Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Almighty Professor Dispenses With Dispensing Advice

Or, Miss Lonelyhearts Strikes Again.

Have you read Miss Lonelyhearts? No? You should. It is a wonderfully clever, brutal and bitter little satiric novella by Nathaniel West. The best description of it I've read is by an Amazon.com reviewer:

MISS LONELYHEARTS [is] short and intense, and presents a horrific vision of American society choking to death on its own mass-media fantasies. Probably West's most powerful work, MISS LONELYHEARTS concerns a nameless man assigned to produce a newspaper advice column--but as time passes he begins to break under the endless misery of those who write to him for advice. Unable to find answers, and with his shaky Christianity ridiculed into destruction by his poisonous editor, he tumbles into a madness fueled by his own spiritual emptiness. First published in 1933, MISS LONELYHEARTS remains one of the most shocking works of 20th Century American literature, as unnerving as a glob of black bile vomited up at a church social, empty, blasphemous, and horrific.

What a colorful description. I like the image of vomiting at a church social. That's pretty much accurate, both about the novel and the futile tragedy of giving advice to the hopeless and having to lie to both them and yourself, day in and day out. I don't know where this compulsion comes from, but I've been reading advice columns ever since I was a little kid. Maybe it was because my parents and family worked for the Los Angeles Times as newspaper stuffers--surrounded by newspapers, I read anything and everything. I read Dear Abby and Ann Landers as a kid, and to this day I read the new Dear Abby (Pauline Esther Phillips died a few years ago, and her daughter Jeanne took over) in my local crappy newspaper. Jeanne really sucks compared to Pauline, and gives out horrible advice. Yet I still read it. I also read Cary Tennis in Salon, and for all of you unhappy office monkeys out there, today's column is particularly great.

I myself have some experience giving out advice. For some reason, despite being barely older (and sometimes younger) than my students, in each class I have TA'd, students have flocked to me for pre-law advice. Maybe because the academic advisors were so brutal, telling them they never could be lawyers with their grades/LSAT scores. Maybe because I used to tell people that if you want to be a lawyer, Lord help you, go ahead and be one--there will always be a way if that is your chosen path. Things have changed in three years. Knowing as I do how difficult it is for a student going to a second tier law school (where after the first year they drop the entire bottom 1/3 and there goes $30K); how difficult it is to pass the Bar; how miserable law school can be socially (and also how wonderful but potentially frustrating grade-wise it is intellectually); and how you must really know why you want this career before you pursue it--I'm not as eager to push young, happy surfer dudes into the law.

And yet people will ask. Unwisely, my real life alter ego has both Myspace and Friendster accounts (mainly to keep in touch with law school friends as their emails extensions change from .edu to .blitzandblingllp.com). But I got the following message today. I don't know why to me, because there are plenty of other alums from Bourgie Metrosexual Law School in my network to ask for advice. But apparently, this dude is interested in my alma mater. Identifying details have been edited out and replaced by pseudonyms:

hey wats i feel stupid asking u this question but, what are the ways to get accepted into Bourgie Metrosexual law school. am barely 17 i am stupid i neevr really though of going to colege but now i am its kinda late to apply now.well i got accepted to Online/Chain-Campus Degree Mill Belle Has Never Heard Of and i am majoring in criminal justice for my bachelors degree. ppl keep telling me i should go to Local Metropolitan Community College and go for political science good idea?when i graduate from there is it possible to transfer to Bourgie Metrosexual law skoo?from Obscure Degree Mill? is it a good major criminal justice?? i am really lost right now.lol can u help me out on some info?? on what i should do??? plz any info would be grreat. thnx

I am at a loss for words. I swear to you, I did not make this email up. I don't have the genius for that like others do. I am not very fluent in slang/teen speak/abysmal teen spelling, and so I couldn't possibly have come up with all of this. I didn't know that a proper greeting has been truncated from "what's up" to "s'up" to "hey wats." I didn't know that people think that when you graduate from a degree mill college you "transfer" to a Top 20 law school, or "skoo." I didn't know that being "really lost" is something to "laugh out loud" about. Or that people who never "though" about going to "colege" honestly feel that being "barely 17" is too late to apply. Actually, parsing out "am barely 17 i am stupid i neevr really though of going to colege but now i am its kinda late to apply now" is more than Noam Chomsky could handle. I don't have any personal feelings about "pre-law" majors, and so I don't know what advice I could give to this young man about what he should major in or which school he should go to. And I definitely shouldn't comment on his chances of getting into a Top 20 law school. I could say a lot of snarky things about his level of sophistication, spelling and grammar, but that'd be mean--what's the point?

I think this is supposed to be cosmic justice for my making fun of the way Richard Delgado answers his "Dear Mom" advice column. Delgado had to deal with this too, but the only error in that letter was misspelling "comming" twice. Delgado was a little flippant in his reply, but for once I can't blame him. I honestly do not know how to reply to this. I don't even know if I will or should. I have been having doubts about encouraging people who, when asked why they want to be a lawyer, answer "What else am I going to be with my poli sci degree?" or "Show me the money" (I'm not making that up!) or "I like to argue." These people should not be encouraged to go to law school. They should be encouraged to backpack through Europe and find themselves, or to go to business school (where the real money is), or to work out some of their aggression issues.

I am much more careful now about encouraging people to go into the law (I have no such reservations about other professions I don't know about though--go ahead! Be a pharmacist!). Unless you demonstrate either the potential or the commitment to this goal (and preferably both), and unless you are aware of all the soul-crushing negatives, and unless you know what you want to do after law school, I think you should seriously reconsider. Law school is enjoyable on an intellectual level, but man cannot live on jurisprudence alone (unless you're a law professor). Outside of the classroom, I kind of hated law school. I definitely hated the Bar and the worrying about summer employment and post-graduation employment. I definitely hated the clique-y, boozy, gossipy environment. I definitely feel sorry for all my friends unhappy in their big firm jobs and unhappy still looking for firm jobs. I had a different goal (one of job satisfaction and happiness) in mind when I entered law school, and I think that's what kept me from dropping out. So I can't in good conscience encourage someone who doesn't demonstrate at least some level of self-awareness, maturity, and commitment to embark on this very difficult path.

Despite all my advice column reading, my lived experiences tell me that the best advice is sometimes the simple truth. Good advice is not merely the parroting of so many motivational self-help "You can do it!" books, or doing the academic planning for a lost young man. I've had students whose girlfriends chose their classes for them (not making that up!) ask me for advice about law school or the LSAT, and I always wonder how much advice I could give them if they are so incapable of personal direction. And it's questionable whether you should always give advice. I'm always open to giving some advice and guidance to the students I teach. I feel that it's a part of the special relationship between teacher and student, and I myself have benefitted inumerable times from the kindness of professors. In fact, I am so indebted to my professors for encouraging me to pursue law teaching that I am somewhat of a student groupie, bringing them baked goods, buying them expensive presents, and asking them to sign my copies of their law review articles (again, not kidding). But do any of us have an obligation to advise complete strangers who email you on Myspace? There is definitely less obligation to advise in the latter case. Also, having been caught in the vicious trap of "advise me on everything/proofread my personal statement/plan all my classes for me/coach me on the LSAT," I've learned to limit myself to a few general pointers and then calling it a day. Yes, I have actually helped people edit their personal statements. Yes, I actually tutored people (for FREE) on the LSAT. And no, I will never, ever do this again unless it is for a blood relative. What has changed is that in the last three years, I grew a spine and learned to say "no."

There's a lively debate in the legal blogosphere about the proper role of professors. Some advise junior profs (or "prawfs") that they do not have to say yes to every letter of recommendation request that comes their way, and that for sanity's sake profs should remember that they are not obligated to cater to every student. Others advise law profs to never give out legal advice, particularly in states in which they are not licensed. (sound advice) In other words, be a good professor, but be good to yourself--and your students--by recognizing your limited role. Or at least how limited it should be. You are not mother/father/Godfather to your students. There are limits to what you can do, and what you should do. You can say no. It is okay to say no.

Be wary, fellow academics, of those students who ask you to do more than write a letter of recommendation or give a few pointers about their academic/career plans. Be wary of those students who want you to fix their lives for them, and as if by magic give them hope, direction, conviction and potential with one fell swoop of the pen. You cannot do that. You are not the GodProfessor. Do not apotheosize yourself. You can give a few gentle suggestions, and then hope that they find their own way. You are not responsible for every wayward student that you come across. You cannot fix every broken life that you encounter. You cannot determine your own future, let alone the futures of the thousands of students you will encounter in your lifetime.

We think we have great power because we do great things. We write about Big Important Ideas. We stand behind a podium on a stage, dispensing wisdom like Moses from the Mount. We inspire students to learn, and give them Knowledge and Truth. We have the power to determine value, i.e. give out grades. With one stroke of the pen, value is given, and futures are affected.

The pen is mighty. But it is not almighty. Don't kid yourself.