Recently, I agreed to take part in something called Speed Mentoring at a national conference of law professors. Its purpose was to help young women law faculty by pairing them with more experienced professors in multiple and brief rounds of face-to-face interaction. Just like speed dating, complete with exchange of business cards for follow-up if one desired. For various logistical reasons, including the fact that there were more experienced mentors than our younger counterparts, some of the mentoring ended up occurring in small groups, rather than the planned-for dyads.
It was a worthwhile experience from this side. Young women, sorting their way through the minefields of career and especially, it seemed, tenure, seeking advice from us sage older crones. Afterward, I wondered if my advice had been so wise when I realized that it often differed from those of my mentor-colleagues.
When a young professor asked how she should choose the topics of her professional scholarship, I replied that she should pick subjects of her own abiding interest. Writing is hard work; writing law review articles is all that, and can be tedious as well. My seatmate disagreed. “Write exactly what they (the tenured faculty) want you to write, ” she said. “Don’t give them any reason to reject your tenure by writing about unconventional topics in unconventional journals.” The second mentee was trying to choose between offers of employment from two law schools. My seatmate told her to choose the higher ranked school, even though it was situated in what I thought a dull location. I started asking her questions about how important her environment was to her. Did she prefer an urban or rural life? Was the rank of the school determinative?
It went on like this for most of the hour. Afterwards, I thought that these young women certainly heard a variety of viewpoints which might help them sift through their dilemmas. Oddly enough, I did not disagree with the truth of anything my mentor-colleague said. All the stranger, then, that my own answers were so different.
After some reflection, I realized that my colleague was probably giving some good advice about how to have a successful career, and my own responses were more about how to have a successful life. And that the two are not synonymous. Having had a satisfying career that yes, included tenure, I certainly do not discount the value that career has added to my life. Yet I am also aware that while I was not immune from careful plotting in my own tenure process and beyond, I think I felt that something more integral to my happiness was part of the equation. Which means I published some unconventional pieces because I wanted to, and took pleasure in them. To those who asked if I wanted to remain at a third-tier school for the rest of my career, I continued to choose Vermont, for the beauty, for the students, for the rest of the life that I had constructed here.
I found my colleagues answers true but sad. Does career success, which we all want, have to depend on acting as others want us to, fulfilling everyone’s expectations but our own, allowing others’ value judgments to substitute for our own? If so, we end up with just that–careers, but not necessarily lives, joyous and self-determined.