Uncovering Secret Allies: How Humility Can Lead to Great Relationships
here it was – a four page jumbled mess of handwritten comments, scribbled in my professor’s handwriting. From big circles to choppy notations, my grade came as a terrible surprise. There was no “A”, nor was there even a modicum of grace or tact in the wording of her critiques. My first year research and writing professor had simply said what was wrong, why it was wrong, and that I needed to fix it. I was crushed.
Then it came. A second attempt at drafting a legal memorandum during my fifth week of law school. And again, it was an inconceivable slap in the face when I received yet more criticism about my writing. What was so ‘wrong’ about my writing? After all, I did so well in college and no one ever said my writing needed work. I started to think that maybe this professor simply had it out for me. I internalized my problem, and despite numerous meetings to review my work, I still could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Like others in my class who were having similar problems, I began disregarding what I heard in her class and going to other professors for advice on how to improve. Needless to say, this did not make matters any better. My next grade was just as bad. Finally, I wised up and met with her again. This time I came prepared to stay as long as she would let me, and I set my mind to a new goal – understanding what I was doing wrong, not what I thought she was doing wrong.
This was the key. Don’t ask me why I finally decided to approach it differently or what made me try again, but I am glad I did. I let down my guard and explained that I simply was not getting exactly what she was trying to tell me. I showed her the samples I was reviewing, explained the other advice I was getting, and even compared my last draft to some of the samples. Then I asked her to walk me through it step by step just one more time. I can’t say my final grade in that class was perfect, but I eventually got what I was missing and I excelled on my final assignment. I did very well the next semester, and sure enough, I became a better writer.
From following through on what I once perceived to be a negative relationship, that same professor hired me to be one of her teaching assistants during my second and third years of law school. Beginning my 2L year, I worked closely with her and other writing professors to mentor and tutor new students. I began to see how some students built mental blocks that hindered their progress. I would desperately try to show them how to develop their analysis in a memo or reformat their trial briefs, and they would come back to me with a poor grade and a worse attitude. Many would shut down and begin blaming the faculty, the assignment, or even me. I finally saw things from my professor’s vantage. Over those two years, I gained valuable insight into effective writing, but really, I learned how easily we defeat ourselves through our own pride, stubbornness, or even arrogance.
More importantly, however, I found a great resource and friend. My professor has repeatedly offered professional support, personal advice and assistance, offered references, and helped me through the difficult process of finding employment following law school. This once perceived foe has truly become one of my greatest allies. Undoubtedly, some professors may be every bit as distant and difficult to read as I once thought she was, but more likely than not, that professor is just speaking a language you haven’t yet grasped. Likewise, the one who repeatedly makes you feel stupid in front of the class probably has no ill feelings toward you; rather, he or she is teaching you to think under pressure.
The moral of the story is that your professors generally want you to learn and be successful. Humble yourself, don’t take criticism personally, and give them the benefit of the doubt when possible. You may just find that the professor who tore apart your grammar today is the same one who will recommend you for a job tomorrow. And the one who just embarrassed you in a large class may be the same one who makes that call to help get you a prestigious clerkship. Most people, professors included, begin a new relationship as a clean slate. It is what we do and how we perceive events that determine whether they will ultimately become our allies.