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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Celebrating Kent Greenawalt

I'm at Columbia Law School today, at a festschrifty celebration of Kent Greenawalt on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into teaching. Kent's contributions to legal scholarship over that time have been (and still are: he has one book coming out soon and another in draft) voluminous and influential. They have also covered such a wide range of subjects that it has proved impossible to do them justice in one day: the panels today, on law and religion, free speech, and legal interpretation, do not cover his important work in criminal law and in many subjects within jurisprudence. My friends Marc DeGirolami, Andy Koppelman, and I talked about Kent's enormous contributions to law and religion--and both Marc and I speculated about whether Kent's spirit and approach might be less common and less welcome under current conditions, in which there is a lot of heated disagreement and polarization around some very basic premises of the law in this area.

Let me say a couple of words about Kent as a teacher. I learned two important things from Kent, one directly and the other indirectly and by experience. When I came to Columbia as a graduate student in 1996, I was interested in law teaching, although I thought that ifthat happened, it would be in Canada. So I paid attention to the different models of teaching I was seeing. What Kent excelled at, in the seminar context in which I observed him, was listening to student commments. It sounds easy enough, but like many simple things it is still a skill, one that is harder to do well than it looks and that needs to be developed.

Teachers are human. They are trying to run the class; to make sure that certain key points are conveyed during each class; to keep the whole course on schedule. Sometimes, as a student speaks, they are listening with some portion of their attention, but also thinking about whether that comment takes the class off-track, how to get to the next point in the lesson plan, whether and when to politely steer or cut short the more long-winded or off-topic student; and so on. Being human, and in many cases not un-fond of their own ideas, words, and voices, some professors may be thinking impatiently about what they will say next and barely hear the student at all. Kent was sincerely interested in what students had to say. He would, where the comment was not clear, work with the student to dig out exactly what he or she was trying to say. He responded to each one with care, always parsing and refining and pushing back, always respectfully. He treated each student as a full fellow participant in an important ongoing conversation. He provided a wonderful model.

In trying to emulate Kent, I have found that it's harder than it looks. It's not hard to care about what students have to say: I learn from them all the time. But it's hard to have enough background knowledge, and immediate access to that knowledge, to offer a worthy response to varied comments; hard to keep one's attention undivided by the usual administrative matters; and very hard--as my students can attest--to do all this without blowing up the syllabus.

Kent also taught me a great deal about the duty and pleasure of repaying personal and professional debts to others. With two other teachers that year, Kent changed the trajectory of my life. Insofar as there was not much I could do for him, my repayment consisted of trying (imperfectly, to be sure) to help others--current and former students, law students elsewhere, junior colleagues, including some profs I had never met but whose work I admired--as Kent helped me. It is in doing so, or trying to do so, that one realizes that this is a core professional duty--and discovers that it is also one of the great pleasures of one's teaching life, enriching and sustaining in a way that scholarship itself is not, however much I may enjoy writing. That said, it is a great pleasure to be here today to repay a portion of my debt to him more directly. The whole of it is beyond reckoning.

(Comments are welcome, but Greenawaltiana only.)


Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 14, 2015 at 02:30 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


When I was in the Peace Corps many years ago, the library at the Peace Corps office had a copy of Greenawalt's book _Conflicts of Law and Morality_. As I was starved for any sort of philosophical writing, I picked it up and read it very eagerly, enjoying it quite a lot. Reading it was one of the contributing factors for me in deciding to apply to law school, so I suppose that, even though I've met him only briefly, only after the fact, and only a couple of times, Greenawalt should get some of the credit, or blame, for my path since that time. (I think the book has been somewhat neglected, but it's worth give consideration to.)

Posted by: Matt | May 15, 2015 12:38:42 PM

Great post, Paul. What a wonderful event. Even those of us not lucky enough to have been Kent's students in law school can and do learn from him.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 15, 2015 10:20:19 AM

Agree about Kent's judicious, gracious weighing of competing points of view, in writing and in person. To adapt Bogart's line in Casablanca: "We all try [here, to be fair to others]; you succeed."

Posted by: Tom Berg | May 14, 2015 5:49:50 PM

Agreed with all of that, but you forgot to mention the powdered donuts, which were served with milk or cider in any session at his home. Bakery treats are an important part of any good seminar, I learned. Or maybe that was an innovation of the new century?

Posted by: BDG | May 14, 2015 5:23:04 PM

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