Adrian Vermeule, Professor in the Law SchoolBy Peter Schuler
Hes one of the clearest and most thoughtful professors Ive encountered, said third-year student Crista Leahy in praising Adrian Vermeule, Professor in the Law School and this years recipient of the Law Student Associations annual Graduating Students Award for Teaching Excellence.
Vermeule is a recognized scholar on constitutional law who clerked for Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court as well as Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He is the author of numerous articles that reflect his intellectual interests in legislation and administrative law, in addition to constitutional law.
I teach intuitively, Vermeule said. To the extent that I have a pedagogical theory it would be something about promoting a democratic ambiance in the classroom. Vermeule regards the Socratic method, the bulwark of traditional legal teaching, as objectionable because it creates a kind of hierarchy between the teacher and the student and is ineffective with the students we have at Chicago. Were dealing with sophisticated, responsible adults, so I try to set a tone that we are equals engaged in collective deliberation and discussion about both the descriptive and normative aspects of the law.
Vermeule cited philosopher and educator John Dewey, founder of the University Laboratory Schools, as a source of inspiration. Dewey said that democracy should be understood as organized intelligence, and I think thats a good description of a well-run classroom, Vermeule explained. We pool our collective judgment and thinking about how the law can be made to work well. We follow Deweys basic, pragmatic idea that we should figure out locally how to solve the problems that are bothering us, and the broad themes and theories will emerge from that process.
The students honored Vermeule for his teaching of Administrative Law. He also teaches Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure. All three are fundamental courses in the Law School curriculum. Vermeule has been on the faculty of the Law School for four years and is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
Saul Levmore, Dean of the Law School, who also is often praised for the quality of his teaching, said, It is terribly exciting to enter an elevator and hear our students engaged in conversation following a Vermeule class. He has them thinking rather than imitating. And as much as his own style is fabulous, there is nothing better than seeing students moving forward on their own with insights from his class. So imagine my pleasure at learning that students themselves appreciated what they had. This award reminds us not only that we have yet another great teacher in our midst but also that our students are discerning and deserving.
Vermeule tries to instill an interest in the legal system from the viewpoint of a designer rather than a practitioner, which most students in his class will eventually become. The challenge is to help students see that a full understanding of the legal systems design will greatly enhance their ability to craft legal strategies when they become working attorneys, Vermeule said.
There are a number of giant legal minds at the Law School, said Leahy, but it is still a treat to encounter someone whose teaching skills are comparable to his legal scholarship. Professor Vermeule conveyed to us that there are few clear answers and that even someone in his position must always think critically about the issues and be open to learning from classroom dialogue. He challenged students to think hard about their positions and to acknowledge the flaws and inconsistencies in their arguments. And he did it all with the proper mix of seriousness, wit and comedy.