Our Commitment to Teaching
John C. Jeffries, Jr. ’73
Great teaching is easy to recognize, but hard to define. The truth is that there are as many great teaching styles as there are great teachers. The effort to find a one-size-fits-all recipe for classroom success is therefore fruitless. Young teachers soon learn that it is impossible to excel by copying someone else. Everyone has to find his or her own classroom “voice.” The resulting variety of styles and personalities is all to the good; students are enriched by encountering different pedagogies, just as they are informed by studying different subjects.
The one constant, it seems to me, is commitment. Faculty have to want their students to learn. Teachers who care deeply about the learning experience of their students will not fail. They will be forgiven many foibles and eccentricities, and their achievements will be remembered and cherished. No matter what the style or technique, students know when teachers are committed to teaching. Everything else flows from that.
The commitment to teaching is made by teachers as individuals, but the culture that sustains that commitment is collective and institutional. The single most important message for the Law School to convey to new faculty is that we care about the classroom. They need to know that excellence in teaching is as highly valued here as excellence in scholarship. That message must and does come not only from the dean, but also from leading senior colleagues and from the faculty as a whole. At Virginia, we have a long tradition of great teaching, and we renew that commitment every day in our classrooms.
Fortunately, we see no conflict between teaching and scholarship. Intellectual engagement with the subject makes for better teaching. It keeps the classroom lively and prevents faculty from going stale. And it is equally true that teaching aids scholarship. Most of the ideas that I’ve explored in my own writing developed from my efforts to understand and explain things to my students. Given a commitment to both and the sense to keep them in balance, teaching and scholarship are mutually reinforcing.
This issue of UVA Lawyer explores and reconfirms our commitment to teaching. That commitment is based on reverence for a long line of legendary pedagogues and on an institutional culture of focus on the classroom. Teaching is the foundation of the student experience, which we believe is the best in the nation.
David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professors
This issue also profiles three new David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professors of Law. These positions are supported by the bequest of David A. Harrison III and are, so far as we know, the most generously endowed professorships in the history of American legal education. We aim to make them the nation’s foremost academic appointments in law.
Harrison Professorships are reserved for teachers of undoubted excellence who are also scholars of national distinction. Kenneth Abraham, Lillian BeVier, and Paul Mahoney embody these criteria. All three have won University awards for their teaching, and all are leading scholars in their fields. We are proud to honor them with appointment as David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professors and to share our reasons for doing so with you.