David Strauss, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor in the Law SchoolBy Jennifer Carnig
David Strauss says he did not enjoy his own years in law school very much, but his students may have had a different experience—they just named him the winner of the Graduating Students’ Award for Teaching Excellence in the Law School for the fourth time.
“My goal as a teacher is to maintain rigor in the classroom but not fear—I want students to be engaged and serious, but I don’t want them to be afraid to make a mistake or to try out an idea that’s not fully formed,” says Strauss, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor in the Law School. “The best discussions I’ve had, both in the academy and with practicing lawyers, happen when people ask each other the toughest Socratic questions but feel comfortable giving answers that might not be quite right, but take a step toward figuring out the problem. That’s the kind of discussion I try to encourage in the classroom.”
Strauss credits the same environment that fosters growth in his students with making him a better professor. “Teaching here, like so much of what we do at the Law School, is a collegial enterprise,” he says. “I’ve relied on my colleagues for teaching advice from my first day in the classroom to the most recent class I taught last quarter.”
Strauss joined the faculty of the Law School in 1985. Before entering the world of academia, he served as Assistant Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1990, he was special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee for the confirmation hearings of David Souter as a Supreme Court justice. He has argued 18 cases before the high court, and he helped represent President Clinton’s position before the court in the Paula Jones case.
Strauss says he relishes life at the Law School because “I get to talk about interesting questions with interesting people every day. I write about things that I enjoy thinking about, and I can interact on a daily basis with colleagues and students who are fun and interesting. The Law School is a great place because people enjoy what they’re doing and truly value the world of ideas.”
Strauss currently teaches constitutional law, federal jurisdiction and a first-year legal theory course called Elements of the Law. He is an editor of the Supreme Court Review and has published over 60 articles on various subjects, mostly on constitutional law. He is currently at work on a book arguing that the most important features of American constitutional law are the products of tradition and precedent rather than the text of the Constitution itself. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, studied on a Marshall Scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he earned a B.Phil. in politics, and then graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Strauss also won the Graduating Students’ Award for Teaching Excellence in the Law School in 1996, 1998 and 2000. But he says it is the students he teaches who deserve the praise.
“They’re energetic and engaged, they’re serious about the material, and they’re very smart,” he says. “It’s easy to put a lot of effort into preparing for class when the students are as good as ours.”