Monday, August 14, 2006

On Mentors and Mentoring

I often write about how great this blog has been for me--it's fun to write, introduces me to cool people, is a strange but wonderful way to "network" within the legal academy--but there have been some other concrete benefits to this.

Because of the nature of a personal blog, readers feel like they "know" you and often email you to say they like your writing and start telling stories about themselves. Not just other bloggers either--I'm talking about law professors, a population you would not think given to starting epistolary relationships. I like it though. I share a lot on this blog, and I like that others share back. I think I can honestly say this blog has resulted in "real" friendships with people, some of whom I have met and some of whom I am purposely planning my flight layovers to meet. Some blogging law professors seem particularly protective of this young blawggish blogger, and I have to say that I really appreciate their soliticious care.

I wish I had this the first time around, in fact. I have emailed my Blog Fathers (both in the "Godfather" sense and the avuncular/paternal/maternal) for advice on many things---whether to blog non-pseudonymously elsewhere (answer: no), how to refine my abstract, whether it is advisable to use statistics as a young scholar, and most importantly, what classes to take.

It is amazing, this time around, the kind of feedback I'm getting. It is remarkable in the first instance that I am able to email these virtual strangers a list of course descriptions, attach my thesis proposal, and ask "what classes should I take?" I suppose I could do this with my advisor, but we research-track LLMs have not been assigned ours yet (I know, I know). At any rate, I don't think I'd be getting the same kind of blunt, pointed advice. You might have a 2L or 3L or Alumni mentor in law school, and they might tell you what are the "easier" classes to take, who teaches a particular subject particularly well, and where to apply for the summer associateship. But if you're an aspiring academic, you want to know more than just this. And if you're a graduate law student, you don't need to know that kind of stuff anymore (well maybe the bit about who's a good professor). But when upperclass or alumni mentor tells you who's the "better" professor, they mean pedagogically. Not that a skilled teacher isn't good. But for an aspiring academic, sometimes "better" does not mean more "interesting," "dynamic," "comprehensible," etc.--it may mean who is in the best position to advise you on a certain topic, who is "good to know" in the future as you enter the market, and who will give you the best feedback or offer the best counterpoint to your normative/doctrinal project. So to get such pointed advice, like "take this guy, he's good to know" is something you just don't get by asking a 3L or an alumni. Also, if you put such a question to your advisor, he or she is unlikely to say about a colleague "definitely don't take him or her."

It is curious that I can speak so candidly to virtual strangers, whereas I have not told anyone (well, except one) at my old law school about this blog. Perhaps it is because we have a prior relationship of professor-student and mentor-mentee that I have already abused too much. I know this professor cares enough about my career to give me a few reading tips and a (very valuable) letter of recommendation--but it's not quite the level of intimacy (which I ironically have with virtual strangers) I have with these avuncular, rather protective of their blawgee protege professors at other schools. Meaning, I can write him a relatively cordial and professional update, but we don't have this "letter-writing" relationship (nay, friendship) where I can literally ask "do you think Prof. _____ is a good advisor for a project on ____." It's nice being able to ask my virtual Avuncular Law Professors about what classes to take, and get substantive feedback on my thesis proposal (which apparently, "looks great" and will investigate the "holy grail" of constitutional law) before I have been even assigned my faculty advisor. In these few weeks of limbo, it's nice to be able to turn to someone and ask rather stupid questions. I wonder if this is what it is like for law students with lawyers in the family. I am not the first in my family to go to college or graduate school (though that was the case with many of my classmates, and you can imagine their predicament when it came to advice), but I am definitely the first to go to law school. I wonder if this is what it's like to have an academic support network. I think it is.

I am not writing this post to discuss the how the weirdness of legal academic institution favors those with already established networks and connections (you can figure that out on your own). I am writing this post to wonder why there is not an official institutional support system for those without such informal networks.

Part of this comes from the research I've been doing on informal social networks, and how in the absence of official institutional support those who are unable to make such connections (which are often made ex ante to the job situation, as that's how many people got the job in the first place) will fall behind those who are "well-connected." I am not normally a good "networker" or "schmoozer," although I am friendly and engaged in my education enough to abuse office hours. But in terms of "knowing who's who," well, I usually don't. This blog has allowed me to get to know a few who are (and may be even more) helpful to my academic career. Just getting some basic advice like "you might want to read this article or take a class from this professor" is worth all the gold in the world to me. What's more, I don't "market" my blog per se--I might email a post here and there, but it's always to someone I "know." All the chance, fortunate connections I've made from this blog have been from law professors emailing me to offer commentary and support. The only times I randomly email law profs or blawggers is to suggest an article for them to read, which is not exactly showing off. So despite my terrible networking and marketing skills, I have an informal academic support network. I am only beginning to realize that I should probably learn to email faculty in my field (when I decide on one) drafts of my articles or questions about my graduate studies.

So why isn't there some kind of institutional support system for naive people like me? I suppose the graduate programs think that faculty advisors are "enough," and they certain do a lot for their students. But I wish there was something akin to a "career center" for aspiring academics. One where you can ask blunt questions and get blunt answers, one where you can have access to that informal databank of knowledge about who is the best (and worst) in a given field, when to submit papers for conferences, what talks to go to, etc.

This isn't really asking for much---grad students in other departments have list-servs in which they are constantly notified about the goings on in their departments, at other universities, etc. I have to search, on SSRN, HUMNET, APSA, etc. to look for "calls for papers" and I have to visit the websites of various departments (law, political science, philosophy) in order to figure out what talks/colloquia to go to and where. If only law students--and graduate law students at that--could be seen not only as "professional" students insulated from the larger campus (and wider intellectual traditions), but also as "graduate" students who might benefit from a little learning outside of the school. Who might want to submit a paper to a conference. Who might want to go to a talk on, I dunno, legal positivism vs. normative legal theory.

Is a list-serve too much to ask for? Is someone to ask for advice about how to navigate the academic market (other than your faculty advisor, who you bother too much already) at your school too much to demand?

It is times like this when I think it's much easier being a graduate student if you want to teach. Law school seems to exist only for training lawyers, and not producing academics or scholars (although all the major, higher ranked law schools say they want to do that, hence all the programmatic tracks and writing seminars "designed to produce a work of publishable quality"). Still, I wonder why there is so little emphasis on helping their students produce scholarship and possibly enter the academic job market, since that is how a school helps to build its academic reputation.

Something to wonder about. Law schools are full of students, and full of mentors (you can have at least three: an upperclassman, your alumni mentor, and one from your student org). But I wonder how much "mentoring" really goes on, and I am dismayed at how little use that would be to a graduate law student. It's like law school is saying you don't need one after your 1L year. I for one, beg to differ.