ACBA President Lori McMaster offers a glimpse into the life of a legal academic

February 14, 2020
President’s Message By Lori McMaster

I come from a family of educators and was raised believing in the transformative power of education. My father, James Wilson, was a professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. My paternal grandmother was an elementary school teacher in Wilkinsburg, and my grandfather taught carpentry. My uncle was the founding Headmaster of Long Trail School, a private middle school/high school in Vermont, and my sister taught English in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for many years. My sister-in-law is a professor and Associate Dean at the University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology. My brother and I were the black sheep in the family because he worked in federal law enforcement and I became a lawyer!

To say that I have a healthy respect for teachers and professors is a gross understatement. I brought that sense of awe with me when I enrolled at Pitt Law in the 1980’s, and marveled at my professors. I often wondered: How do they DO this? (My first-year professors were Dean John Murray, Arthur Hellman, Larry Frolik, Alan Meisel and Welsh White, so needless to say there was much marveling going on in those classrooms!) Just to understand the law seemed enormously challenging; to teach it well seemed a singular intellectual achievement. I loved law school and considered my professors akin to rock stars.

I know many other bar association members who share the world of law professor fandom, so I decided to reach out to a few beloved law professors at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University in an attempt to peel back the curtain and explore what it’s like to be a law professor. Professors Rhonda Wasserman and Pat Chew of the University of Pittsburgh and Associate Professor John Rago of Duquesne University were kind enough to indulge my fangirl tendencies and answer a few questions. Below are the questions I posed to the professors; I hope you enjoy this small glimpse into the life of a legal academic!

Why did you decide to become a law professor? Wasserman: I had the great privilege of serving as a research assistant for two wonderful professors while I was an undergraduate student. They were captivating teachers and creative researchers doing important work. In addition to teaching and conducting research, they counseled students, helped develop university policy and performed community service. Their varied and interesting work lives inspired me to consider becoming a professor. But I had been interested in law from an early age; so I went to law school and practiced law for several years before pursuing a position as a law professor. Rago: I came back to the law school as an assistant dean after my federal clerkship ended with Judge Lee. Dean Cafardi had just been appointed and he asked me about the position. I began to suggest some names to him and he interrupted me to say … No, John, I’d like for you to take the position. I was stunned. For my first year back, I was still afraid to go behind the library desk without permission! Nick was and remains a dear friend and that is how it began for me in 1993. As far as the teaching part, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many of my former professors who encouraged me to teach after I returned. John Sciullo, Ron Ricci, Ray Sekula, Mike Streib, Nick Fisfis, Kellen McClendon, Bob Taylor … every one of them, among others, helped me along the way. Chew: It’s the best job in the world!

How did you go about training for the teaching aspect of your role? How does one learn to teach in the Socratic method, for example? Wasserman: Students in Ph.D. programs often serve as teaching assistants while earning their graduate degrees and get lots of teaching experience before they become professors themselves. Law students, on the other hand, typically have little or no teaching experience. Like many other law professors, I developed my own teaching style by borrowing from professors I most admired or whose styles most appealed to me and consciously rejecting the classroom approaches that turned me off. Rago: Maybe my memory is off a bit, but I am pretty sure that I prepare for my classes now much more than I did when I was a student. From many of my colleagues and especially those mentioned earlier, I learned the importance of preparation and how it translates to the classroom. I was so lucky to be able to lean on my colleagues for so many years (and still do) to get their help or opinions. I can’t blame any of them for my shortcomings, but I sure can thank them for whatever it is that I do well. Chew: I had some great teachers at University of Texas Law School as role models. Then LOTS of preparation and enthusiastically sharing my interest in the material with the students.

How do you put together a curriculum? How do you decide what to include and exclude? Wasserman: I ask for casebook recommendations and syllabi from other professors teaching the same course – both inside and outside my home school. After carefully reviewing the suggested casebooks, I pick one and then craft a syllabus, drawing ideas from the syllabi of others and often supplementing the casebook readings with additional articles or cases. Usually I make significant adjustments to the syllabus for the second year, depending upon the first years’ experience. Rago: I closely watch what appears on the bar (exam), and I try to anticipate where the examiners are heading. I think we serve our students best – especially in the first year and core courses … when we cover black letter law, but we also want to be sensitive to the need to help our students on a holistic level to become practice ready. You find the right casebooks, the right supplements, and you keep an eye on current events that help to animate the pages in the readings. Hopefully, it all comes together, but not without some deep thought and reflection in the preparations. The bar exam is a focus point for me. I think that is one of our strengths at Duquesne … we pay close attention to the bar. But I realize that law school is more than a three- or four-year bar prep experience. When you teach a code course, for example, you have to be selective on what you cover. There are plenty of rabbit holes that may be interesting, but you only have 14 weeks to cover 1200 or more pages. Yikes! I try to blend in common law principles where I can – theft crimes, for example – because, often times, the common law approach is the perfect teaching tool/entry point for a particular line of cases. Chew: What’s most important to a future practitioner; what I think is most important and timely; bar exam coverage.

What is your teaching style? (Socratic? Informal?) Wasserman: My style is a relaxed, modified Socratic style. I do cold call on students – by their first names – but I also rely heavily on volunteers. I ask questions and often stick with one student for several successive questions. I try to be supportive and encouraging, rather than intimidating or cold. Rago: I’d say I am much more informal. I know the Socratic method is important, but I never much was impressed by professors who use intimidation or try to ‘hide the ball’ under this method. Years ago, I asked myself … what’s the point? Why are we here? These students are paying a lot of money to be here and I’ve settled on my charge as being certain to cover the material that they need that prepare them for the bar and practice. Hardly profound I know. But I struggled finding the best approach before arriving at this conclusion. Whether I am wrong or right … who knows. But our bar results are strong! I also want them to become self-confident in their views … so there is no problem when they push back in class (or outside of class). I enjoy that! I can’t teach judgment, but hopefully I can encourage them to feel confident enough to exercise it. Chew: Socratic, informal, being myself and engaging and enjoying the students in our conversation.

Have you needed to adjust your teaching style based upon the learning styles of recent law school graduates? Or based upon generational issues you’ve observed with recent graduates? Or for other reasons? Wasserman: Several years ago, after having read the results of research on students’ attention spans, I decided to videotape short lectures that, in prior years, I had delivered live in my first-year civil procedure class. Now, students watch the videos outside of class and they can pause the videos, replay portions of them, or watch them more than once, at their convenience. We use the freed-up classroom time for Q&A about the assigned cases, hypothetical problems, and policy discussions. Rago: What constitutes good teaching is never a finished construct. I think I learn something new about myself and the material I cover and our students every week. I think we have to keep our minds open to new ideas/methods, etc. when we teach. Chew: I’ve tried to innovate depending on what is most effective for the students; as they change, I try to innovate – but I also balance that with what I think is the best teaching method for me and the material.

How do you address your students in the classroom? By surname or first name? Wasserman: I address students by first name. I think it’s less formal and more comfortable than surnames. When I first started teaching in 1986, however, I addressed students by last name. I was not much older than my students then (in fact, I was younger than some of them) and I was one of very few women professors in the school. At that time, I wanted the students to call me Professor Wasserman – an indirect acknowledgment of my authority as professor – and I felt I owed them the reciprocal courtesy of calling them by their last names. Rago: I like informality. I approach every class with the idea that all of us – in the room – are partners. In many ways, I hope we teach one another. As long as we all are respectful of one another, and we are, I am happy engaging with my students at any level and in any manner – hopefully with a good dose of humor from time to time. If I don’t have a half dozen laughs (or more) each class, I am doing something wrong! Whether it is inside or outside of the classroom, I never take for granted the privilege we have to be mentors for many of these folks. Their needs, often times, go beyond the materials we cover. Family crisis, health concerns, job concerns, and more. I love our evening division and I am especially drawn to helping them as fully as I can. They are a remarkable bunch, year in and year out. (All of our students are remarkable!) I am lucky to spend time with them. I also love working with our talented administrative staff and all of the support folks at the law school. Many of them are dear and lifelong friends. Our new Dean, April Barton, is a bundle of positive energy and I know good things will continue to happen at Duquesne Law – for which I am grateful. Chew: First name unless the student prefers something else. Students seem to prefer the informality.

How do you ask students to address you in the classroom? Why? Wasserman: I don’t ask students to address me in any particular way. They almost always call me Professor Wasserman (presumably because that’s how law students have referred to their professors for generations). Now that I’m much older than all my students and have a reputation as a professor and a scholar, I rarely feel a need to assert my authority and no longer care if they call me by my first or last name. Chew: Students seem to naturally use Professor Chew even after they graduate and I encourage them to call me by my first name.

How do you learn your students’ names? Wasserman: Poorly. I’m very bad with names and not so great with faces. In an effort to learn their names, I circulate a seating chart at the beginning of the semester and ask students to sit in the seats they select on the chart. I also invite my first-year students to lunch (in small groups). I find that if I get to know them a bit outside of class, I’m better able to remember their names Rago: One at a time. In a relatively small school like ours, that’s one of the benefits, especially for me. Chew: This year: I’m taking a photo on my iPhone with their name in front of them.

What is it about teaching law that you most love? Wasserman: There are many things I love about teaching law. I love the students’ idealism, their commitment to justice, and their openness to new possibilities for change in the world. I am continually inspired by them. It’s fun helping students master new skills, new tools, even a new language and watching as they put these skills to good use in summer jobs, clinics, and upon graduation. Rago: I have many colleagues who are over-the-top fun to be with. Our future is in good hands with all of them. I love working with the evening students. I admire their tenacity, dedication and grit. But let me again add that I admire and enjoy working with all of our students. They are inspirational for me. They have fresh ideas and present new challenges. They keep me sharp and stirred up! I should add, too, that even after graduation, the friendships remain strong. When the student succeeds, we all succeed. I like to think that all of us at the law school play an important role in helping our students to make their lives and their families’ lives better, and by extension, the lives of many others they will serve throughout their work. I don’t want to sound phony about this … but it all is like an extended family for me. Chew: The many ‘a-ha’ moments that come with preparing and teaching the subject. It’s like a puzzle where the policy, laws and their real-life implications all interconnect.

What is the funniest thing that’s ever happened in one of your classes? Wasserman: For better or for worse (and it’s probably worse), very few funny things have happened in my classes. I’ve embarrassed myself innumerable times by saying that I had, say, three points to make (perhaps in response to a student question or comment), and then forgetting what the second and third points were by the time I finished the first. Rago: I am not so sure it is funny, but my reaction was ridiculous. Many years ago, I had a woman student in the evening program come up to me at break and said she would have to leave class at the break. I asked if she was OK and she told me … her water broke and she was going into labor. I asked one too many questions!! I nearly fell down the steps walking her to the door to be picked up by her husband. I was far more nervous than she was. No surprise. Happily, everything turned out just fine. Chew: A ceiling light in the front of the room literally exploded and fell down in torts class. No one was hurt, but we discussed liability issues under a negligence claim if hypothetically we were injured and sued the law school, manufacturer, installer, etc. It was like I planned it … but of course I didn’t. Accidents happen unexpectedly.

All my best, Lori.