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Barack Obama's Law Student Tells Wonkette All About Professor Obama
So we got this email (addressed to Andrew Sullivan) from a guy who claims to be "a former student of Obama," and he shares exciting details of the Obama Classroom from a dozen years ago. Do you want to read this? There are parts about how well dressed Professor Obama was, compared to the usual Law School slobs. And this "former student" account was supposedly written by an "Adam B," yet a "Martin Rosenberg" sent the gmail! So much intrigue! (UPDATE: All figured out, as Adam B. writes us to say he posted this on Daily Kos in 2007! Okay, then, let's read it!
from: Martin Rosenberg
date: Wed, Jul 30, 2008 at 12:20 AM
subject: From a Former Student of Obama...
It was 1996, and there I was, in a seminar room with maybe fifteen students, not knowing that I was learning from the man who might be the next President of the United States.
To understand Barack Obama as a professor at The University of Chicago Law School ("on leave of absence"), you first need to understand a few things about law school in general, and UChicago in particular:
1. You don't actually learn the law in law school, at least not at a school like Chicago. Law school is for training you to think through arguments like a lawyer would, and to give you a lay of the land in various fundamental legal areas. Put another way: after spending two quarters studying Contracts with Richard Epstein, I had no idea how to actually draft a contract.
2. There is no "lecturing" in a law school, and anyone deriding Prof. Obama for his "senior lecturer" title is a fool. Law school classes are participatory and interactive, whether through the formal Socratic method or through more informal conversation.
3. Compared to its peer institutions, Chicago is smaller than all of them except Yale. Only about 180 students in each entering class, compared with more than triple that at Harvard. Small faculty too, which means that it really is a small community huddled in a building designed by the same guy who did the Gateway Arch for a long, cold winter. You get to know each other – the faculty's offices are in the library where we spent much of our time, and you see people everywhere, including the weekly Wine Mess, an informal cocktail hour (and occasional upside-down margarita shot contest site) that forms the bridge between the school week and the brief respite before you start studying again the next morning.
4. Compared to its peer institutions, Chicago is more conservative than all of them, both in terms of faculty and student body. But it doesn't lead to a divided or divisive experience – indeed, you live with and hang out with your ideological opponents, and they are never your "enemies". Through debate, you learn to sharpen your own arguments, and the friendships really do last. So, yes, my friends do include former Clarence Thomas clerks, Senate Republican aides and the next generation of young conservative professors. But that's okay.
So: after the first year of law school, which is all core curriculum and mandatory (save one elective), Chicago has no requirements other than that you take legal ethics at some point, and that you do at least two "substantial pieces of writing" through seminar courses or journal works. If you want to graduate without studying Constitutional Law, Tax or Corporations, you can do that. Want to avoid any contact with International Law, or Intellectual Property? I did.
Spring quarter of my second year, I took Voting Rights and Election Law as a seminar with Professor Obama. Now, let's be clear: in a school with a lot of Somebodies – Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Cass Sunstein and David Currie – he was a relative nobody, and even compared with other younger faculty, it was Larry Lessig and Elena Kagan who had more of the hype. But Obama was teaching a course in a subject I wanted to study – at a point when I realized that law school was too short to be spent in classes that felt obligatory – and that made it an easy decision.
And he was ... different. For one thing, better dressed. Sleek sweaters and blazers as opposed to ill-fitting, coffee-stained suits with mismatched ties. But he was also less formal, more relaxed – he never taught the class as though he knew the answers to all the questions he was posing and was just hiding the ball from us until we could find them. Confident, sure, but never cocky.
What's more, he taught Voting Rights in a different way than others do. He didn't use a textbook, for starters, but rather had us each purchase an eight-inch high multilith of cases, law review articles and statutes that he had personally compiled. And they weren't all the "big" cases either – no, our class started by reviewing some early-19th century cases about the denial of the franchise, so that as the course moved forward we saw "voting rights" not as some static thing to be analyzed, but a constantly- and still-evolving process to be affected. Over the course of a few months, we studied changes in the franchise, changes in the rights of political parties, campaign finance law and redistricting, among other topics. We learned the law, but we also learned it on the level of real-world impact: based on a whites-only party primary, how many people would be denied a voice? What kind of policies would result from such a legislature?
[Mind you, he was running for the State Senate at the same time. Honestly, I had no idea. Law school is something of a cocoon, and he never brought his outside life into the classroom.]
Much in the Chicago tradition, he wanted all voices to be heard in the classroom, and when there a viewpoint that wasn't being expressed or students were too complacent in their liberal views, he'd push the contrary view himself. These classes were conversations.
And the conversations extended outside the classroom. I spent plenty of time in Prof. Obama's office, talking to him about the paper I was working on. Just the two of us, one on one, with him always provoking me to think deeper, work harder ...
... and keep it real. During my senior year of college, I had written a 100 page honors thesis on racial gerrymandering, mostly focused on the original understanding of what "representation" meant, arguing that to properly understand the Federalist Papers and John Stuart Mill meant that representatives had to each filter the views of their constituents, and that you couldn't have a process in which the legislature decided which groups were guaranteed seats in Congress, and so therefore, the whole process of guaranteeing "majority-minority districts" in contemporary America was wrong.
Prof. Obama taught me to think about it differently. He made me look at this as a real world issue, and not as a theoretical construct. And in that world, unless some voices are physically present, they won't be heard at all – and in the real world, legislatures are drawing their own maps to accumulate power, largely for incumbents. In other words, don't just be principled when everyone else is being pragmatic – fight for your principles with a pragmatic approach.
So, yes, I then spent 20+ pages demolishing what I spent a hundred building just two years before. Why? It reminds me of this courtroom scene between Denzel Washington and the trial judge in Philadelphia:
Judge Garrett: In this courtroom, Mr.Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion, and sexual orientation.
Joe Miller: With all due respect, your honor, we don't live in this courtroom, do we?
Professor Barack Obama reminded me that whatever my beliefs were, I'd have to find a way to implement them in the real world if I wanted to make change happen. Good lesson. Great professor.
Oh, and I only got a B on the paper.