Professors and My Expectations

I came to HLS from a Ph.D. program, and one thing (among others) that immediately struck me as being very different about law school from a graduate program in the humanities was the nature of the relationship between students and their professors.  In a Ph.D. program, students tend to interact with their professors in way that in some respects resembles a peer relationship.  The professors are of course much more accomplished, more knowledgeable in their fields, and often more talented, but they nonetheless tend to have relationships with their students that are both less formal and more collaborative than the student-faculty relationships found in law schools.  The fact that Ph.D. students tend to call their professors by their first names is one mark of the relative lack of formality; a student calling a law school professor by his or her first name is, in my experience, virtually unheard of.

Moreover, the relationship between faculty members in humanities departments and their graduate students tends to be not as one-directional as it is in law school; that is, knowledge doesn’t travel exclusively in the direction of professor to students, but rather professors, at least sometimes, value the contributions and insights of thire students, as these may be helpful in the development of their own work.

There are some good reasons for the differences in faculty-student relationships found across disciplines.  Probably the primary point is that law students are necessarily beginners in their field of study, whereas Ph.D. students come to their programs with typically a fair amount of background.  Also important, however, it seems is a tradition and culture of formality and performance in law school education.  When the paradigm of law school instruction is something like a Paper Chase style Socratic session, faculty-student relationships are bound to be on the formal side of things.  Perhaps the formality of these relationship plays a part in developing what has always seemed to me to be the extremely reverential even borderline idolatrous way in which some law students view their professors.

All that being said, professors at HLS have surprised me in another respect: they have consistently been outstanding teachers.  I guess I had expected HLS professors to be largely unconcerned about their teaching performance, focusing instead on their research and other endeavours.  I knew that HLS professors would be leading scholars in their fields, but I do not think that it occurred to me that they would also be such devoted teachers.  The professors I’ve had through my three years have not only been very talented instructors, but they have seemed to  care genuinely both about their own teaching performance and the success of their students.  I attended college at a liberal arts institution that prides itself on teaching quality, but even there I did not find the professors to be as skilled and thoughtful about their teaching methods as those I’ve encountered at HLS.

During my time here numerous professors have ended their courses with offers to act as resources for their students through their careers: if you ever run into a problem and need some advice, they have said, you should feel free to be in touch.  These offers, whose sincerity I do not doubt, reflect the professors’ devotion to their roles as educators and to me they are an instance of HLS operating at its best, as a community.

Perhaps I’ve been lucky, and I have made a particular effort to choose professors who are rated highly (despite their problems, see, e.g., this, course evaluations have proven to be very useful), but informal surveys among my classmates have tended to reveal that many of them feel similarly.  I imagine that few people make it through three years at HLS without compiling a not-so-brief list of things they would change about the law school if they could.  I can honestly say that for me the professors would not be one of them.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Monday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

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