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Picket Fences and a “Jealous Mistress”

Dan Meador

Editor’s Note—we asked Daniel J. Meador, James Monroe Professor of Law Emeritus, for his perspective on the sometimes rocky marriage of teaching and scholarship. He graciously provided the following.

Daniel J. Meador Daniel J. Meador

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FORTY-NINE YEARS AGO IN CLARK HALL, I first stepped behind the lectern to face a banked array of first-year students in Civil Procedure. At the end of the hour, I knew I was in the right place. Having had opportunities to observe teaching by some of the outstanding legal scholars of the day, I had learned that great scholars do not necessarily make great teachers. I came to see that teaching requires a special combination of instinct, technique, and talent, as well as dedication to the task.

The strong teaching tradition at Virginia posed a constant challenge for me to insure that in the classroom students would acquire an understanding of the fundamentals of the subject. First-year Civil Procedure was my favorite. There I was working on a clean slate, with students entering the great world of the law, knowing little about it, but eager and interested. Often there would be a picket fence of raised hands to be called on, producing questions pressing me to explain intricacies of the legal process. I was especially concerned to get across the centuries-long and colorful history of our legal order, from the origins of common law and equity through their merger into modern litigation, leading students to understand that we were engaged in no ordinary enterprise, that they were entering an ancient calling vital to civilized society. A class session, I thought, should also be fun. We can be serious without being somber, as the late Hardy Dillard said, himself one of our master teachers.

It was evident to me from the start that the classroom is not the place to “wing it.” No matter how many times I taught the same subject over the years, I always found it useful—indeed necessary—to brood over the material before each class, to rethink it and to attempt to devise fresh ways of imparting it. Federal Courts was a special challenge; the second- and third-year students in that course had acquired a degree of legal sophistication and tended toward a ho-hum attitude. They had to be provoked out of their lethargy and stirred into thinking about the issues. I hoped that my enthusiasm for the subject might be contagious. Neither the “hide the ball” nor the “spoon feeding” approach appealed to me. I sought to engage students intellectually through a mixture of lecturing and interrogating, hoping to leave them unconfused.

Orchestrating a class reminded me of the role of a symphony conductor, keeping all the pieces moving together in an harmonious whole. Although I had a plan for each class, I found that, unlike the orchestra conductor, I could have no fixed score. Student responses are often surprising, and questions come from all directions. The instructor must be flexible and nimble of mind, allowing full discussion, yet remaining in control. Of course, the ultimate measure of the teaching effort is in what the students take away from the experience.

Teaching is only part of a law professor’s responsibility. There is serious legal scholarship to be pursued. The concept of a university professor as a combination teacher-researcher, long familiar in American law schools, came from the 19th century German universities. Teaching and research are complementary; each reinforces the other.

Teaching stimulates research by identifying questions for which existing explanations are unsatisfying; some rules seem poorly designed to serve contemporary needs. Law professors are generally driven without external pressure to explore such matters. Coming out of a busy law firm, I was delighted to find that at last I had time to examine legal problems in depth. No pressure from the dean or faculty was necessary, although their encouragement was appreciated.

Legal scholarship enriches teaching by enhancing mastery of the subject and stimulating new ideas for classroom presentation. Research is also important in fulfilling the law faculty’s role in improving the legal system. Law professors have a special obligation in this regard because practitioners and judges generally do not have time for such work. To avoid detachment from the “real world,” I thought it important to participate in bar activities, serve as reporter or consultant on law improvement projects, and take occasional leaves of absence to engage in legal work outside the academy.

While strengthening teaching, research can also threaten its quality. Time is the problem. Zeal for getting to the bottom of legal conundrums can so preoccupy the mind that the classroom is neglected. I tried always to guard against this, reminding myself that for the students the classroom comes first. Academic life is further complicated by the demands of faculty committee work and responsibilities beyond the University grounds.

The pull and haul of these multiple responsibilities can make life in legal academia stressful even while it is stimulating and enjoyable. Overlooking the realities, many of our alumni seem to perceive the law faculty here as leading an idyllic life filled with hours of relaxed reading and conversation, sprinkled with cocktail parties and tennis at the Boar’s Head or Farmington, along with other delights of the Albemarle countryside and Mr. Jefferson’s academical village. It is indeed difficult to imagine a more congenial place in which to spend an academic career. But as Dean F. D. G. Ribble once cautioned me, the “good life” is a constant threat. The trick is to enjoy it while not letting it undercut those long, hard hours on teaching and research.

For me, this has been a grand and memorable trip. It has been enormously rewarding to observe over the years those hundreds of students who have passed through my classes and gone on to notable careers in law and government in the nation and the world. I have no illusion that what went on in my classes had much to do with their accomplishments. But I can say that few things in my life have been more fun than 50 minutes standing in front of a large room of law students at the University of Virginia, hoping to impart some of my fascination with this “jealous mistress” we call the law.