Bench Memos

Professor Obama

There’s only a little that’s interesting or insightful in today’s New York Times cover story on Barack Obama’s teaching career at Chicago Law School. So little that one wonders why it is a cover story in today’s New York Times. Obama taught at Chicago for twelve years. He was a decent but unremarkable teacher. The article’s many quotes from former students (some of them now law professors themselves) are meant to show more than that, I think. Perhaps the average Times reader thinks they do. But I think not. (I am not the average Times reader for several reasons, the most pertinent of which is that I have taught law for twenty-five years.) If you take into account that Obama taught sexy courses on civil rights, that he was a pretty cool guy who was scarcely older than his students when he started teaching, and that he is now running for president, one would expect an array of nearly ecstatic remembrances. But you don’t get them. The quotes are really quite perfunctory (of the “he made us think” variety) and pedestrian. The feedback is not as good or gushy as those of many young professors with less momentum in their favor. I think even mine (years ago) were better, and I was not cool at all, and am definitely not running for President.

The other point which comes through loud and clear is that Obama was no scholar. In twelve years of part-time but still very substantial teaching at a first-rate law school, he published nothing. He rarely attended faculty colloquia or luncheon debates. And kudos to the great libertarian scholar Richard Epstein for having the courage to state it bluntly: because Obama never fully engaged, he “does not have the slightest sense of where folks like me are coming from. He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on other issues”.

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