This winter term, the visiting professor who taught my 1L Torts class is back at Harvard to teach an Environmental Law course. I took the opportunity to sit down with him and ask questions about visiting, practicing, and Harvard then and now:
LD: So first off, you’re a visiting professor here, and I was hoping you could tell our readers what that means.
RL: Harvard brings in a lot of visiting professors every year, some for a year, mostly for a semester, and some for the winter term. Sometimes they’ve got a regular law professor who is on leave somewhere, but I think most of the visitors come in because they’re teaching something that the law school thinks is particularly interesting, and they would like to add it to the curriculum. It provides real enrichment—they have a lot of additional classes that otherwise wouldn’t be offered.
LD: Now, I should probably tell you that the readers of this blog, whether they know it or not, have actually heard something about you before, because you featured prominently in a post I did a few weeks back about the Socratic method! So I thought I would ask you now, what’s your take on the Socratic method, how does it help you teach, and should admitted students be afraid of it?
RL: Well, I tend to use the Socratic method in the first year of law school. I don’t tend to use it in upper-level classes. And actually, I found it was very important to me as a law student, being taught by the Socratic method. It was only intimidating because I’d never talked in front of such a large group; the only intimidation was the pressure I felt from my peer group. I don’t think it’s the job of the teacher to add to the pressure of it. I think it’s very important to find your voice, and the Socratic method is a good way to help people find their voices. You see, for a lot of students, it’s very hard to talk. And once they’ve been called on, and once you’ve then referred to something they’ve said in class, then they tend to raise their hands. And the other thing I do is let students know that if they’re very worried about being called on, to let me know. And we will actually privately work it out. The student will know what case I’m going to call them on, and they’ll know the questions. And the rest of the class doesn’t know. And it’ll be just two or three questions, and we’ve broken the ice, and they’re fine for the rest of the semester.
LD: Well, when I blogged about this, one of the things I wanted to get across was that students should not always expect the pure, pure Socratic method. So many professors have a system where you can tell when you’re going to be called on. And it sounds like even with you, one of the most purely Socratic professors we had, there were exceptions
RL: Yeah, there were exceptions. But you’re right, I try not to give any notice of who will be called on, and I try to move around a lot. But I try to do it in a way that’s pretty supportive. And what actually determines a lot is the students in the class. The professor plays a big role, but the students play a huge role. I can tell you, one thing that I saw is that when you put 80 Harvard Law students with all the talent and all the experience they have in one classroom, it is extraordinary the comments that are made, the things that are brought in.
LD: So one of the last things I wanted to bring up is that, like so many of our professors, you balance being a professor with having a real-world legal practice. And I was wondering how you think that affects your teaching?
RL: I do a lot of regular, sort of standard law review scholarship and the rest, but I like to practice a little bit. For me, I like to do Supreme Court work, and there’s no question that it enlivens the classroom. I think my Supreme Court advocacy actually makes me a better teacher, just because there’s an overlap in skills. The other thing, of course, that makes it more fun is that whenever I’m doing a Supreme Court case, I try to wrap it into the class.
LD: And it also seems like through your practice, you know other practitioners. So we got to have the Wyeth v. Levine case be such a big part of our Torts class, and for probably a full year afterward, we were so intimately connected with something in the news and truly knew something about the legal issues behind how it was playing out.
RL: Well, you saw the moot court, you talked about the brief, and you met with the advocate in the case….
LD: And do you feel like a professor who was too, sort of, ensconced in academia wouldn’t be able to bring things like that in?
RL: Absolutely. And the thing I like about doing things like that is that at most law schools, most of the time, what the students do is read Supreme Court cases. And what I like to do is bring them into the decision-making process. So when they read the opinion, they see much more there: they see how it got there, what the arguments were, what the court could have done, what the nuances are.
LD: Well, my last question—and interestingly, one of the commonalities now between the two professors I’ve interviewed for this blog—is that you were once here at HLS as a student as well, and I’m curious what is the biggest change you’ve seen at the law school since that time.
RL: Hmm… I think the biggest change I’ve seen is in student-faculty contact. When I was here, I had a fabulous time, but what really made it fabulous was my fellow students. I don’t think that’s changed, but we had very little contact with faculty. Today the class size is the same as when I was here, but the faculty is probably twice as large. And there are all these clinical programs that we didn’t have, all these fellowships that we didn’t have, all this post-graduate stuff. I think it is such an extraordinarily student-friendly place.