Advice for New Law Professors
Last summer, I had fun offering a few pieces of advice to incoming law students. I thought that I’d give some thought to advice for new law professors. As I look back, there really wasn’t much to go on; my first job was teaching in a school that had not made a new hire in several years. Consequently, I had to learn by making mistakes, and I made a lot of them! So, here are a few things I thought of; I may add to the list throughout the month.
1. Prepare for Classes Early and Often—Here’s something they don’t talk about much at the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference: teaching is hard and class preparation is time consuming. Much of the discussion about being a law professor concerns the publication side of our business. What are you working on? Where is it being published? Have you had luck trading up? Compared to preparing for and teaching those first classes, though, researching and writing is a breeze. I had no idea how much time it would take simply to prepare for class each day, nor was I prepared for how miserably I felt I was failing during those first few weeks—and in the subject (con law) that I knew well and couldn’t wait to teach! Knowing that I had two additional classes to prepare for and teach that I didn’t know as well made for a decidedly Un-Merry Christmas. Spend lots of time preparing for class this summer, but know that you will still that it wasn’t enough.
2. Remember that your first year teaching is like a first draft—But I don’t mean to be a downer. You should allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, to change things up mid-semester if things aren’t working. After all, the first draft of the first article you ever wrote wasn’t perfect, was it? Of course not. So you should regard your first year teaching—your first couple of years, in fact—as rough drafts. Moreover, involve your students in the process. Ask them what is working, and what is not. My experience is that students are very understanding, and will do what they can to aid new professors adjust to the classroom and to the experience. By year three, as J.B. Ruhl told me, you will see why being a law professor is a “loophole in life.”
3. Try to get the first article done quickly—Many new professors will already come with publications, but there’s something a little intimidating about writing that first article as a professor. You feel like it has to be a little better, a little more insightful, place a little better than the articles you sent out six months ago. Sometimes this reticence can turn into paralysis or panic as pre-tenure review (or tenure) approaches. Try to get a draft of something done this summer—even a small piece, an essay or a book review, something. While if you follow my class preparation advice, above, you’ll have plenty to fill your days, you (and your colleagues) will breathe a sigh of relief if you get that first piece out as a member of the faculty.
4. Avoid Entangling Alliances—As my colleague Marcia McCormick has observed, joining a faculty is a lot like joining or marrying into a family. It will take you a while to sort out personalities. What you do not want to do during your first few months, is to allow yourself to be enlisted by senior faculty on either side of any contentious faculty issue. Even senior faculty who ought to know better sometimes cannot help themselves when it comes to faculty politics. Enlist on the wrong side, offend the wrong faculty member, and grudges might be held, friendship withdrawn, etc. You have so much to worry about with classes, making up with the offended gray eminence who no longer says hello to you in the hall is a stressor that you’re better off without. There is definitely a time (even as a junior faculty member) for speaking your mind and offering your opinion, even at the risk of offending your colleagues, but your first year on the job is usually not that time.
5. Memorize Students’ Names—It means so much to students for their professors to acknowledge them by name. I cut out pictures of students from our facebook and paste them on an index card that has their name on the other side. When I have a few moments, I practice memorizing their names. For whatever reason, memorizing names is not a strength of mine, so I have to spend time on this. It often takes me until the second semester for names to stick. I think the students appreciate the extra effort, though.