Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tenure and the Minority Law Professor in the United States: Teaching Against the Demons

The Association of American Law Schools held a Workshop for Pretenured Minority Law School Teachers on June 17-18, 2009, in Washington, DC. The conference organizers described the purpose of the event:
From their first day of teaching until tenure, minority law teachers face special challenges in the legal academy. At this workshop, diverse panels of experienced and successful law professors will focus on these issues as they arise in the context of scholarship, teaching, and the tenure process. The workshop dovetails with the AALS Workshop for New Law School Teachers by providing sustained emphasis on the distinctive situations of pretenured minority law school teachers.
Event Information, Workshop, supra. The conference brochure can be accessed here.

The conference brought together a number of excellent faculty representing some of the most dynamic minds in the American legal academy. I was privileged to participate on the panels, entitled, "Teaching: Strategies to Success." The panel included two excellent presentations, one by Serena Williams, who teaches at Widener University, and the other by Adrienne Davis, who teaches at Washington University.

The Program Materials described this panel as follows:

There may be “born” teachers who are able to command the classroom and foster an environment that encourages student participation and trust without breaking a sweat. But for most of us, there are a variety of specific challenges to face in the classroom, particularly for minority and female colleagues. Often, minority teachers report more specialized challenges in the classroom stemming from classroom dynamics that are hard to spot and to know how to address. In this workshop, we identify and address particular issues that may be of concern for minority colleagues. How do I deal with difficult students? How do I ensure diverse participation in the classroom? How should I address the various differences among students-particularly racial or gender differences-and differences between students and myself? In this workshop, these teachers will offer some tips on how to plan and facilitate classroom teaching in both large and small venues, and to be a more effective teacher.
Workshop for Pretenured Minority Law School Teachers, Conference Brochure at 3. The materials that follow served as the outline of my presentation and remarks on that panel.

Teaching Against the Demons:

It is a privilege to be here to day and share a little of the accumulation of experiences and insights that I have managed to acquire over a lengthening time within the American legal academy. Within the Yoruba and Afro-Cuban religion known in the United States as Santería, one of the principle orishas is known as Elegua. Elegua is associated with the crossroads, opportunities and life paths taken and blocked. He is said also to be a teacher, one whose lessons may be hard but necessary. I suspect that my role here today is a similar one. You stand at the crossroads of life at a time when you embark or reaffirm a commitment to a particular life path--that of the legal academic as scholar, teacher and engaged member of the community. Mine is a lesson that might be hard but may also be necessary to aid you on your journey as teachers within the legal academy in this country.

I start with a look at the road on which you travel. It is a very traditional and narrow road. This is a very conservative profession. Whatever the politics and political ideology of the members of the community of scholars--from hard left to hard right and everything in between, from activist to pacifist--together this community of scholar-teachers is quite conservative in its communal organization. Its mechanics reward and value conformity to communal norms. It highly prizes the reproduction of expectations and the performance of its rituals in the form of scholarship of a certain kind and teaching effected through communally endorsed methods. Like all communities, the community of American legal academics is concerned about the preservation of its norms and cultural boundaries. Those are expressed in a variety of forms within individual institutions. It is thus critically important to understand the way communal norms are transposed into behavior expectations within your institution before you can determine what is valued and what is dangerous where you teach.

Conformity produces a necessary consequence--a strong adherence to assimilation as a positive ideal. For many of you from other cultures, and for minority members, this word and the concepts it represents can be quite suspect. And it retains its suspect overtones within the legal academy. Especially for new or younger members of this community, there is a strong expectation--along with a willingness to reward conformity and punish deviance--of assimilation of values. This assimilation project takes three principle forms. First cultural assimilation--the assimilation of the fundamental norms of the academic community (to value what others value , and to understand the world like others do). The second is practice assimilation--to act like others in the community--follows from the first. The last is political assimilation--the expectation that once in the community you will also work to enforce its values against others.

Conformity and assimilation, as it falls on minority community members evidences a fundamental disjunction in approaches to the assimilation of new members within the academic community. For many members of the majority community coming into the academy, there is an expectation of success within the academy. The presumption here is that the person will have to prove incompetence, to actively fail as an academic. On the other hand, for many members of minority communities entering academic life, the expectations are reversed--there is an expectation of failure within the academy. The presumption here is that the academic will have to prove competence, to actively confirm the hunch of the hiring faculty that he or she deserves his or her place within the faculty. These distinctions sometimes inform, and inform in a significant way, the challenges to teaching and scholarship for minority community academics, and frames both the analysis of the issues and the approaches necessary to overcome these challenges.

For the academic from minority communities, then, the conservative orientation of the academic community, its focus on assimilation of values and practices, and the framework of expectations within which his or her contributions and actions will be measured are likely to produce substantial pressures. These pressures produce what I call the three great demons of the academic from minority communities: fear, anger and solitude.

Fear can manifest itself both as fear of failure and fear of others--that that one is not up to the task or that others are creating blockages to the successful attainment of that goal. Fear is the producer of delirium. It is what makes it harder to distinguish between quite useful critical mentoring from majority or minority colleagues, or from students, and the illegitimate attacks from the presumption of failure. This is a crippling fear that can turn the most potentially successful young academic away from a promising career. Fear is the great invisible demon to avoid.

Anger is an almost inevitable byproduct of fear. Anger is made more combustible by fear and the sense of unfairness. Anger makes it more difficult to react appropriately to legitimate interactions or to confront unfairness in an effective way. Anger indiscriminately directed at all stakeholders in the University community who help create or maintain a culture conducive to fear strengthens enemies and weakens friends. Worse, anger self directed .an weaken confidence and wear away at talent. Anger inevitably explodes. And when it does it tends to be as destructive of careers as fear, though more visibly so. Anger is the great visible demon that must be avoided.

Solitude is the place where fear and anger lead. Solitude is the great trickster. It appears to provide protection against the crippling inactivity of fear or explosions of anger. But it does neither. It is that great inchoate space tat one occupies immediately before academic death. It is the incarnation of separation that is then made manifest in the relationship between the academic and the academic community. Solitude is illusion, a false state that suggests that there is no one but you. Avoid the trickster demon of solitude.

Fear is the incapacitating force. Fear must be recognized, isolated and dealt with. Anger is the explosive force. While fear points its destructive capacity within the individual, anger destroys outward aimed at those around the individual. It, too, must be recognized, and managed. But not alone. Solitude is the magnifier of fear and anger and the staging area for a departure from the academic community--the last stage of a progress toward a fatal incompatibility. between individual and academic community. Everyone must make her peace with the community and find her place. That process for the academic from minority communities presents its own dynamics. The management of fear, anger and solitude the requires the support of the community of minority academics, their experiences and their solidarity. Utilization of the support of this community is a first and important step in assimilating to the academic community.

This is an effort that is important not only to minority but also to majority communities within the legal academy. This conference would not be possible without that support. And some of your key allies and mentors will be members of the majority community. This gathering represents such an effort. It represents an important affirmation of the academic community's commitment both to its values and to inclusion of the plural communities that make up the United States within the global community.

These ideas are particularly dynamic in the context of teaching. Teaching is among the most public of the activities of academics. It is the area in which the individual encounters students, is observed by colleagues and is judged by the community of his peers and the university community on the basis of those interactions. The effects of fear, anger and solitude are likely to surface first in teaching. It is thus a space where these demons might be confronted in ways that may be helpful, not only for an individual's teaching, but also for that individual's scholarship and service activities.

Learning to identify, confront and succeed in the context of the everyday dynamics of interactions between student and teacher is a critical to academic success. For the academic from a minority community must be performed within a framework in which race, class, age, gender, religion, social status and other socially significant markers are ever present. What follows is meant to provide some examples of the most common challenges to teaching for faculty of color and women. They serve as the basis for our discussion.

I. Illegitimate Challenges:

1. Contests for Authority:

A. Direct Challenges: Defend knowledge or opinion: (a) student challenge the basis for faculty analysis; (b) students demand that faculty provide support for analysis, conclusion, or fact statements; (c) student object that opinion has no connection to the subject of the course; (d) student argues that faculty is wrong because her statement is contradicted by something written by the casebook authors.

B. Indirect Challenges--Complaints to administration: Student, or group of students meet with the dean or the associate dean and complain about faculty member, suggesting that the faculty member is not suited to teaching the subject or the students because (a) lack of knowledge, (b) giving wrong answers, (c) unable to control class, (d) disrespectful to students; (e) does not follow the casebook, (f) add extraneous material (usually race, gender, class or other issues), (g) is not teaching law but is teaching ideology.

C. Indirect Challenges: Complaints to other faculty members similar to complaints to administration.

D. Indirect Challenges—Whisper Campaigns: students start rumors designed to cast faculty member in bad light.

2. Disrespect as Power Politics:

A. Direct tactics: (a) talking in class; (b) arriving late; (c) leaving early; (d) non-responsive students (hasn’t done the readings or can’t answer the question).

B. Indirect tactics: (a) taunting classmates; (b) student displays of prejudice; (c) putting down other students in discussion. In effect the difficult student uses other students as proxies for attacks on faculty member.

3. Discussion as a Theatre of War:

A. Offensive tactic: Cloaking hatred in open discussion.

B. Offensive Tactic: Bullying in class

C. Defensive Tactic: Silence.

II. Legitimate Responses:

1. General Responses:

A. Never, never, NEVER get angry in class. Anger represents the ultimate loss of control and an easy way for others to revert you to stereotype ("the angry African American," or the "none collegial Latino," etc.).

B. Always always turn any challenge into a teaching moment. For example, suppose a student called on to give an answer responds by saying, "sorry, I am not into the material of this course." One response might be to pause a moment, laugh, and say to the class, "thank you for that response. That is precisely what a client may tell you one day. OK class, how would you answer a statement like that from a potential client." And then move the class on.

C. Laugh.

D. Always, always explain what you are doing and why: this includes explanation of pedagogy, rhythms, personal approaches to class and the like. If students understand why you teach like you do, why you assign the materials you assign, and why you interact with them the way you do they become more comfortable and less likely to challenge on competence grounds.

E. Prepare; outline the class (specificity of outline depends on your confidence and comfort level); consider PowerPoint presentations; know the class as a whole form beginning to end and explain to class how each day's lesson fits into the larger aims of the course.

2. Specific Responses Good and Bad:

A. Insist on good manners.

B. Set and keep rules.

C. Don’t be afraid to challenge back, but gently.

D. Diffuse and delay.

E. Keep your word.

F. Empower students of color in the classroom

G. Get feedback from your students.

H. Keep your temper.

I. Enlist mentors.

J. Give credit where credit is due (especially to students).

K. Avoid fear; laugh.

L. Protect the weak.

M. Confidence.

N. No fear of mistakes—making them or owning up to them.

O. Never be afraid to say: “stop” or “please see me after class.”

P. Be who you are but be clear to the class what that means in terms of interactions. And remember that being who you are must be expressed in light of the norms and behavior conforming expectations of your institution.

In addition to the materials presented, those interested in these issues might wish to read Robert S. Chang, and Adrienne Davis, Making Up is Hard to Do (May, 21 2009), Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Forthcoming; Washington U. School of Law Working Paper No. 09-05-04.

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