December 16, 2013
When the authors of What the Best Law Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2013) selected CUNY School of Law’s own Distinguished Professor Ruthann Robson for inclusion in their new book, they had to do their homework.
They read her course materials; sat in on her classes; and quizzed colleagues, students, and alumni to evaluate why Robson—who has taught in areas including constitutional law, sexuality and law, and criminal procedure since 1990—should be considered one of the best law teachers in the nation.
“That was very nerve-racking,” says Robson, as she thinks about the research the book’s authors had to do on her. She’s seated at her office desk in a vibrant, red, floral-print shirt, her bright pink laptop at the ready. Then her blue-gray eyes shine, and her expression changes.
“I am thrilled to be in the book and to highlight CUNY Law School,” she says, smiling broadly.
Robson and CUNY Law are in extraordinary company. In all, the book’s authors included just 26 law professors, screened for having made a lasting, significant, and personal transformative impact on students, and for stimulating their thinking about life and legal practice and, more broadly, law and justice.
“She is a firm believer in access to justice, in promoting fundamental constitutional rights, and that law is really about commitment to serving the underserved,” says University of New Hampshire School of Law Professor Sophie Sparrow, one of the book’s three authors. “Professor Robson really influences her students in a significant way. She’s incredibly and profoundly thoughtful about teaching and ways to make it better.”
Robson’s meticulous preparation for her classes includes reading course materials three times, but each time with a different mental filter. The first time she reads it as a student to be connected with a first-time experience. Then she reads it as a professor to determine big-picture context, including relevance to testing. Last, she reads it as a litigator, so she can share with students how materials would be used in the real world after graduation, in court or policy work.
Robson also credits her success in the classroom to a close working relationship with CUNY Law’s Professional Skills Center. Center staff and professors teach skills, and they work with— and in—doctrinal classes in an integrated approach to learning law. By contrast, other law schools often cover skills in a separate course with upper-class students as teaching fellows.
“We pioneered this. We teach the academic and legal reasoning skills that the students need to succeed in the context of the doctrine they’re learning,” says David Nadvorney (’86), CUNY Law’s director of academic support programs. “I sit in on Professor Robson’s Constitutional Law class. That way I don’t have to guess what’s going on in class; I see what’s going on. I can see the interactions, and I can comment on them.”
For a skills professor to be connected to any given course makes a big difference in the level of training a student can receive.
CUNY Law also has an extensive network for career counseling and mentoring. That is great for students and alumni, and it also enriches the classroom experience, says Robson.
Consider her former student Jonathan Libby (’96), who had to present what now is known as the “Stolen Valor” case before the U.S. Supreme Court last year. To prepare, Libby sought out Robson, who, in turn, set up a moot court at CUNY to help (see Defending Rights Before the Supreme Court: Jonathan Libby (’96)).
Students in Robson’s First Amendment class played the role of Supreme Court justices to help Libby hone his brief and oral argument.
“When I have speakers in class, they’re pretty much always alumni. They are doing inspiring things, and then students can have this connection,” says Robson. “They see someone who has graduated from the same school, and they say, ‘you know, I could do that.’”
Although Robson was singled out for her teaching excellence, she believes many other CUNY Law professors could have been included in the book, since her ideals really are embodied by the school itself, and her colleagues excel in both teaching and scholarship.
“CUNY is different than other law schools because that’s really our culture,” Robson says. “Good teaching, thinking about and valuing teaching, and talking about it qualitatively doesn’t happen across the board at other schools.”
Co-author Sophie Sparrow concurs. “Anecdotally, from our interactions with CUNY faculty, [we can see that] Professor Robson is right,” says Sparrow. “We didn’t study faculties as a whole. Throughout all U.S. law schools, there are more people who embody important fundamental and transformative ways of teaching law.”
“Law is very dynamic. No matter what you teach, there’s always something new, some new twist,” says Robson. “That’s what I love about teaching law.”
– Paul Lin