The Legal Beat
The 10 Truths Of Academia For New Tenure-Track Law Professors
Posted on Tuesday February 14, 2017
I’ve had the pleasure and peril of having had several experiences as a law professor. I’ve been on nearly every committee imaginable, I’ve taught tons of different classes, and I have some writing game. Some of these experiences have been immensely rewarding, while others have created a gigantic void in the center of my being.
If you are new to academia, you should avoid the false promises of things that will create those voids in the center of your being. The key goal should be to focus on teaching and writing. There might be claims that you’ll be rewarded for other things, but your reward will likely be pain and suffering. I promise you. Yes, you must do some requisite level of committee work and be a team player, but you should not seek it. In the end, most schools reward only research and teaching, and the rest is quickly forgotten.
If you think I’m lying, quick: Who was on your admissions committee last year? Don’t remember? Neither do I. Come to think of it, I can barely remember voting on anything last year. Did I even attend a faculty meeting?
Thus, I provide here a guide of my 10 Truths of Academia. Granted, some of my advice must be taken with a grain of salt or nuance. For example, some academics face tough sledding because of inherent biases in the system (as discussed in this excellent book about the intersections of race and gender in academia, Presumed Incompetent (affiliate link).)
- Anything that distracts from writing, apart from classes and students, will not be long-term rewarded. The eye should be on the prize, which is tenure. If you are in Wisconsin, I suppose the prize would be to transfer to schools that offer tenure.
Risks of taking my advice: The dean may view you as not a team player, only in it for yourself, and not committed to the institution.
- Do not get involved in faculty politics. Unless you have been at an institution a long time, you do not know the origin of the issues. That professor speaking out vehemently against an issue might be legitimately passionate on the topic, OR the professor may just be mad at the proposal’s author because of some perceived slight 50 years ago.
Risks of taking my advice: If there are two camps and you’re not in either, both will assume you are in the other camp.
- You’ll be on committees, but by no means should you volunteer for running one. Committee work is the unseemly underbelly of academia. It is required, much like cleaning out the grease trap of a barbecue. And it is just as disgusting. In the end, no one will remember any of your contributions, nor will you get any benefit from it. Some will even remember your valuable contributions to be their own. In short, committee work will distract from writing.
Risks of taking my advice: Severe time suckage. As you will have to be in every meeting, make comments on even the most useless proposals, all without rocking the boat, you’ll spend way too much time on a committee, even if you aren’t leading it.
- Never do anything administrative. Ever. No, seriously. The minute you enter an administrative role is the moment your writing ceases or is severely limited. Meanwhile, you might be put in a position in which you might annoy or anger people who will ultimately vote for your tenure. I know people who were associate deans before they were tenured. I’m not that brave or trusting.
Risks of taking my advice: You might be viewed as not being a team player. You may be viewed as being contemptuous of all things administrative. And worse, you may have someone else in that position, a person who will make you miserable.
One other risk is that you might start to like it and want to become a dean someday. That’s just not healthy.
- Get everything from the administration in writing. Deans come and go, and often their exits are at inopportune times. You might have been promised something, only to see that promise disappear as the dean is shown the door. Most administrations will honor the commitments of prior administrations, but there isn’t a guarantee. In short, if you’re seeking reward in the future, consider the shelf life of your dean.
Risks to taking my advice: The dean might be offended that you don’t trust them. In extreme circumstances, as in the case of my previous evil dean, they might refuse to memorialize anything. Sending them emails to memorialize the conversation might make them angry.
- Just because you have something in writing doesn’t mean you are protected. A dean’s priorities may change on a whim. If you have a good dean, your agreement will stand. If not, the paper you have isn’t worth the free departmental copy paper you used to print it. You see, there is a power imbalance here. You aren’t tenured, so you don’t have the protection to remind the dean he or she is not your boss. If you have a bad dean, it is a terrible time to be untenured.
Risks of taking my advice: If you press an issue, especially one that you don’t have in writing, you’ll likely be going to war. You don’t want to go to war with your dean. It is an unpleasant and time-consuming experience. Even if the dean is at fault, you will have to spend a great deal of time creating a grievance record and being sucked into drama.
- Be Meghan Trainor with your time. That means saying no. As new blood, you’ll be called upon to do many things, and your quest for external validation will cause you to say yes to more than you should, leading you to being overwhelmed and not enjoying the prime of your academic life.
Risks: If you say no too much, you’ll be seen as not being a team player. If you say no too infrequently, it will create even more frequent calls upon your time.
- Don’t be “that prof.” There’s always the new professor who thinks that they walk on water or that their excrement has the smell of a bouquet of flowers. I’ve written about this type of prof before. This false notion might have in part been fostered by the faculty attempts to get that prof to come to their school. That doesn’t mean you should go around being obnoxious, abusing staff, belittling students, or explaining in great detail how awesome you are. That will travel fast to those who will vote on your future. In extreme circumstances, your reputation for being a prima donna will travel across the educational gossip network to other schools.
Risks to taking my advice: There is only upside to not being an enormous ass.
- Pay close attention to your classes. Make sure you have detailed, well-written syllabi and lectures. Students can be merciless to new teachers. And even one randomly obnoxious student evaluation, written for the sole purpose of displaying the petulant childish whims of an immature student, might be used as a weapon by an unscrupulous or evil associate dean.
Risks to taking my advice: You might spend too much time focused on teaching, and not enough on your writing. Strike a careful balance.
- In case of emergency, have a backup ready. Sometimes, there are signs a school is dysfunctional. For example, they might be engaged in the same discussions for decades, never resolving issues. Or the dean might be evil. If it looks like you’ll be burned, no need to stay near the fire. Lateral markets are available for escape. In many instances, you might even escape to a better school and with higher status and tenure.
Risks to taking my advice: As I mentioned before, the academic gossip network works very well, so assume that you’ll be discovered at your home institution. That means if your jump isn’t successful, you’ll be in for a miserable time.
Don’t get me wrong. I have the best job in the world, and so will you. The advice I give here is to avoid those things that make you think otherwise. Good luck. We’re all counting on you.