In August 2003, my career as an assistant professor of business law/ethics at Xavier began. It was a striking leap from the Hamilton County Common Pleas bench where I presided as a judge for the previous 14 years. While deciding to leave the bench was weighty, listening to my heart made the choice clear. Now, having completed my first academic year, I feel I am home.
I always wanted to be a teacher. As a girl, I coerced my brothers into playing school—you can picture their enthusiasm—and through college I intended to pursue a doctorate and teach at the college level. Forces prevailed, and I landed in law school with no regrets. My legal career afforded many teaching and writing opportunities, some appreciated, some not.
Still, after a few (OK, many) years of law, I found myself a novice in a new life. At first I felt like Superman in the presence of kryptonite—no more judicial powers, privileges or immunities. No wealth of experience on which to fall back. I peppered my in-house “experts” (five college-age daughters) with questions. Should I use PowerPoint? Cartoons? Lecture v. interactive?
It is truly humbling to know almost nothing about one’s environment, procedures and terminology let alone subtleties like culture and personalities. Being a member of the department of accountancy did not enhance my comfort level; I need an interpreter at meetings. The warmth with which the Xavier community received me and extended help, resources and encouragement, though, is something I hadn’t experienced. It’s not necessary to share a colleague’s zeal for 15th century Czech artifacts or understand Greek literature. What binds everyone together is a passion for teaching and being part of a community truly focused on educating students toward full, rich, responsible lives.
Day-to-day life is entirely different, too. For instance, supply-side economics, not political gaffs, evoke laughs. When someone says, “I was in Indianapolis last weekend,” I’m learning to comment on the Xavier basketball game and not ask if they have family there.
Scheduling is also challenging. As a judge I had about 15 feet of rope to patrol, from my chambers to the bench, under the watchful eyes of my trusty bailiff, gatekeeper and sidekick, Norma Walker. She once blocked the door and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?” after observing I donned my black raincoat instead of my black robe.
Analogies also helped me adjust: Many similarities exist between academia and law. Both student papers and legal briefs run the gamut of brilliant to painful. There are campus characters as wonderful as courthouse ones.
In contrast to my previous daily courtroom visitors, the students are, for the most part, glad to see me and are not in handcuffs. They ask the most unbelievably obscure legal questions and, unlike the lawyers who had the decency to wait for the court of appeals to contradict me, they unceremoniously correct me immediately. Even some of their discouraging comments make me laugh, like an e-mail I received: “Sorry I missed class; did you say anything important?”
Every day there is something new happening on campus. We even have a Segway, propelled by a professor in a tie-dyed lab coat and flashing helmet. He’s promised me a turn. It seems I’ve laughed more in one week here than in the last 10 years.
Probably what rivets my attention the most is the window the faculty and staff have to the students’ lives and thoughts. Sometimes it comes in the form of sharing their excitement about an idea or opportunity. Other times it is more poignant: missing a quiz because of a parent’s illness, a paper on discrimination against diabetics, a sensitizing workshop on sexual harassment. The responsibility of their trust weighs heavily.
The ominous learning curve I am facing pales when compared to the sheer thrill teaching at Xavier gives me. It’s a heartening, supportive, mission-directed environment that is consistent with my personal values and compass.
Hopefully I will have time to accumulate the information and expertise I need to excel as a teacher. If things go optimally, in six years I will be eligible for tenure and in 12 full professorship. I wonder if by then grandchildren can get a tuition break?
Ann Marie Tracey is an assistant professor of business law/ethics.