Monday, May 02, 2005
More on the End of Semester: The Homily
Aside from exams, I always find the end of semester a very moving time. The school year has its rhythms, moving back and forth from hopeful to harried to resigned, among other moments. Yet I find the end of semester a powerful period of renewed commitment, a moment for taking stock, and also one of leave-taking that leaves me in a somewhat elegiac mood. For all the (real) joys and (equally real) frustrations involved in getting to know your class, it is a sad thing to teach that last class, and I am always surprised by how moved I am.
One thing I always do in my classes is to set aside 10 or 15 minutes of the last day for what I think of as my "go thou and do likewise" speech, which I change each year depending on the salient characteristics of the class. I think law and legal education should generally be demystified, but I think it is appropriate to use those last moments to remind my students of the common calling in which we are engaged, to remind them how much their services may matter to their clients, and always to encourage them to stay engaged in their studies and to believe that they are entitled to think the big thoughts about law. Most of the posters here, I assume, went to fine law schools where no students ever questioned that entitlement; some of the students, in fact, required the gentle application of a blunt instrument to the head to stop exercising that sense of entitlement for even a moment. But my experience teaching at a range of schools (first, second, and third tier, in US News jargon) is that many students are not convinced they are entitled to think big thoughts, or that they have anything to contribute; their response is often passivity or disengagement. That's a great shame, and I always use those last moments to urge them to truly commit themselves to the study and practice of law and to thank them for a powerful shared experience. I find that, far from trying to figure out when the hell I am going to let them out of the room, most students appreciate the homily, because they recognize it not as a canned speech, but as a sign of my respect for them and for our common undertaking.
I wonder whether others among you have had the same experience. Let me give credit where it is due: I still remember the exhortations on the last day of classes of Professor John Manning, then of Columbia and now of some other school, and, per my post of a while back, my own pale imitations are a way of keeping faith with those memories.
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I have very mixed feelings on the homily. I distinctly remember my contracts professor's lovely words about humility, responsibility and intellectual engagement falling on my very deaf ears, burned by a semester's worth of arrogant, nasty and deeply fake teaching. But I also remember feel very moved when my torts professor (the incomparable Jon Hanson) read from Dr Suess - "Oh the place you'll go".
Bottom line: you have to earn the right to give a homily by demonstrating the virtues you are preaching during the semester.
Posted by: Dave Hoffman | May 2, 2005 11:28:00 AM