Every now and then, a fortune cookie dispenses with advice that is so spot-on you just have to keep the little sliver of paper tucked away. Here is my fortune cookie keeper of all time:
“Be careful of those that meet you at the train for they know where they want you to go…”
It was 2007 and I had just accepted my first job teaching. And the faculty at the time was in a bit of turmoil. The dean had recently resigned and it was unknown who the future dean would be. As a visitor setting foot on campus I was a bit blurry eyed and knee deep in figuring out how to teach, be productive and all the things you do to start yourself off right. Many of the faculty who remain very good friends today reached out to me to be reassuring about the the stability of the faculty etc…. But one person reached out to me to tell me who on the faculty not to trust. What was particularly interesting was they named names! This person was actually one of the first people to reach out to me when I arrived. So when about six months later I read this fortune cookie sliver, I took the waitress’s pen and wrote their name on the back.
In my experience, the people on a faculty who you should be most leery of are those that will tell you either the people or the kinds of people you should be careful of. What sounds as if it comes from experience and insight most often comes from places of fear, mistrust, manipulation, and insecurity. What it can tell you, if you did not already know it, is that there are fault lines on the faculty for which a subterranean battle for the institution’s soul may be playing out. As a young faculty member, don’t choose sides without carefully understanding what is at stake.
When you are new to a faculty, there are some traits to be “eyes wide open” on. One is the “do not trust” this person or group of people conversation. Most of time, when people offer this advice it is rarely for your own well-being, but rather because of their own motives. Likewise, advice about faculty members that reduces them down to one quality or another or suggests that they are one dimensional in their views of the world (i.e., this person only cares about scholarship, so you should talk to them about your work often; or this person is only a teaching faculty member and doesn’t really care about scholarship) is rarely accurate and should be taken with equal caution. I recall, being told at one stop “this professor doesn’t do scholarship so you shouldn’t waste your time talking to them about yours.” As I found out, that was some of the worst advice I had received. That person did not write, true, but they were very interested in the scholarship I was working on. Had I not been willing to talk about my passions to this faculty member, I would have missed the chance to build a great relationship with this person — who frankly was glad that people like me were interested in writing our voice into scholarship and wanted to be supportive of that for the good of the college.
Anyone that suggests that faculty members are one dimensional and will only care about X, whether X is how you teach or what you write, means that the person dispensing with the advice doesn’t know the faculty member they are dispensing advice about well at all. If we know anything about people — whether they are faculty members, scholars or administrators — it is that they are rarely one dimensional and regularly surprise us with the way they see the world if we open our eyes to see from time to time.
The people that make the best mentors on faculties are those that do not spend as much time worrying about who else you are taking advice from or attempting to characterize others, as they do about what you are up to and how your year or writing is shaping up. In other words, when you find someone that is spending far more time offering comments about others on the faculty (particularly when you are new) understand that you are not their primary interest. Their interest is to shape you to be aligned in their view of what the law school should be doing. And most often, after you have served your purpose, they will dispense with you as well.
A final anecdote on this line — at one of my many stops (I have had four) a colleague had the “do not trust this colleague,” conversation with me. Fortunately I had experience in these matters and took the advice with a heavy dose of caution (of the advise dispensing colleague) and with eyes wide open. As it turned out, the person I was told not to trust was also told not to trust me by the same colleague. Had I listened, I would have been deprived of a person who has become one of my greatest friends in the academy, but also a really great mentor.
So now, my little Chinese fortune cookie sliver, has two names written on the back, and still sits in my office today..