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Cultivating A Balanced Life

by jane whitehead


A student favorite, Dan Barnett received the Boston College
Distinguished Teacher Award in 2004.
Photo by: Nate Kenyon

Barnett nurtures legal minds, heirloom vegetables

Some law professors display photographs of Supreme Court justices in their offices. Professor Daniel Barnett has pictures of seventies TV sitcom stars and a retro Monkees lunch box identical to the one he had as a child growing up near Yosemite, California

Barnett’s fondness for pop culture is matched by his enthusiasm for teaching, a profession he fell into almost by accident when he moved to Boston in 1990 and took a one-year post at Boston College Law School in the Legal Reasoning, Research, and Writing (LRR&W) program. From the start, Barnett loved teaching, and what he had envisioned as an interlude before returning to legal practice evolved into a career for which he proved to have an exceptional aptitude, in recognition of which he received the Boston College Distinguished Teaching Award in 2004.

LRR&W is a demanding class that trains students to read, write, and reason like lawyers. “It’s all analytical,” says Barnett, and students, used to processing information at warp speed, have to re-learn to read slowly, word by word, line by line, to look for nuance as well as the global picture. As a teacher, Barnett’s hardest task is providing feedback on the five major assignments that form the core of the year’s work. “It’s a huge investment of time, so you want to make sure it’s good,” he says of the critique he offers on drafts of a variety of practice-focused legal documents.

Within the legal writing profession, Barnett has become something of a guru of critique—for over ten years, he has run a highly regarded workshop for new teachers at Legal Writing Institute conferences. The national recognition gained by these workshops, says Jane Gionfriddo, director of the LRR&W program, is undoubtedly a factor in the program’s high ranking—eighth in the country—in US News and World Report (2006 edition.) A tireless innovator in his own teaching, this year Barnett experimented with giving students feedback in the form of voice comments electronically embedded in their draft papers. “It’s been a technological nightmare,” he admits, but it’s forced the students to engage with the conceptual issues rather than mere editorial changes. This is just one illustration, says Gionfriddo, of Barnett’s “unique gift for teaching in a way that allows students control over their own learning.”

If he retired tomorrow, Barnett would head for the south of France, where he makes regular guest-lecturing appearances at the universities of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. Teaching American contract law in French, says Barnett, is one of the toughest things he has ever done. “Suddenly, my accent seemed very strong, my lack of vocabulary was awful,” he laughs, remembering his first class. French students, conditioned to take notes during two-and-a-half-hour-long lectures, were initially “freaked out” by his interactive teaching style, but once they got the idea, he found it difficult to keep up with their enthusiasm and their native tongue advantage. “Classes took me days to prepare,” he says, “but the food’s so good it makes it all worth it.”

In addition to teaching and the pursuit of fine food and wine, Barnett’s energy goes into his Jamaica Plain neighborhood, where he is active in community politics, and the vegetable garden of his farmhouse in the Berkshires, where he grows what he calls “yuppie potatoes” and heirloom squash. If one measure of a balanced life is the ability to be equally at home critiquing a summary judgment or advising on organic pest control, then Dan Barnett has achieved an enviable equilibrium.
—Jane Whitehead