BY DAVID BAHARVAR
As a 1L acclimatizing to HLS, I’m still puzzling over the relationships between students and staff. The professors are a mystery, both as individuals and as a whole. In their own ways, they are each enthusiastic and zany, which is marvelous and unique to a place like Harvard. Most of my profs have encouraged us to ask them to lunch, and after most every class a few students stay behind for a couple of minutes to ask a few questions. Some profs have a much more formal manner and others don’t seem very adept at basic conversation, but they all are approachable enough. These are good signs that professors are “reaching out” to students, contradicting HLS’ reputation for inaccessible and aloof faculty.
But a strong divide remains. For instance, few students have grabbed the opportunity for lunch with a professor, and few have ever gone to office hours. It could just be too soon in the semester. Still, I wonder, is our reluctance to engage them attributable to fear that an intimate lunch discussion might revolve around the class material, or that we might embarrass ourselves by revealing some basic misconceptions we have?
I have gotten the sense that the administration and faculty are trying to change the tone of interaction with students, to make contact more casual and let us know that they value our development as human beings, not just lawyers. It is evident not just in the various new initiatives, but in the everyday actions of professors in class. It is not infrequent that, several minutes after dissecting someone’s awkwardly stumbled-out response, a professor will say something like: “Thank you for your answer. That was a good attempt, and you were on the right track.” As a very conscious add-on somehow set apart from the rest of class discussion, these belated (but appreciated) validations of student comments often seem too deliberate to be second-nature or “normal.”
Considering that so many of our professors went to HLS or other traditional elite law schools, and given the reputation of such schools for strongly dividing students and professors, are our professors trying to treat us in ways contrary to their own experiences as students?
Similar questions occur to me about the administrators, although as I have had few dealings with them so far. What do the various deans do, how do they interact with each other and, most of all, how do they see us? For now, they are a curious, neutral presence in the background of our law school experience. The other day I was having lunch in the Hark Cafeteria when Dean Clark and another colleague from his office strolled in with their trays, sat together at a table and began to have a casual meal. I considered asking if I might join them and find out what the Dean’s job was all about. What does Dean Clark see as he looks at the students at their tables, as he walks through the halls? Is he proud of the bright, multi-faceted people around him? Does he want to engage us in conversation? Or is his mind on more abstract concerns such as fundraising or on the “image” that we, as a whole, present for visitors who might be around? What worries him the most about us?
I also wonder how much Dean Clark and the various deans really know about each one of us? With over 500 students in each entering class, I doubt they can know many of our faces, especially because I rarely see them around campus. Which is probably why — besides my shyness — I decided against walking over to speak with him. I was not sure it would be appropriate, or if he was too busy despite the casual appearance.
People joke that you will see Dean Clark twice in your life: at orientation and graduation. I already know that is not the truth, but is it far from it? Or is he, too, trying to break down traditional divides? Did he come to the Hark hoping to strike up a conversation with us? No one did stroll over to his table, but maybe next time I will.
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