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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Adventures in the Law School Classroom

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In my forty-plus years of teaching some strange things have happened in the law school classroom other than the routine educational missteps. This post describes some of the more memorable incidents.





In January of 1970 I began my teaching career at the Indiana University Indianapolis School of Law, and that first year (and before a move into an impressive new building) the school was housed in a very old and even charming structure that was rumored to have a colorful past (theater, bawdy house, etc.—who knows the truth?). I was teaching an evening course in Contracts, and we were located in a rather large classroom on the third floor. Even though it was January the classroom was far too warm because all the building's heat migrated straight up to this room, making us all sweat. So three large windows were open in the back of the room, which allowed an adventurous crow to swoop into the room and see what was going on. The class laughed at the antics of the intruder, who tried to land on the suspended light bars, only to find them scalding hot, sending the bird loudly caw-cawing as it buzzed both students and teacher. It was impossible to hold class with this cacophony going on, and, nonplussed, I had no idea what to do. I was a very new teacher (not yet one month into the job), and all I could come up with was to muse aloud whether the bird was a raven about to pronounce "Nevermore!" to my teaching career. The students, bless them, were on top of the situation. One of them yelled, "Turn off the lights!" which another, sitting next to the switch by the door, promptly did. With the only available illumination now coming from outside, the crow made a hasty exit, the lights came back on, and, to my relief, we returned to the law of offer and acceptance. But that particular classroom must have been jinxed—before the semester ended the blackboard suddenly disengaged itself from the wall one evening and collapsed onto me. Luckily nothing other than my dignity was injured, but still . . .



The large classrooms at Ohio State have no windows, which can cause problems if the electricity fails, leaving the room in absolute blackness.  When that happened in my class once, I proceeded to tell an amusing legal story that lasted about ten minutes, finishing just as the lights came back on.  Professor Michael Rose of the OSU law faculty once called on a student just as the lights went out, causing the student to comment, "Well, professor, without the lights I can't see my notes."  Just them the lights returned, whereupon the student promptly added, "Now that the lights are on I see I don't have any notes."




In the 1982-83 school year, I was a Visiting Professor at the University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco.  At the start of the second semester in January or 1983, my course in Secured Transactions turned out to be over-subscribed and at the last minute I was given a larger room.  I was told by the administration to go to the old classroom on the third floor, and as the students arrived for the first class to direct them to the replacement classroom down on the first floor.  I did this, and informed the assembled students that I'd be down in just a few minutes after I had gathered up the stragglers.  So the students left for the first floor and I followed them about five minutes later.  To my horror (and due to a scheduling error) there Professor Smith's tax class was already in the first floor room, and these students, grumbling, had been evicted by the larger number of my students, who'd apparently told them to claim the now-vacant third floor room.  As I was standing outside the classroom, trying to decide how to handle this, Professor Smith came ambling along.  With embarrassment and an apology, I explained to this very nice man what had happened, and watched him walk off bemused on his way upstairs to find his wandering class.  By the next day, when my class met for the second time in the larger room, I found the whole incident amusing, and told my students that I was proud of the "Secured Transactions Army" and its victory of yesterday.  I added that if any of them knew of an even better classroom, just let me know and I'd send them out to take it by conquest.



One snowy February day a fire occurred in my OSU classroom just as I was making some fascinating point (once again it was a Contracts class).  Here’s why that happened: in those days there were electrical sockets in the floor of the classrooms, supposedly covered by round metal plates that screwed tight over the sockets when not in use.  Of course, as years passed, the metal plates sometimes disappeared, allowing debris to accumulate in the electrical wiring.  On this particular day a male student's boots dripped water from snow into the exposed socket, which caught fire and sent a five foot tall jet of fire into the air, coming up between his feet and causing him to fall over backward in his chair.  We all looked at this pillar of fire, burning like something from the bible, jaws dropped.  The downed student scrambled out of the way, and I heard myself mumble, "Perhaps we ought to leave the classroom NOW!"  We all quickly did just that, and as we exited I noticed a fire alarm in the hallway.  I pulled the lever and an overly-loud clanging invaded the building.  I noticed that Professor Albert Clovis was conducting his Contracts class in the room next to mine, and in spite of the deafening noise he was still lecturing.  I pulled open his door and yelled, "It's a real fire, Al!"  At this he frowned, and then waived a hand to shoo the students out of the room.  By the time the firemen arrived the fire in my classroom was reduced to just smoke.  It also turned out that if you pull a fire alarm you get to fill out a lot of forms and talk at length to a stern fire chief, describing exactly what happened.



A couple of stories about plants (not the botanical kind, but the "ringer" kind).  Professor Rose, mentioned above, once had to take care of his eight year old daughter during the day time, so he brought her to class and she sat in the front row, coloring in a book as he taught his tax course.  At one point the students were stumped by his question, and he looked annoyed as he said, "Everyone should know the answer to that one, even someone untrained in law."  At this he called on his daughter, and, without looking up from her coloring book, she recited the answer he had had her memorize before she came to his classroom.  In a similar incident at Indiana Indianapolis Law School, Professor Lawrence Jegen, also in a tax class, was asked by a student if Jegen would mind if the student's wife came to class the next day.  Jegen gave his permission, but as soon as the student left his office, Jegen called the home of the student, talked to the wife, swore her to secrecy, and, like Professor Rose's daughter, gave her the answer to a tax question that baffled her husband when he was called upon the next day.


But my favorite "plant" story occurred at OSU back in the days when we required all students to take a course entitled "Introduction to Tax Law" in their first semester of law school.  One year, by happenstance, the initial class the new students would attend was this very course, taught by Professor Phillip Sorensen, and he posted a notice that they should study section 61 of the Internal Revenue Code (the definition of "income").  We had a visiting professor from the University of Moscow that semester, a young man in his 30's whose name I forget (nice guy—I taught him the rules of American football on one of the walks across campus we sometimes took), but for purposes of this story let's call him "Gorbachev."  On the day of the first class, with the students nervously waiting, Professor Gorbachev walked into class, strode to the front of the room, wrote "Section 61" on the blackboard, and then turned to the class and began lecturing in Russian!  The students were flabbergasted.  A hand went up after a minute or so, but it was that of Professor John Quigley of our faculty, a plant in the first row, and he asked a question in Russian, to which Gorbachev made his only statement in English, "Good question!"  After a bit more of the incomprehensible lecture, Phil Sorensen, who had been sitting in the back of the room, got up, interrupted the proceedings, introduced himself and the two other professors, and confessed it was all a joke.  Much later, when I learned this had occurred, I asked Phil if it was true, and, with a guilty smile, he allowed that it was.  Hmm.  Like most practical jokes it's funny in the retelling, but was not amusing to the victims at the time it occurred.  Imagine being one of those students on the first day of law school as you're worst fears are realized immediately: you don't understand what's going on even slightly.  I asked Phil how the students reacted.  "Ah," he said ruefully, "they never forgave me—not even as alums."
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Related Posts:
"How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
"The Socratic Dialogue in Law Schools," January 31, 2010
"Clickers,” March 17, 2010
"Women in My Law School Classroom," January 8, 2011
"One More Story From Law School," February 27, 2011
"With Tim in San Francisco---1982-1983," August 6, 2011
"I Hate Meetings," October 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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