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5 QUESTIONS with ABF Research Professor Elizabeth Mertz

February 8, 2016, ABF news

Elizabeth Mertz, an ABF Research Professor, and John and Rylla Bosshard Professor of Law at University of Wisconsin (UW), has won the UW campus-wide 2015 Doris Slesinger Award for Excellence in Mentoring. She was recognized at a reception in December for her generous contributions to the professional development of female colleagues. Professor Mertz is a legal anthropologist; her research at the ABF focuses on the examination of legal language and education in the United States. We sat down with her to talk about the award, and the often overlooked value of mentoring in law and academia.

Congratulations on the Slesinger Award! How did it feel when you received the news?

Mertz (M): I actually got the call when I was at the AAA meetings in Denver and I had no idea I was even nominated! I had tears in my eyes because it just meant the world to me. I knew that the women from the law school who had nominated me are always so incredibly busy, and that they had to have put time into this that they couldn’t afford. I’m so humbled and touched; and really, I have gotten easily as much from my mentoring relationships as I’ve given. This was more important to me than other academic honors I’ve received because it’s about relationships and values I care about a lot. I'm really proud of being a part of institutions- both UW and the ABF- that stand for those types of values. In my career, I've been lucky enough to be able to choose to be at places that care a lot about access to the legal academy and profession- and about building a more just society in general. They care about developing ethical, high-quality, and high-standard workplaces for academics and scholars – and about welcoming young people from all walks of life into our field. It's really nice to be able to believe in the place where you work. The ABF is a place that's mentored so many young people, and I'm just one of a whole bunch of people here who do it. That's something I think the whole institution should be proud of.

What does mentoring mean to you, and why is it important in your profession?

M: Mentoring is not a one-time thing; it’s not like you mentor somebody for a year, and then that's it and you go on to mentor somebody else. You can end up working with people on and off for a long period of time in their career. Sometimes they come back to you for help when they're older.  Like a lot of people at ABF, I respond as much as I can to younger scholars or colleagues who come and ask questions and want help, although of course there are always limits to how much any one person can do. One of the things the ABF does not get recognized for as much as it should is the level of that kind of work that people here do.  They tend to be quiet about it because they don't want to go out and wave a flag and say, “Look at me! I’m doing this!” Part of being a good mentor is that you aren’t doing that. It's pushing the other person out to where they can be seen. It’s about them, not you. It often ends up being a very quiet growing relationship. I know so many of my colleagues here at the ABF are deeply involved in mentoring-- people like Laura Beth Nielsen, Carol Heimer, Shari Diamond and Bob Nelson – well, I can’t even really name everyone. Susan Shapiro is very generous in working with our graduate students and I didn't even know it for years! So that's the kind of thing people don't know about the ABF. A lot of people here are supporting and encouraging young people who want to combine law and social science in new and high-powered ways. How can really good social science and a professional-level understanding of law be brought together? Scholars at the ABF are a great resource for young folks tackling those problems, because we understand what people are going through when they’re trying to accomplish that.

What has been your most memorable mentoring experience?

M: There isn't any one that stands out over another. I think it's just the times that you get to really understand what somebody else's passion is, and to help them figure out a way to bring that to life. It’s really some of the most rewarding work I do. I love it because it's a relationship.

You were once on the other side of that relationship- a mentee. Tell me about that.

M: I’ve had some great mentors, like so many others, so a lot of us think of it as passing it on. Being a part of a community of scholars is a gift that you should pass on. I’ve had some great female and male mentors that were all very important to me. My dissertation advisor was a young woman at the time – she went on to be President of the AAA. She took me on and I found her incredibly inspiring. She was very energetic and helped me to see that you can be a forceful and intellectual woman, and succeed in our profession. I clerked for Judge Cudahy on the Seventh Circuit, and he was a great mentor too. He took us all very seriously and expected high standards of us. I found him to be another major inspiration. Again, I hate to start listing names because there are so many people to mention!

You have mentored both male and female colleagues, but you were recognized in particular for mentoring women faculty. Do you think mentoring has an impact on the professional advancement of women in our field?

M: It's very important for women to know that other women have made it. I think it's encouraging for them to be able to talk to someone who has been through some of the same issues. It's also important for men to mentor women, and women to mentor men, so that we all understand each other’s situations. As a woman, I do understand the special challenges a lot of women scholars- and especially younger women- face in the profession. Also, scholars of color face special issues in the academy. I do work on that in my research, but it really brings it to life when you're talking to someone, and working through how to handle different situations they might face that take them by surprise. People think of the academy as an ivory tower where everything is just about the ideas. And it's not. It's a workplace like any other. There's politics, there's quiet expectations that some people know about and others don't. So I think it's important to make our profession as accessible and democratic and fair as possible. Everybody should have access to what they need to know to thrive. 

The Doris Slesinger Award for Excellence in Mentoring is presented annually by the Women Faculty Mentoring Program, a UW-Madison campus initiative that seeks to support and retain women assistant professors through mentoring by tenured women. Professor Mertz was chosen from a long list of nominees across all UW-Madison departments, and she is the first professor from UW Law School to receive the award. The award was presented to her at a reception for newly promoted and tenured women on Dec. 9, 2015 on the UW-Madison campus.

Some comments from Professor Mertz’s mentees:

"I could not have asked for a better mentor at the beginning of my career,” said ABF Doctoral Fellow Matthew Shaw. “…She has encouraged my work and pushed me to think deeply and creatively not only about how my work contributes to law and society, but also about the community and contributions I want to make to the academy.”

“As a mentor, she combines a powerful intellect with kindness and attention to detail,” said Joseph Conti, assistant professor of sociology and law at UW, and a mentee of Mertz during his time at the ABF.  “I found working with her not only incredibly helpful but also motivating.”

“Beth mentors with a finely-tuned recognition of the special and unique challenges women of color face in the law professorate,” writes UW Law School Professor Lisa Alexander, in a letter of support for Mertz’s nomination. “She not only researches these questions, but she also puts her solutions to these problems into practice through her mentoring.”

“It bears mentioning that Beth not only has helped her mentees develop their socio-legal scholarship, but also has helped many of them develop professionally in other critical ways by, for example, inviting them to workshop their scholarship at places like the ABF,” said UW Law School Professor Thomas Mitchell. “…As one of the many people who has benefited in enduring ways from Beth’s mentorship, I am really happy that the UW-Madison recently presented her with a campus-wide mentoring award for her selfless work… Beth, you are truly a gem.”

Riaz Tejani, assistant professor of legal studies at University of Illinois Springfield and a current mentee, wrote the ABF about his experience with Mertz. “Over the years, for so many of us, she has led by example, educated through her writings, and counseled with her uniquely pointed candor,” Tejani writes. “‘Mentor’ only begins to describe what Beth has been for me intellectually and professionally. Beth is a life-force, and I am so glad to see her honored in this way.”

Posted by: Cheyenne Blount

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