Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Perfect Nanny

The process we use to select candidates to interview at the hiring confab reminds me of the Banks' family search for the perfect nanny in the movie version of Mary Poppins. Hiring committees hold in mind a perfect colleague that differs sharply from our students' ideal. Mr. Banks is preparing a nanny wanted ad when the Banks's children, Jane and Michael, musically propose their own in the song, The Perfect Nanny: "If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition. Take us on outings, give us treats, sing songs, bring sweets." They play their sole card in the nanny hiring game: "If you won't scold and dominate us, we will never give you cause to hate us . . . ." Mr. Banks shreds Jane and Michael's effort and tosses it into the fireplace. A sudden change in barometric pressure draws the paper up the chimney and into the world. Out there, magic happens. Despite the determination of Mr. Banks to hire a sensible and firm nanny who will teach the children their duty and proper decorum, Mary Poppins arrives.

Like Mr. Banks, law faculties discount students' view of the perfect faculty member for good reasons. We know what students really need (castor oil). We know that in most jobs that must be done there is no element of fun whatsoever. We want colleagues that will push students to face their shortcomings, perform beyond their own expectations, and develop the discipline they will need for a career filled with sacrifice for clients. We want these traits in each other even though our students don't because we know that firmness, consistency, high standards and and tough love makes students stronger and delivers a bankable return for their tuition dollars.

In the movie and in the Mary Poppins books, Mr. Banks at first views Jane and Michael solely as a project to be managed by the right sort of agent, out of his sight and mind. Mary Poppins arrives and changes everything. She is a catalyst. She draws Mr. Banks into the lives of his children and helps him see that they long for his approval, deserve his respect, and need his attention. Mary Poppins knows, as we all do, that although she is magical, she is no substitute for a father.

Mary Poppins would probably make a bad law teacher in the long run. With Mary at the podium, law students would quickly experience the diminishing marginal returns of sweetness and singing. I think that all of us, students and faculty, idly dream about the magical hire that will change us all for the better. I am too cynical to sustain the fantasy. Mary Poppins never seemed to me to be a good investment, even though she surely charmed the Banks. With the next change of the wind, she left -- for a higher ranked school.


Blogger Nancy Rapoport said...

Brava, Marie--that's the best description of the faculty hiring process I've read yet!

10/04/2007 4:41 PM  
Blogger Kelly J. Bozanic said...

As a student (not yet cynical), I crave the Mary Poppins professor. Professors who infuse life, perspective and joy into their teaching are effective. Perhaps Jane and Michael learned more from Mary because they enjoyed the process. Perhaps her purpose for a law faculty would be to shake things up, and that can be necessary and wonderful. In the end, if "Prof. Poppins" does leave for the higher ranked school, we would still be better for having had her at all.

10/05/2007 10:02 PM  
Blogger Alison M. Kilmartin said...

The hot breath of Big Law is breathing down my neck. I know that I perform better under extreme circumstances than ones of comfort. So, while I may think I want Mary Poppins, I am afraid I would do better with her evil twin sister!

10/11/2007 10:29 PM  

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