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Posted March 14, 2008

Nelson Wins All-University Teaching Award

Prof. Caleb Nelson
Prof. Caleb Nelson

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Mary Wood

Law professor Caleb Nelson will receive a 2007-08 All-University Teaching Award from the University of Virginia, the UVA Provost’s Office announced this week.

“I am absolutely thrilled by this award,” Nelson said. “I know, though, that literally dozens of my colleagues deserve it as much as or more than I do. One of the many wonderful things about Virginia, and one of the things that sets us apart from many other leading law schools, is that the entire faculty takes teaching very seriously; we recognize the centrality of teaching to what we do, and we all work hard at it.”

Nelson, who joined the law faculty in 1998, teaches federal jurisdiction, civil procedure, constitutional law, and statutory interpretation. In 2000, his article on federal preemption of state law won the Scholarly Papers Competition of the Association of American Law Schools. In 2006, he received the Paul M. Bator Award from the national Federalist Society.

“Caleb Nelson is the ideal of the teacher-scholar,” said Law School Dean John C. Jeffries, Jr. “It is his combination of extraordinary classroom performance, coupled with exceptional intellectual sophistication and depth, that I find amazing.”

Nelson’s Federal Courts course is an "unofficial rite of passage at the Law School," said former student Dan Bress ’05.

“There could not be a more fitting recipient for this award,” said Bress, who clerked for the Supreme Court last term. “Professor Nelson is a person of tremendous intellect and extraordinary generosity, and I feel so very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him. This award is really the perfect tribute to his incredible dedication to the Law School.”

Previous law faculty recipients of the All-University Teaching Award, which has been offered since 1990, are J. H. (Rip) Verkerke, John C. Harrison, Barry Cushman, Kenneth S. Abraham, Anne M. Coughlin, Paul G. Mahoney, Michael J. Klarman, and Pamela S. Karlan.

Q&A with Caleb Nelson

Best teaching experience: It’s hard to single one out. The students here make teaching special year in and year out.

Welcome-to-the-classroom moment: The first class I ever taught was Civil Procedure in the fall of 1998. To minimize the damage that I could wreak, I had been assigned a small section, and the section’s peer advisors set up a time for me to meet the students at orientation two days before the semester began. But the peer advisors had never laid eyes on me, so when I showed up at the appointed time, they assumed that I was a member of the section (albeit one who was an hour late for the beginning of orientation and who was inexplicably wearing a suit). I have radiated a similar air of authority ever since.

Most challenging class to teach/why: Probably Legislation, for two reasons. First, the cases that the class studies cover a wide range of different subject areas, and it’s hard to get up to speed in securities regulation one day and antitrust the next. Second, the interpretive questions that the class confronts are really intractable and often don’t have any entirely satisfying answers.

Best place to grade: I hunker down in my office.

What helps students learn course material best? I’d like to claim that it’s some aspect of my pedagogy, but I fear that the real answer is their own efforts.

Did you ever consider a career other than teaching (and if so, what)? When I was in law school, I knew for sure that I would spend my entire career in private practice.

Advice to new teachers or to law school graduates wishing to enter academia: Take the culture at Virginia as a model, and work hard at teaching as well as at scholarship. Both are important. But in the long run, you’re likely to have a bigger impact on the profession by training students in the classroom than by reaching the readers of law reviews.

• Reported by Mary Wood