How to Make Professors Happy, Says a Professor

Oh, goodness. Another year, another round of people asking me what professors can do for Harvard Law School incoming 1Ls. As if I have a clue!

I mean, all the school asks of you 1Ls is that you take 18 credit hours in the first semester, 5 more than you’ll typically take in your 2L and 3L semesters. All we ask of you is that you memorize the names of 79 other people in your 1L section, learn your way around a new campus, learn to think in a wholly new way, etc. And it’s not like we’re in a hurry. We give you 13 whole weeks to do it.

So I really don’t have much of an idea how to help you coast your way through the relaxation that is first semester 1L. So, let me talk to you about what I do know about. Which is what the help you can give to us. Meaning we professors. No one ever asks us what WE want. Or what we NEED.

You have to understand. We professors are fragile creatures, delicate and sensitive. You see, we have the most secure paychecks in the world. Short of committing a felony we probably can’t be fired. So we don’t have money to worry about.

And we don’t have to worry about how people outside the bubble we live in perceive us.

And finally, in terms of what we do day to day for our jobs, mostly, we think about whatever we feel like thinking about; sometimes we even do some writing. So we don’t have to worry about what we’ll do each day at work. On some mornings, I don’t even put on pants.

Think about the lives we lead. We don’t know what to worry about. Each day, we wake up and, mostly, do what we want. Can you imagine how stressful that is? Not having to worry about anything? Not everyone could handle it.

Except there’s one thing we do worry about. A lot. We worry about what you think. What you think . . . of us.

If our paychecks are secure, if our status in the outside world is secure, if our day-to-day job consist of being able to live with ourselves, then how do we know that we are cool? Who decides that? Us? How would we know? We don’t have a clue what’s cool. How would we, when we don’t get out very much. No, it comes down to you. What you think. You are the adjudicators of our cool. If you decide you we are cool, well, then we are cool. If you decide that we aren’t cool, then we don’t know what to do.

So what can you do to comfort us? How can you make sure that we don’t hide under our desks to cry? Here are some things that you can do, illustrated with some personal experiences to show you what it all means.

1. Recognize our old movie quotes

Three years ago, I worked the R.O.U.S.’s into one of my civil procedure hypotheticals. I looked around, expectantly, and . . . crickets. The year before that, it was the phrase, “There is no spoon.” I got . . . blank looks from 5/7ths of the class. Mind you, these were both totally unplanned, improvised. Can you appreciate the arête involved here? I was devastated.

2. Learn to appreciate people like Hegel, Foucault and Bentham

Apparently, these people were cool. Mind you, I’ve never read a word any of these folks have written. From what I hear about them, I’d rather be buried in a pile of scorpions than do so. I tend to prefer the philosophy of Parker & Stone — I just blame Canada for everything. But apparently, for most professors around here, these people and others like them are cool. And you have to pretend like you care about them. So, do. Oh, and do the same thing with Oliver Wendell Holmes. We must all worship his lunchbox.

3. If you can count, keep it to yourself

As Barbie put it so eloquently, “Math class is tough!”. If you can count, don’t let us know. If you feel the need to take a derivative at some point, do it in the privacy of your own apartment – or closet, if you live in Gropius. Wherever. Basically, it makes us uncomfortable that you can do something that we’re so bad at. Like socializing.

4. Feed us

You can eat pizza, Thai, sandwiches, or cookies for free every weekday simply by attending lunch events put on by group after group after group vying for your attention. Meanwhile, we professors have to starve (or bring our lunch). Think about it. You could invite us to these events. That way, we too, could put on 580 pounds on the famous Harvard Law 1L First Semester Diet.

There are probably some other lessons here, but I think you get the idea. Keep all of this in mind, and you can really help us out. Help us to feel cool.

Oh, and if you’re looking for real advice for the 1L first semester, it was available last year. Go here:


D. James Greiner

D. James Greiner is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. This fall, he will be teaching Civil Procedure to Section 2.

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