Friday, February 02, 2007

Life (Law) Is A Beatles Lyric Waiting To Happen

Help, I need somebody,
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone, help.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
But every now and then I feel so insecure,
I know that I just need you like I've never done before.

Most of you have experienced many moments your legal careers in which you really had to ask for help, unable to go forth alone. God help you, you couldn't figure out this legal issue and so you had to ask a more senior associate or partner for some direction, or ask the court for an extension of time. Even before that, you had to suck it up and admit you just didn't know and pass when called on in class, you had to go to office hours, to that extra review session, or endure the unspoken stigma of enrolling in an academic assistance program. Sometimes, you just need help. It's okay. There shouldn't be a problem, we should all be able to ask for help.
But those are but moments of "weakness," and the assistance needed is rather perfunctory in nature, and you probably only asked one person for help. You didn't need a village, you just needed someone to get your back. But imagine asking for a village. Imagine trying to assemble a village.

Such is the particular hell of trying to form a dissertation committee. For all of you Top Fivers and Supreme Court clerks who have never had to get an extra advanced legal degree to literally "break into" the academy, this concept will be foreign to you. But I'm applying to the SJD program here at Liberal College Law, just halfway through my LLM, before I have turned in any significant work on which to be evaluated, and when I have only had two professors (one of whom is a judge and not here full-time though he has a full appointment) in addition to my advisor, who is just starting to like me and my work. I have to say, it is tough trying to assemble a committee.

For three weeks I sent around emails asking for appointments to meet with academics working in my intended field. It is kind of awkward, "hi, you don't know me, but would you consider being my advisor?" I circulated my prospectus, CV, drafts of past work. Then I went to the appointments. In those meetings I begged and cajoled my way into their hearts and minds, trying to convince them that they would be useful advisors on the _____ aspect of the project, and tried to convince them that such work might dovetail with their work on _______. I intend to explore federalism issues in employment discrimination law, and it's my luck that we have several scholars in each area. Unfortunately, the project is more focused on the latter, and both of the most on-point faculty are on leave this term, and I have to assemble the committee by next month. I tried to e-meet them, or say "hey, I'm swinging by your school this weeek, we can meet at WASPy Privilege Law if you want!" (didn't work). So I cast my nets more widely, figuring that I could switch or add-in advisors once in the program, which is common in grad programs. I think I met with half the faculty here at Liberal College Law. I think that eventually, half the faculty would be on my committee.

The good news is that I retained my current advisor, Preeminent Federalism Scholar (so long as I can find a lively constitutional controversy for him to advise on), secured a general employment law (but not employment discrimination law!) scholar, and a conflicts of law/gender discrimination law advisor. Not bad, considering most other LLMs just turned in their appliations and hoped for the best. I have a full committee, and two willing to consider advising when they return from leave.

Why am I doing so much work? Because my advisor won't turn in a letter of rec until I turn in a significant chunk of my thesis, and that's not until next month. Seriously, and all the other LLMs have turned in nothing (whereas I turned in the introducation) and they got letters. Such is my luck with Old School Prof (his other pseudonym). And so the director of the graduate program told me to secure one from my SJD advisor. Problem is, the one I want the most is on leave and won't be able to meet until next fall. So I have basically an interim committee. And now I still have to wait until I get that letter of rec. And now I'm in limbo. I needed help. So I started begging around for more faculty to sponsor my application, saying that they would work with me and advise me if I was accepted into the program.

The good news is that the program will delay consideration of my application until I get a letter, and that I've done enough work securing a committee and can add on or substitute in advisors once accepted and as the project develops. I guess that could be construed as taking my application seriously enough to wait for me. Maybe that means they want me. Maybe it means that if it takes a village, well, then, I got a village.

The thing about being on a dissertation committee is that it is a sustained committment--here at Liberal College Law, two to three years. It's not a huge committment (except that you have classes to teach, articles to write, other students to advise, lives to lead), say a meeting once a month or so and mostly email communications. But it is a sustained committment to read and advise on several drafts. I do not dispute that I am asking a lot when I ask someone to be on my dissertation committee. I know that in "committee' There is the concept of "commitment," and so before we have even met I'm asking them to go steady.

It's not easy asking for help, and it's not easy giving help. But such is the nature of graduate education. Professional schools like law schools, with their take that "mentorship" means having a lawyer alumni take you to lunch once a year, is really bad at fostering mentorship. Graduate programs (I take half my classes in one such program) are built to facilitate mentorship between faculty and students, to assist you (and twist each others arms) in forming committees. So a self-directed search for an advisor, much less THREE advisors, is pretty tough. Especially for me, who never had the benefits of connections or what it's like to have consistent founts of advice and support. My dad worked several minimum wage jobs to put us through school, and my siblings were first generation immigrants who studied in the universal languages of math and science. I never knew what it was like to ask someone what classes to take, help on my law (or high school or college) homework, or how to get through law school without wanting to kill my section mates. I had a village, but not the right one for law school or for legal academia. Thanks to the blogosphere, now I do have a few people to ask for help, like Jim Chen and Larry Solum. Now for the first time in my life I am getting advice on which courses to take to maximize my scholarly skills package or academic network connections. But the short of it is that I don't know well how to ask for help, or who to go to. And being in a professional school environment that doesn't really foster a spirit of sustained mentorship on lengthy academic projects doesn't help. So it's a bit daunting, to ask for a village to support you when you feel like a stranger at the gates.

What I want to ask my readers is this: what makes a professor consider taking on a student? Is it a sense of professional responsibility, that you are not just academics paid to publish articles, but also teachers and thus mentors? If my research doesn't exactly serve your research interests but would contribute something important to the academy, is that enough for you to consider taking me on? Do you have to feel completely confident that you can advise every issue, or would just one part of of the dissertation be enough? How much substantive competence is necessary to be an advisor? Isn't that the point of having a committee, that each scholar takes on their area of expertise, even if you are not so expert (but generally knowledgeable) about this particular issue? In short, if a student comes to you for help, would you say yes? If she comes asking for three years for help, does that give you greater pause than just a quick question, or are both a part of your professional academic responsibility to at least seriously consider the request if you feel competent to advise? Also, do you feel you have to be in residence all three years? With the innovations of email and track changes, can't advisor-student relationships also evolve and be sustained over distance in case you take a visiting appointment or sabbatical?

Scholars I tag in particular to take on this issue and these questions:

And of course, anyone else who wants to weigh in on this.