I joined the law school faculty in 1984. It followed ten years of working on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation (2) and a year as a Bush Leadership Fellow (3) at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. I was initially hired as an Associate Professor, but I had no idea what an associate professor was. I had no understanding of academic rank, much less any conception of the promotion and tenure process. (4)
All I knew was that 1 would be teaching Federal Indian law and Indian Jurisdiction. There was no discussion of what other classes I would teach. When I showed up for work that tall. I was told that I would also be teaching legal writing and appellate advocacy. I was shocked. Yes, I could write, but I had never taught writing of any kind. Welcome to the world of a 'junior' faculty member in 1984.
The law school would also pay me. The salary was quite penurious (which I didn't know at the time) by national law school standards, but it was considerably more than I ever made on the reservation and it was a boon to support a growing family, which included my wife Anne (Dunham) and our two children, Nicholas and Kate, and eventually a third with the name Hannah.
People at the Law School were helpful and kind. I found my way, fell into a rhythm, and established a career; a generous (even if underpaid) and hospitable workplace of thirty-five years. Yet it was in the broader context, both locally and nationally, of the field of Indian law that I found my true vocation and calling, and a life's work in teaching, scholarship, and service.
The means of exposition to describe this journey include both a conventional narrative and a series of (personal) vignettes inserted throughout the essay to provide the collage effect of the non-linear and subjective components complementing the linear and objective. Remember, it's notes and collage, not endless detail and battalions of footnotes. The goal is to describe this long and essential experience with verisimilitude and insight, but if necessary, to yield to Bob's long ago call that "nothing is revealed." (5)
for Mike Roche (6)
THE BEGINNING: A CLEAN SLATE
When I first came to the Law School, I had no philosophy or model for what constituted "proper" or adequate law school teaching. And no one supplied any. You just prepared, went to class, and watched what happened. It was quite an anxiety-producing situation. The one thing that I did bring from my experience of teaching at Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation was a core understanding of the importance of engagement. Students at Sinte Gleska College wanted to learn the subject matter, but they also wanted to learn how it related to their own lives and the lives of their (tribal) communities. It was this connection that most fruitfully engaged students and triggered their commitment to hard and reflective work.
Yet I wondered whether this form of engagement was an appropriate model for law school teaching. The law--at least as I imagined it then--was quite formal and objective. It was self-disclosing and without distortion. To describe and teach law any other way was likely, I thought, to draw criticism and rebuke. Therefore, my initial approach was quite guarded and bounded by self-censorship. I just went through the casebook or text one case or section at a time. I felt quite awkward and assumed my students found me wooden and dull.
In my early years on the faculty, I taught an odd assortment of courses. The only constant was Indian law. I also taught Legal Writing, Appellate Advocacy, Municipal Corporations (!), Indian Jurisdiction, and Education and the Law. It was beginning to wear me down. Then fortuity and mighty luck intervened. Professor Chris Hutton (yes, the one and only; yes, the legend!) informed me that she was planning on going on leave for the year to work in a Federal Court project in Charlottesville, Virginia. She asked whether I would be interested in teaching Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure during her leave of absence.
I readily agreed. Professor Hutton told me that Dean Walt Reed had already approved the change, but Professor Hutton never did take that leave because she became pregnant with her first daughter, Molly. It looked like I would be cast back on happenstance and trolling the dregs of the curriculum. I was not enthused.
Dean Reed saved the day and agreed to the sectioning of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. The rest is history. Professor Hutton and I have taught Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure for more than 25 years. More than a quarter of a century. Hard to believe but delightfully true. We talked endlessly about students and what we were trying to do in the classroom. How to read cases, how to read critically, how to develop craft, how to keep justice in view. It made all the difference.
Students (and the 70% of the active Bar that we have taught) often talk of us as one. Many former students will come up to us at the law school Junctions or the State Bar Convention and say, "Ah, Professors Hutton and Pommersheim--my two favorite law school teachers!" There is no need for flattery. It sounds like fond recall. It sounds genuine. It has always been one of my highest privileges at the law school to teach and work so closely with Chris for so many years.
So it came to be. Indian Law, Criminal Law. and Criminal Procedure. Federal Jurisdiction and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples were added several years later. I had the 'package' I was meant to have.
FINDING TEACHING RHYTHM
Over time, I began to find my own personal style of comfort and pedagogy. This new approach eventually became identifiable to me as having three essential components, namely: (1) intellectual mastery of subject matter, (2) love of subject matter, and (3) the ability to engage students. A braid that weaves together mind, body, and (creative) spirit.
Intellectual mastery of subject matter is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for excellence in teaching. We must know what we teach. In the law, this often involves many complex historical, doctrinal, and analytical parts. Unlike other fields, the law is also constantly developing and changing. Therefore, there is an ongoing obligation to understand and to integrate the constant How of change, however large or small. Such minds and intellects never rest; they are always sharp and alert.
Love of subject matter is also necessary in order to achieve excellence in teaching. The love I have in mind is not sappy or faux, but rather a love that demonstrates care and respect for the subject matter. In the context of the law, its dignity and yes, its cruelty as well. What it has done and what it has not done and what it yet might do.
Engagement and creative spirit are the final, and perhaps, most necessary ingredients for excellence in teaching. Teaching requires the ability to engage students. Without such engagement, teaching may well be competent, but essential learning will be minimal. We need to bridge the gap and create the synapse. I fence, the need for creativity, the creative spirit. We have to push out, to take risks, and to cross over. You are the teacher, not the student, but you can get to the edge by showing vulnerability, by sharing and reciting poetry and/or by using self-deprecating humor. Obviously, there are many other ways. These are the ones that I have most often used.
As part of this process of engagement, we also need to show that we have concern for the well being of our students. Indeed, that we have affection for them. Affection does not mean hanging out with students; it does not mean deference or the absence of rigor; and it certainly does not mean easy grading. Students need to know that we are in their corner and that we want them to succeed. They also need to know that we are not condescending or sentimentalizing them. Law is a difficult and demanding profession. Students need encouragement as they begin to travel that long road.
Any of this effort can become mechanical or artificial. Thus, there is the need for the requisite energy and animation day in and day out, regardless of the lack of direct institutional supervision or support. Teaching is an art and vocation that is critical to preparing lawyers who are adept at their craft and deeply committed to the principles of justice and fair play.
Such an approach--especially in my Indian law class--was refined to include components of theory and practice. The 'theory' component included matters of policy, history, and culture. That is, the broad thick picture of 'other' stuff that both directly and indirectly provides a broader canvas and context in which to understand and to evaluate the law.
Yet law students--especially in a place like South Dakota--will soon enough practice law and they need to know, for example, how to handle an Indian Child Welfare Act case in state court, defend a criminal case in tribal court, and make treaty arguments in federal court. (7) In each of these examples, it means knowing how to represent either side, not just the "Indian" side, whatever that is. I firmly believe that the most fair and just decisions in Indian law (or any area of the law for that matter) occur, when there are well-informed, thoughtful, and respectful attorneys on both sides. Respect, reason, and informed argument are central ingredients to fruitfully resolving disputes.
I always inform my students that my own teaching goals are threefold. They include developing the craft of lawyering within them, shaping their character, and advancing their commitment to justice and fair play. This may appear arrogant on my part, but Idon't mean it in that way.
I want my students to understand that the practice of law involves more than the possession of a set of legal skills; it involves the ability to make and to shape legal materials into something that speaks with logic and clarity. Something...
'I WAS SO MUCH OLDER THEN/I'M YOUNGER THAN THAT NOW': VALEDICTORY NOTES AND COLLAGE.
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