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Dean's Desk: Dean excited to teach, interact more with students this semester

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dean-newton-notre-dameI am sitting at my desk, back from vacation, swamped under the combination of the paperwork that accrued while I was gone and what seems like an unusual amount of pre-term work. I am realizing that I am also just four weeks away from teaching a four-credit contracts course for the first time in 10 years and wondering “What was I thinking?” Although some professors can glance at their notes, stroll into class and conduct a brilliant session, I’ve always been the kind that has to review everything, rewrite my notes and build up a certain level of anxiety before teaching, like the actor who falls flat if she doesn’t experience stage fright. In other words, I’ve signed up for what could be a world of pain in the fall semester of 2013.

A rational person might wonder why a dean would add another 15-20 hours to her already burdened schedule. The answer is simple: Having just been offered (and happily accepted) the opportunity to continue as the dean for another five years, I know that teaching again will enable me to be a better dean. First, being back in the classroom will be energizing, reminding me why we are all engaged in legal education, and especially why it is such a joy to teach first-year, first-semester courses and help 1Ls move from stumbling over the unfamiliar procedural terms and language (who remembers wondering what the heck “assumpsit” is) to a growing confidence in their analytical ability and early efforts to flex their rhetorical muscles.

And the cases tell such great stories! The cotton farmers who feel “sick as an old hound dog who ate a rotten skunk” when the price at the time of delivery of their forward contracts skyrockets; the good ship Peerless; the unfortunately formed nose … . I could go on and on.

But apart from the pleasure teaching brings me (and hopefully my students), teaching will put me in much closer touch with some 60 1L students. Strengthening communications with the students has always been an important goal, but for a teacher used to lines of students outside her office, lines of communication between me as the dean with law students have been much harder to open.

I’ve tried them all: So-called “town hall” meetings don’t really work, unless there is a controversy that draws a crowd. Scheduling around classes is an issue, and after-hours attendance by busy law students is often disappointing and not representative of the class body. Emailing information is ineffective (unless the email offers a job or states a bar deadline). I’ve also scheduled “coffee and bagels with the dean,” inviting students to come to a breakfast to discuss whatever is on their mind before heading off to classes. But here too, attendance is generally sparse. An afternoon session featuring cookies was also lightly attended. On the other hand, those students who attended seemed quite happy with the conversation as well as the food.

I’ve taken small groups of students to lunch, and it is great fun to get to know the group in a relaxed setting, away from the law school, but it’s not really possible to take all our students to lunch. I have also had interesting conversations with those students who visit me in my office, whether to share a concern, ask for advice in their job searches, or just visit.

But a student who might be eager to seek me out to ask why the buyers were able to get specific performance of the cotton contracts is reluctant to take the time of the dean to ask about other matters. In other words, none of these outreach efforts have provided the kind of daily contact with a fair cross-section of the student body that teaching a class can provide. And none include the joy of teaching students how to read the Uniform Commercial Code (Yes, Virginia, you do have to read every word!).

How could a code provision requiring assurances to be given in writing be enforceable without one? How can a field built on the notion that promises must be kept tolerate the notion of efficient breach? These and other puzzles require far more than the ability to memorize. They require an appreciation of history, of the theories of statutory interpretation, of business practices, and economic theories, and the great moral principles underlying the reasons we enforce promises. And in the wide-ranging discussions we have in class and office hours, I will learn so much more about students and they will, in turn, feel much more comfortable raising issues with me that go beyond contract law.

I can hardly wait!•

__________

Nell Jessup Newton is the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  2. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

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