Monday, June 15, 2009

Velvet Hazing

This is not a “walked 5 miles through the driving snow” story although it may seem that it is.

At the mid level schools at which I have taught, life for untenured faculty has changed. At my first teaching job, I taught the summer before my first fall -- a first preparation crammed into a 7 week course. Like others, the course load thereafter was the same as that for my senior colleagues. At tenure time, we had no input into who the referees were for our scholarship. They were all national figures and I was surprised they would take the time. When the class visitation issue came up, the visits were announced the same day or not announced at all. Why would they be?

These days at my school and others, I assume, it is quite different. Untenureds receive summer research grants starting with the summer before beginning teaching and extending through the tenure decision. Reduced teaching loads in the first year are the norm. The candidates are involved in selecting referees for their scholarship. The scheduling of class visits is done to make sure the candidates can be at their best. (Not that anyone actually writes a negative class visit letter even though their private comments may suggest there are problems.) Faculty, many of whom are not successful writers, are constantly providing advice, often conflicting, about whom to try to please, how to get a good placement, topics, etc. Or, they babble on about their own work, name drop or otherwise try to impress. There are scholarship mentors and “friend” mentors. Next there will be mentors for the mentors and an Associate Dean for Mentoring.

Sounds pretty good right?

I am not sure. I preferred the old way. The new “supportive,” “sensitive,” “caring” approach seems nerve racking. There is so much attention focused on the untenureds, I do not see how they survive without mega doses of Valium. The assistance has an unsettling ritualistic quality about it. It seems so much more intense than when I went through the “less sensitive” process (where I was told to work hard and everything would be fine) although the standards are exactly the same. Everything written will be published and favorable reviews are readily supplied. The production about class visitation suggests that somehow it is not just another day in front of the class.

The new “sensitive” process also strikes me as undermining. We, and every other law school, hire relatively confident and competent fully developed adults. Often they are married with children or have other support systems and come from successful careers. Immediately, like overly protective parents, we “tell” them that they are dependent, need our help, and face a huge challenge. By making life “easier” we communicate that the job is overwhelming when it is not and that we have little confidence in them. What the pretenure period reminds me of is a kind of velvet glove hazing like that which first year students seem to want to experience even though those days are long gone.

Finally, there is another dangerous lesson this may teach. It is only human for untenureds to develop expectations. If their every need(or non need) is anticipated and satisfied, what kind of faculty do they become? Will they accept it if a dean asks them to teach in an area where the School is short on coverage that year? Will they be willing to meet with students even when it is not convenient? Will they simply become part of the Matrix in which they deserve all they get and more regardless of what they do? Most have a sense of entitlement when they arrive and the new sensitively reinforces it.

I honestly feel sorry for today’s untenureds and would not trade places. My hope is that they can ignore the messages and laugh, forgive, and become productive (no matter how much we tell them it is unlikely).


Anonymous said...

"What the pretenure period reminds me of is a kind of velvet glove hazing like that which first year students seem to want to experience even though those days are long gone."

What do you mean by this?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I think but could be wrong that students have a romanticized view or expectation of law school largely based on The Paper Chase and other films. The notion is that first year teachers will be rigorous, have high expectations, use the Socratic method and even insult students. My sense is that they want to feel like they have survived a "boot camp" like experience if for no other reason that the stories that can be told. In fact, the first year of law school is nothing like that but that does not keep students from "feeling" they have been through the grinder. My point was that surviving the pretenure period will also never be perceived as easy or stress free because the feeling of having survived is valued.

Talleyrand said...

Just to vent on a pet peeve - How on earth are scheduled 'read out the facts of the case' moments the Socratic method? In a world of misnomers, this surely has to be up there with the best of them.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I understand you are venting and I could answer that in any case. The Socratic method, a wonderful thing when used properly, died when student teaching evalutions became the norm. Even wehn I was a student yeas ago I only had two teachers who lused it. My thoughts never drifted. It was as an intellectual matter my finest law school experience. No one was asked to recite the facts;

Anonymous said...

I understand your frustration at how the new "sensitive" system hurts making people work hard to achieve. Even though I do work hard, it's very difficult for me to feel like I even deserve anything I have around me. My Grandfather served in WW2 and then used the GI Bill to be the first in my family to go to college. All I've had to do was not mess up. I've been saying thank you my whole life because I understand how lucky I am. I guess, I just wouldn't mind if things were harder so that maybe, just maybe, I could feel like I've earned something for myself. Anyway, that was a good article.