My Last Class at ONU and My Future as a Law Professor

Today, I taught my last class as a professor at Ohio Northern University.  At the end of June, I will be moving to Dayton to become a professor at Dayton Law School.  Just like last year, when I transitioned from being a Climenko Fellow at Harvard Law to an assistant professor at ONU Law, I would like to share some reflections and hopes for the future.

 

First, I must convey what an absolute treat it has been to teach here at ONU Law.  I taught 1L torts, a seminar on speech torts, and a small upper-level insurance class.  I taught these three different subjects in three very different formats.  My students are engaged, sharp, and warm.  They have little sense of entitlement, and they are less sensitive, more practical, and more resilient than I ever imagined.  Because this is a small school, the atmosphere is more informal than many schools, and I feel incredibly close to my students.  I am staying here in June and will come to my office to assist students who are studying for the bar.  I am invested in their progress as lawyers and as humans.

I have also learned so much about Ohio and Midwestern culture.  It’s been expanding and educational to get out of the coastal bubble I have lived in basically all my life (except my clerkship year in Memphis, which was its own magical bubble).  I now understand the struggles, and the limitations, of those who have lived their entire lives in rural Ohio.  I have a better sense of why, for better or worse, this country’s politics deviates so much from those in academia.

And I have gained a year’s worth of teaching as a tenure-track professor.  When I was a high school student, my father told me that if I can get paid to use my brain for the rest of my life, that is the greatest privilege.  I think about that often.  Not only do I experience the joy of helping students struggle through different concepts until they achieve clarity, but I have the opportunity to learn from them.  Not only do I get to read the views of astonishingly smart scholars, but I get to produce my own work, in areas I care about or find conceptually challenging and engaging.  I have always loved school.  Teaching allows me to continue to love school – and to help others love it as well.

I leave ONU with a heavy heart, because this is a wonderful place.  I am excited to begin my career at Dayton Law, where I have come to know the excellent faculty, and where I can’t wait to continue teaching (and where I have access to public transportation!).

This is a critical time in academia, especially for someone who cares about free speech issues.  Attitudes about First Amendment rights are changing, and those attitudes have justified violent protests in response to controversial speech.  Academics also seem to be polarizing in this fraught political climate.  I understand why so many fear speech – especially speech that trades in generalizations or demonizations —  because speech is connected, at some point in the chain of causation, to violence.  The key insight that may ultimately save discourse, however, is that speech is not itself violence.  The attenuation between ideas and tangible, concrete action allows us all to have a space to explore, to persuade, and to listen to others.

I hope to continue dedicating some of my career to fostering the kind of understanding and nuanced thinking that comes only when people engage with ideas they find objectionable.  This happens through dialog that is civil, respectful, and open-minded.  We as academics have a responsibility to engage with ideas on an academic level, separate from political action or organizing.  It is not always easy to acknowledge the weaknesses in your own views, your own party, or your own behavior, but it is essential to formulating more coherent views and to taking more principled action.

Often, political debates boil down to two people who have (1) exposure to different sorts of facts or experiences, which can easily be shared, or (2) differences in views about the role and fallibility of government, and the rights of the individual.  These differences must also be discussed – and disagreed on – without hating one’s compatriot and with an eye towards changing one’s own views.  The enemy of progress is static dogmatism, on any set of views.  My motto in all of my classes is “no judgment.”  If you share your views, in a respectful, well-articulated way, they are always welcome.  Academia is a world of ideas, and I will never tire of being a citizen here.

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