The Quality of Debate
bc law dean john h. garvey
Sacrifices and Joys of Teaching
The Dean reflects on what he loves about his chance to connect with students
I am reminded every spring that the reason I got into the academic business in the first place was that I wanted to be a teacher. Being a dean is a different sort of thing, and I love that too. But in the spring semester (or on our more unconventional schedule, from February 23 to May 19) I get to teach a first-year course in Constitutional Law, and I confess that it is still my favorite activity.
I have a class of ninety students, one-third of the entering class. We meet three times a week for sixty-five minutes to learn about judicial review, legislative and executive power, and federalism. The students are usually disappointed at first to learn that we don’t study the bill of rights in this Constitutional Law class (that’s Con Law II). But they quickly find that the daily paper is full of the stuff we are reading about: Can Congress impeach the President for having an affair? Can the Supreme Court decide who won the election? Can the President bomb Iraq without a declaration of war? Can Massachusetts forbid New Yorkers to get married in Provincetown?
The thing I didn’t anticipate about teaching, in my youthful daydreams, was how much I would enjoy it. Big classes like my Constitutional Law class have a very different character from small ones. In a seminar I speak in a lower tone of voice. There is less distance between teacher and student. The discussion is a conversation.
Being in front of ninety people is like being on stage. I talk in a loud voice. I’m more willing to make a fool of myself for the sake of making a point, and when the students laugh it’s wonderful. There is much more of that now than there was when I was in school. Perhaps it’s because the Socratic method, once a kind of hazing, is more humane.
The ironic thing is that I myself am no more comfortable teaching than I ever was. It takes me an hour and a half to prepare for class even though I wrote one of the books. I come with one page of notes on the points I want to cover (usually five or six) and some of the questions I want to ask. I always have a cup of coffee with me. Students may think it’s an affectation. In fact, it’s because my mouth gets dry when I’m nervous. I have a knot in my stomach, and I can feel it relax on the last day of class. Not that I dislike the experience. Quite the contrary. But, like being on stage, it’s a thrill you can’t appreciate until the show is over.
I have a standing offer to buy lunch for students, and once or twice a week a group of three or four will take me up on my offer. This event is for me a really delightful opportunity to get to know even better a small number of the students in my Constitutional Law class. I wish I had a comparable occasion to get acquainted with the other two-thirds of the student body. There is no substitute for the connection one makes with students by teaching them.
When I taught my first class I was twenty-seven years old and some of my students
were older than I was. I was the product of the culture they grew up in. Now
I’m twice as old, and surely more out of touch, but I have come full circle.
My students are the age of my children, some of whom are in graduate school.
For the first time in a while I feel as though I understand, at one remove,
what they are thinking.
My students pay a price for my education. I try hard to avoid travel out of town on class days and during office hours. For the last few years I have missed most of the University’s Council of Deans’ meetings on Thursday mornings because they conflict with my class.
But some things are hard to avoid. Two days before our final exam last semester I was in Washington, DC. During the day, I was at a meeting of the American Law Institute, and I spent the evening answering students’ questions by email. The situation reminded me of those unconvincing assurances you read in parental help columns— how you can lead a busy and fulfilling life while still raising normal children if you multi-task and spend quality time with them. I hope my modern, online adjustment to fulfilling my obligations works. Teaching my class certainly makes my life happier. And it is an irreplaceable opportunity for me to get to know the people for whom we run Boston College Law School.