrenched in the note and comment process. I just finished grading the 2L submissions and I am trying to undertake author review for my own publication. I hadn’t noticed a disparity in publication between genders here. I just looked back at the last 5 years and found that women were published 18 times, and men 20 times. Have you seen the gap closing outside of the top law schools, or are we the exception?

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