April 13, 2008
The Ideal Law Professor
I have done a lot of thinking over my career about what makes an "ideal" law professor or dean. I have been thinking about this more lately after Professor Michael Hunter Schwartz's call for nominations for his "What Best Law Professors Do" book.
Because the idea of "ideal" would need to consider the variety of experiences and learning styles of law students and faculty, the example would need to embody broad principles of learning, leadership, and professionalism.
Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series is the ideal law professor. While not the most immediately lovable of characters, over time, she demonstrates commitment to student learning, student professionalism, and leads Hogwarts through some tough times without compromising her dignity or losing her strength. She is committed to student learning even when it means she won't be liked by her students. She is not afraid of imposing discipline or dispensing tough advice if that means she will be bettering the student, the school, or the community. A commitment to broader principles of learning and professionalism means sometimes making tough choices with uncertain results, but she makes those choices. She is not afraid of honesty, and honestly admitting "I don't know". She will stand up for what is right and not try to make the issue "gray" in order dodge the fight and to make her life easier. Harry, Hermione, and Ron were frequently disciplined by Professor McGonagall for their exploits, but she was also the person they turned to when they were frightened, needed help or guidance.
And she believes in her students, in their potential, in their commitment to being great. This is perhaps the core value of a great professor. Sometimes numbers and letters do not demonstrate the potential for greatness, and it takes a true educator to see greatness between the lines.
I realize comparisons with Harry Potter are culturally biased and overdone. I was watching Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets last night while I was at the gym, and thought about some of the universal messages that make the books and movies so popular. My choice of Professor McGonagall was also informed by personal experience; McGonagall was the nickname given by some of my classmates to a real law school professor who embodies all these characteristics. Impressive comparison since the real professor is not British and looks nothing like Maggie Smith (she is much younger).
FInding my ideal is a part of my professional growth. When stuck in a tough dilemma, my father jokingly asks me, "What would X do?" I am far, far away from reaching my ideal, but it helps to have a reference point, a guiding star to help me find my way through personal and professional challenges.
Hopefully Mike's book will not only help law students, but help us all find our ideal.