What Do We Remember about our Teachers Decades Later?

This coming academic year will be my 20th in law school teaching. Truth be told, I don’t really need a milestone in my career to grow contemplative and introspective, as I am wont to do so under far more mundane circumstances anyhow, but this milestone is definitely doing the trick.

The grandest question that I might ask myself is what sort of difference I have made in the lives and careers of the students—well over one thousand, I expect—that I have taught or worked with since I joined the legal writing faculty at the University at Buffalo in 1999. (In 2002, I moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and am still on the faculty there.) That is a rather abstract query, bordering on the metaphysical, I suppose. A related but more concrete question that I have actually been pondering is this: Decades after someone has been my student, what will he or she remember about me or my teaching? Something, I hope! And something positive, I hope too! Is there a particular thing I said, lesson I taught, teaching technique I used, kind gesture I made, or even joke I told that will stick with them, and maybe have a positive impact, even decades later?

Thinking back to my years in college and law school, I can easily identify the most  impactful specific thing that one of my professors did. I can even remember the date—September 26, 1983—as it was my very first day of classes as a freshman at the University of Washington. The class was Political Science 101, and the professor was Reza Sheikholeslami.

After I and hundreds of my fellow undergraduate students (mostly freshmen) settled into our seats in the lecture hall, Professor Sheikholeslami, sharply dressed and looking the part, strode confidently to the lectern. He scanned the crowd of young faces. Then came his first words: “Would everyone please stand up.” I hadn’t the slightest idea why we needed to stand up, and I doubt that any of the other students did either. But, promptly and without any hesitation, we all complied. He paused and again briefly scanned the crowd. “Alright,” he said, “please go ahead and sit down.”

After we settled back into our seats and the lecture hall again grew quiet, Professor Sheikholeslami explained, “This is Political Science 101, and the goal of this course is to teach you why you just stood up and then sat down.” Being an impressionable 18-year-old, I was mesmerized.

Of course, standing up and then sitting down in compliance with a professor’s instruction does not begin to reach the level of gravity of what happened in the various societies and cultures that we ultimately studied in the course. Think Nazi Germany, for example. But the metaphor Professor Sheikholeslami delivered with his opening words was ever so powerful, and the course largely lived up to it.

Wherever I see demagoguery or other anti-democratic forces rearing their ugly heads, and people are blindly following an authority to their own detriment and the detriment of others, I think back to Poly Sci 101. (I’ll refrain from further comment on the current political climate in this country.) Moreover, in various contexts in the law school classroom, I have drawn from the simple but crucial lessons of that first class with Professor Sheikholeslami. Sometimes, in my Legislation & Regulation course, the substantive lesson about obedience to authority underlies a thread of classroom discussion. More often, regardless of the course, the pedagogical lesson—try to leave a lasting positive impression with one’s students—drives me to think more creatively about how to approach a class topic.

Among the numerous professors that I had across four years of undergraduate study and three years of law study, off the top of my head I could probably name one-third of them (a higher percentage from law school than from undergraduate, I expect).  And among those whom I can remember off the top of my head, only a handful of them sit prominently in my memory—because of how talented they were as teachers, how funny they were in the classroom, how helpful and supportive they were in one-on-one work on a research project, etc. But only one remains prominent in my memory for one particular thing that he did in the classroom: Professor Sheikholeslami.

A few years after I benefited from his creative and thoughtful teaching, Sheikholeslami became the Masoumeh and Fereydoon Soudavar Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Oxford. I was saddened to learn recently that he died earlier this year at the age of 76. I regret that I never succeeded in reaching him to tell him of the positive impact that he had on me—as a person and as a teacher.

To be sure, there are many ways to define and measure good teaching. Now that I will soon begin my third decade in legal education, what I often come back to when I ponder my own qualities as a teacher is this: What do I say or do as a professor that will stick in a student’s memory and still carry some positive influence—no matter how concrete or abstract—decades later? A fond memory of any kind would be great. A memory on the level of my memory of Reza Sheikholeslami in Poly Sci 101 would be a wonderful bonus.

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One Response

  1. I loved and appreciated this, thank you, Ben. I, too, vividly remember my very first class during my first year of college–the professor likewise opened with powerful, impressionable prose. It changed the course of my life’s intellectual endeavor. And now, as a teacher, I am often reminded of how important is our task to help guide similarly developing minds (and, to reach out and thank our teachers of bygone years). Thanks again for sharing this.

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