I Must Teach
wrong. I came to work every day as before. I still met with alumni and donors. I
sat through the same budget meetings. I gave the same recruitment talks. But
something this spring was missing.
It was teaching. For the first semester in the
six I have served as dean, I didnít teach a course. And after my experience
this spring, I expect it will be my last.
was less disruptive when I didnít have to cancel class sessions or find guest
speakers. And, admittedly, May was a great month with zero bluebooks to grade.
But still, Iíve come to conclude that I, at least, need to be a dean who
For one thing,
what I thought would be the greatest advantage to me in not teaching never
really materialized--more time. Oh, I went into the semester with big plans.
With those extra hours I usually devote to teaching surely I could knock out an
article--or even more. No. In fact, it was more like those phantom extra hours
were simply subtracted from my life. My administrative duties took all of my
time. Iíve come to believe that administrative work, like nature itself,
abhors a vacuum. It expands to fill any available space.
didnít experience the advantages of not teaching, I really felt the loss of
some things. There are some tremendous benefits of teaching. The first is
rather obvious. It is that teaching keeps me in touch with the student body.
When I teach, I share a certain bond with the students. I am more than just an
administrative office holder; I am part of the academic enterprise. I am
grappling with ideas just like they are. And it isnít just the 65 minutes of
scheduled class. I really missed those minutes before and after class. Those are
the relaxed minutes of conversation about yesterdayís football game or the
important minutes about a medical emergency in a studentís family back home
when I could console and encourage--or be encouraged. Sure I had some moments
like that in the atrium and hallway this spring, but it wasnít quite the same.
Instead, my main interaction with students was in formal settings or when
students came with complaints or were the subject of a disciplinary procedure.
Not the student experience of my dreams!
Those informal minutes with students, too, give me a good sense of the pulse
of the student body. I can feel when spirits are flagging in the middle of that
long second semester, and I can lighten the atmosphere a bit. I can hear the
chatter when students are worried about a recent event or announcement, and I
can explain or reassure.
Teaching to stay in touch with students is probably a clichť, but it is
true. I missed it last semester.
Perhaps a less obvious benefit to
teaching--certainly surprising to me when I missed it last semester--is that
teaching strengthens my ties with my faculty colleagues. One of the most
difficult aspects of deaning for me is that to a degree I feel an a
sort of invisible barrier between me and the rest of my faculty colleagues.
As soon as I began to have authority over salaries, teaching assignments, and
scheduling, I became, in some part, to some extent, one of
"them." The problem is accentuated at our school where the building
was designed with faculty offices on the third floor and administrative offices,
including mine, on the second floor. This configuration reinforces the
subtle notion that I am no longer a faculty member, I am an administrator.
The best antidote to this is frequent, informal interaction--to go to lunch
or just wander around upstairs. But I found this semester, too, that camaraderie
is built on shared experiences, often from the classroom. I am closest to my
faculty friends when swapping humorous anecdotes from yesterdayís
class, comparing colossal classroom technology failures, and griping about
trying to meet the grade submission deadline (even if I set it myself!). It was
subtle and imperceptible, but we were not as close in May when my friends had
stacks of bluebooks in their offices and I had none. I most realized how out of
touch I was in the teaching environment when a friend mentioned that we had
three days left before Spring Break--and I had completely forgotten about it.
After all, the administrative calendar just continues. No, I need to be in the
academic trenches with my colleagues. I need to teach with them and grade with
them--and swap stories about both.
And it wasnít just students and colleagues, per se, from with which
I felt out of touch in some way this spring. It was really the academic
enterprise itself. What we do administratively as deans is immensely
valuable--but only as a means to another end. That end is training men and women
to think and write and analyze and solve problems--and to pursue justice through
professional service. And that training takes place mainly in the classroom. It
is in the classroom that the light comes on and a student suddenly understands
the workings of a complicated legal doctrine. It is in the classroom that grand
ideas of justice are promoted, criticized, and reformed.
That is not to deny that the administrative side of deaning is stimulating. A
thoughtful and persuasive budget presentation to the President and Board of
Trustees is challenging and gratifying. But lets face it, many of our day-to-day
activities as deans are meetings. That really hit home one day this spring
during a meeting of the University Academic Council (deans and academic affairs
deans of each school, as well as university Vice Presidents, and managers of
certain university departments). For the second consecutive meeting, we spent
mind-numbing time as a group wordsmithing changes to a course add/drop form. My
assistant dean sitting next to me later told me I was fidgeting like a little
child. Sure, I was. I wanted to be in the classroom!
Teaching reminds me why I am doing this job. It puts before me every day the
purpose for our building, our budget, and our committee meetings. And hopefully
it ensures that the decisions I make will better further that academic
This leads me to my the final--and perhaps most
compelling--reason why I must teach: it is simply fun. Teaching is why I came to
academia in the first place. It was not to run a business, though I thoroughly
enjoy trying to shape and lead this school. It was to teach.
The classroom is an oasis in what, in some weeks, can be a desert of unending
meetings. It is a place to explore, to challenge, to rip apart, and to
synthesize ideas. And to do it with people who, for the most part, are bright,
energetic, and highly motivated. It is a place to imagine, and to play
roles--and to figure out how the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile relates to personal
jurisdiction. It is a place of joy.
Nothing in my work life proves more satisfying (now that I no longer
litigate) than a class period where everything just falls perfectly into place,
where students walk in confused by a difficult topic and walk out with the light
on and charged. That thrill isnít duplicated for me in a budget meeting--even
a successful one.
It is what takes place in the classroom that causes a student years down the
road to remember me and write a word of thanks or encouragement--it is not that
beautifully written memo describing a new academic policy, and it is especially
not that immaculately worded add/drop form.
It was all of this I missed when I took off the Spring semester. And all of
this is why I canít wait for classes to start this fall. I have to teach.
Dean and Professor of Law,
Regent University School of Law,