Law School Award for Best Teaching:David StraussHarry N. Wyatt Professor in the Law School
By Catherine Behan
For the second time in three years, students in the Law School have named David Strauss, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor in the Law School, teacher of the year.
Strauss says it's the students who deserve the praise.
"Good students make a good teacher -- not the other way around," he said. "When you go into a class and the students are really alive and engaged, not to mention prepared, it makes teaching an intellectual high point of the day, not just something you have to take time away from your scholarship to do.
"I'm sure these are the best law students to teach in the country. It's easy to put a lot of effort into preparing for a class when the students are as good as ours."
In fact, he says, students at the Law School expect rigorous teaching in their classes.
"They not only expect but welcome it," he said. "Students would be unhappy with us if we took it too easy on them.
"The culture at the Law School, something that our current dean and previous deans have emphasized, is that teaching is very important. Of course scholarship is of primary importance, but it's no excuse for failing to take your teaching seriously."
The courses Strauss teaches include one section of the popular first-year class Elements of the Law.
"The course makes it clear right at the beginning of law school that this isn't a trade school," he said. "The questions the students will deal with as lawyers are the problems that people have struggled with for millennia."
Those questions include the importance of tradition in society; whether people can be trusted to act in their own best interests; and whether there are objective moral truths.
"There's more to law, of course, than just pondering these great questions," Strauss said, "but when you are a lawyer, you are at some level engaging with these timeless issues."
A University faculty member since 1985, Strauss has often taught constitutional law courses as well as the Elements course, but teaching new courses is also a welcome challenge, he said. In 1995, he taught for the first time the first-year course in tort law, which concerns accidents and intentional wrongdoing, to the class of 1998, which just named him teacher of the year.
"I thought about problems that I had never thought about before," he said. "That's great fun, because I didn't have any idea what I thought about those questions, and thinking about the issues for the first time is exactly what the students are doing."
An expert in constitutional law, federal jurisdiction and legal theory, Strauss is co-editor of the Supreme Court Review. He has published articles on, among other topics, race discrimination and freedom of expression, and he is working on a book on constitutional theory. He has 16 cases argued before the United States Supreme Court, two of them in the past year. He also was the author of the Supreme Court brief for President Clinton last year in the Paula Jones case.
Despite his activities outside the classroom, Strauss, like many other members of the Law School faculty, teaches as many as 300 students each year. He says the Law School's culture supports quality teaching and encourages all faculty to be at their best in the classroom.
By selecting a "best teacher," Strauss said, "the students are showing their appreciation of good teaching from the whole faculty."