Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Obama at UC Law School

Three consecutive entries at VC react to a Times feature looking at Obama's record at The University of Chicago Law School. Lots of sage, lawyerly observations from all, with an avalanche of comments to boot. More than I ever needed to find.

Skimming the pile I come away with two observations:

First, this guy is under the microscope in a way that most people could not survive. A few comments noted that his opponent's record at the Naval Academy would be... no, they concluded... better not go there.

Second, Obama's tracks are so impressive that some observers doubted the truth of the Times story, particularly that part about being offered a position with tenure upon being hired. That part of the Obama story fell into the truly unbelievable category for these men whose life revolves around law school environments. [***ed. Jim Lindgren at VC dug further and has concluded this is wrong. Details at the link.]

Here is a link to the story, Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart

Link here to Jonathan Adler's note and a few comments.

Link here to Jim Lindgren's note and many more comments.

Link her to David Bernstein's remarks and a blizzard of comments, with EV toward the top.

Another Times piece links to Obama's course materials and this by Jodi Kantor, the journalist who put all this together:

Several readers have asked questions about Mr. Obama’s status at the school. Let me clarify: he started teaching as a lecturer, meaning as a member of the adjunct faculty. But in 1996, he was promoted to senior lecturer, which in Chicago’s parlance, made him a professor.

When the law school tried to hire Mr. Obama after his failed 2000 congressional race, it was for a tenured job, according to Daniel Fischel, the dean at the time. In our interview, I asked him if he meant “tenure-track,” and he said no. “He would be hired as a tenured professor,” he explained. The faculty would vote, but Mr. Obama already had their support, he added. [***This is probably incorrect. See note above]

There follows a bewildering number of comments from many sources. More than I can begin to summarize.

But this one was noted by someone at one of the other comment threads and is worth repeating. This column also by Jodi Kantor, reads like a transcript of an NPR News discussion group. He apparently interviewed four experts via conference call. Here " Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of constitutional law at Yale and a former clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer... compliments the quality of Mr. Obama’s exam questions."

First, As a constitutional law professor, I came away impressed — dazzled, really — by the analytic intelligence and sophistication of these questions and answers. A really good exam — an exam that tests and stretches the student, while simultaneously providing the professor with a handy and fair index to rank the class — is its own special art form. Composing such an exam is like crafting a sonnet or a crossword puzzle. We don’t have Obama’s answer key every year; but the questions themselves are in many instances beautifully constructed to enable students to explore the seams and plumb the depths of the Supreme Court’s case law. I am tempted to use variations of several of these questions myself in some future exam. (I won’t say which, lest I tip my students off.) When I read Jodi Kantor’s piece, I was very interested to hear that the University of Chicago Law School was willing to offer Obama tenure. In these materials I see why.

At this point, I'm sure, the reader's cup runneth over. But if more is needed, go to Randy Barnett's My Comment on Obama's Teaching Materials.

[Note to self: If I ever need the services of any of these guys from VC it will have to be pro bono. I could never afford the fees needed to pay for all the time they spend blogging.]

I also noticed this from the first link:

Mr. Obama arrived at the law school in 1991 thanks to Michael W. McConnell, a conservative scholar who is now a federal appellate judge. As president of The Harvard Law Review, Mr. Obama had impressed Mr. McConnell with editing suggestions on an article; on little more than that, the law school gave him a fellowship, which amounted to an office and a computer, which he used to write his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”

I wondered how he worked that in. Now we know.


Followup: I put together another post, A Law Professor discusses Cloning and Other Matters , which illustrates Obama's teaching style as of 1997. I left out his name deliberately so readers would approach it unbiased (but I did link the sources).
Unfortunately no one can find post since it will not turn up in searches. (No key words or phrases.) Too bad, because it took a very long time to reformat a pdf source to a blog using only this most primitive of wysiwyg/html tool.

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