June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    Law School Teaching Award: Elizabeth Garrett

    Assistant Professor in the Law School It should be one of the functions of the teacher to open vistas before his pupils, showing them the possibility of activities that will be as delightful as they are useful, thereby letting loose their kind impulses and preventing the growth of a desire to rob others of joys that they will have missed.

    -- Bertrand Russell in "The Functions of a Teacher" (1940)

    Before each quarter she teaches, Elizabeth Garrett, Assistant Professor in the Law School, reminds herself of her goals as a teacher by reading Bertrand Russell's article "The Functions of a Teacher." This year, she was honored by graduating law students with the school's award for Best Teaching. The honor, she said, also belongs to those who gave it to her.

    "You can't be a good teacher without good students," Garrett said. "We're lucky at Chicago because I think we do have the best group of law students in the country.

    "With good students, for example, a professor has a greater incentive to prepare for class. It's nice not to be the only one in the room who is prepared."

    What makes a good teacher?

    "I think that all of the faculty at the Law School are very good teachers. One of the reasons is the emphasis that is placed on teaching here," she said.

    The Law School is unusual among elite schools, Garrett said, in that teaching is as highly valued by the faculty as research. When she was interviewing for teaching positions two years ago, most of the top schools said little or nothing about teaching students, she said.

    "This was virtually the only school where faculty genuinely cared about quality of teaching -- where the Law School wasn't essentially a think-tank," she said. "At other schools, teaching seemed very ancillary to the faculty's work."

    For most Law School professors, this means more work than is expected of their colleagues at peer institutions, because the demand for high-quality scholarship, as well as high-quality teaching, remains strong. Nearly every year, the Chicago Law School faculty has been named the most productive among law schools nationwide. To Garrett, as with other Law School faculty members, research and teaching do not compete, but rather complement each other, she said.

    "I think it's wrong to think that there is a tradeoff between teaching and scholarship. To be a good teacher you ought to be a good scholar. Your teaching should inspire your scholarship, and vice versa."

    She said that working through hard issues in classes often leads her to do research on those issues. For example, a discussion in class prompted her to research legislative term limits, which ultimately was published as a law review article.

    "I really appreciate my time spent teaching," she said. "When I'm working on research, it's a pretty solitary thing. You talk to colleagues, of course. But with teaching you get to interact with 50 or 175 students, depending on the size of the class, and that can be rejuvenating."

    Garrett is a well-known expert on the federal budget process, legislative procedures, statutory interpretation and federal income taxation, and the politics surrounding these issues. After several years as a top aide to former U.S. Sen. David Boren, she is now a top researcher in budget and tax issues.

    Garrett's forte in the classroom may be in taking what some students consider dull material and making it both accessible and challenging.

    Such is the case with civil procedure, for example. When Garrett was a law student, it was her least favorite subject.

    "I thought it was poorly presented. It was confusing, obscuring and mystical," she said. Now she enjoys teaching the course. "To me, it's a challenge to make the students excited about the topic and to see its broader implications. Teachers must have an enthusiasm for the material, because that tends to be contagious."

    Garrett also believes in encouraging class discussion and debate because in law, there aren't many "right" answers. Students need to learn to think like lawyers -- to take disparate facts and determine the important questions, she said.

    "What students are learning is how to ask the right questions and to learn the kinds of factors that ought to be applied to solve a problem. There are few yes-or-no answers in the law," she said. "For me, to lecture as if there are such clear-cut answers is not to fairly present the material."

    -- Catherine Behan