The Cycle of Teaching and Learning

Sybil DunlopBy Sybil Dunlop ’08

When I was an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak on my college campus. I don’t remember the substance of his speech, but I do remember that I thought it was rambling and disjointed, until the end when the whole thing brilliantly came together and 10 different themes converged.

At the end of the talk, Mr. Vonnegut asked us all, on the count of three, to say aloud the name of a teacher who had impacted our lives. On three, the names of thousands of teachers filled the auditorium, and Mr. Vonnegut walked off the stage to this chorus of names, instead of applause. He did not return.

I had no trouble thinking of a teacher to name in response to Mr. Vonnegut’s question. Mr. Welsh, my high school social studies teacher, piqued my interest in a world beyond my high school. In his class, I learned about the Renaissance and the United Nations. I began reading the New York Times and the Economist. And, during a mock trial of Harry Truman (for ordering the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), I discovered that I wanted to be a lawyer.

In addition to giving me a moment to remember Mr. Welsh, Mr. Vonnegut’s speech brought home the reality that my situation was not unique. Everyone in the auditorium could name at least one teacher who had helped them discover their talents, encouraged them to work harder than ever before, or helped them see the world in a different way.

While drafting a recent brief, I was again reminded of Mr. Vonnegut’s lesson. As a result, I wanted to take a moment to honor my legal teachers.

At Vanderbilt Law School, I took two classes, including a yearlong small-group seminar, with Professor Richard Nagareda—a brilliant scholar, but also a wonderful teacher. Professor Nagareda was an expert on class actions as well as pop culture. To explain the current state of the law, Professor Nagareda would imitate South Park characters, cite The Simpsons, and reference Quentin Tarantino films. His office doors were always open, and he would frequently dine with groups of students who wanted to keep talking about the issues raised in class. He designed his own class materials, and I continue to rely upon his compilations in my work today.

Our last day of class occurred very shortly after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Professor Nagareda spoke to our class and honored the teacher who had died holding the door closed while his students escaped through the windows. He explained that he hoped he would have done the same—he viewed teaching as giving yourself to your students.

Professor Nagareda passed away in 2010, unexpectedly. I was devastated to hear the news, but living in Minnesota, several hundred miles away from my law school campus, I was removed from campus and the grieving process that—I am sure—the law school experienced.

A few weeks ago, however, I was drafting a brief, early on a Tuesday morning. In a 2011 Supreme Court case, I found a perfect quote to support a point that I had been struggling to articulate. I looked at the Supreme Court’s citation, and saw that it was Professor Nagareda’s quote. Tears sprung to my eyes as I included the quote in my brief.

Perhaps because law school provides only the foundation for a legal education, my legal teachers include not just law professors like Professor Nagareda, but also Judge James Rosenbaum, for whom I clerked, mentors at my law firm, as well as opposing counsel and peers in our legal community. While discovering Professor Nagareda’s quote felt particularly poignant, the lessons that I have learned from other legal teachers repeatedly assert themselves in my practice.

When I engage in discovery disputes with opposing counsel, I hear the voice of my civil procedure teacher warning her students that discovery disputes will help you “think about what kind of attorney you want to be.” When I draft a brief, I hear the voice of Judge Rosenbaum saying, “It shouldn’t be work to read this.” When it’s time to present an oral argument, I hear the voice of my moot court coach reminding me: “Don’t be boring.”

Because learning the law is a lifelong endeavor, I know that I will continue to meet new legal teachers throughout my career. And, I look forward to becoming a teacher as well, sharing what I learn with others.

At the beginning of my clerkship, Judge Rosenbaum and I visited the Landmark Center for a judicial event. Before the event, we toured the center, and the judge pointed out the portrait of one of his judicial teachers, Judge Edward Devitt, former chief judge for the District of Minnesota. The judge spoke with reverence about this man and his intelligence and insights. It struck me (as funny at the time) that I spoke about my judge with the exact same tone.

That’s the thing about teachers—we are all part of a cycle in which we are both taught and teach. Our wonderful profession depends upon it.

Reprinted with permission from Minnesota Lawyer.

Fall 2014 Vanderbilt Law Magazine