The Delicate Quest for Approbation


“The delicate quest for approbation walks a fine line between vindication and the initial toady stages of compromise.”

The author of that statement, Professor O.R. Powell, looked out at the fresh faces in his Contract Law class. He waited for total effect and decided to wait as long as necessary to someone in the class to respond, in anyway, to his remarks. The class, with their heads in their books or typing on their new computer, were showing no signs of genuine interaction so he continued to wait. By this time, even the slowest stenographers finished and one by one, timid faces peered up at him through stupidly long hair or over laptop screens with no indication of understanding. No one wanted to engage him on this first day but he knew that somewhere in the group, someone was dying to lock horns with him on this or some other, hopefully related, subject. This was going to be a long journey; this class was going to be together for an entire academic year and Contract Law was the first big hurdle which weeded out a fair number of potentially weak attorneys and all with a weak heart and a distate for civil discourse.

He planned to continue to read off his prepared text with hopes that eventually one of his students would either have the desire to debate him or at least request further enlightenment via an unscripted or unplanned conversation.

Professor Powell was a full Professor of Law with numerous awards and related recognition for his writings. Possessing no interest in the federal bench, he had concentrated on honing his teaching and writing skills and allowed many of his peers to slog through embarrassing confirmation hearings. He had seen far too many talented lawyers either prostitute themselves for confirmation or fly directly into some partisan maelstrom resulting in long-term damage to their career. He stayed away from the urge to don the impressive judicial robes in order to say and teach what he thought while taking lengthy but appropriate amounts of time to compose legal writings which were embraced by scholars all across the ideological fine line that he enjoyed walking. The problem with publishing papers is that you will be held accountable for decades of old opinions. The true content on one's opinion rarely changes but circumstances around them always did and that is what the jackals on both sides of a debate honed in on. Powell had no time for the games and felt that there had to be a place for an active thought process.

After many years of ever-changing attitude adjustments, he realized quietly that he indeed loved teaching the law. The law itself had its charming moments but the ongoing pursuit of the truth was always under attack and Powell found refuge in teaching first-year law students contracts. During their first year, the combination of fear and adrenaline resulted in rapt and white-knuckled attention and in the right hands, Powell learned he could make a real difference in how they would eventually think as attorneys and in addition; if he could have some fun with them along the way, all the better.

"My feelings whether or not any of you are comfortable or happily engaged in the pursuit of knowledge are inconsequential. In fact, the only contract you and I are engaging in today is my assessment of your ability to retain standard but needed knowledge. Over the next nine months, you will be pulled out of your timid seats and will be forced to defend opinions. You will be tested from both traditional and non-traditional approaches but one thing must remain clear in your tiny little minds: You will need to care about the law. And if you start keeping score of your wins and losses in this classroom, you will have a very exhausting year."

Powell waited and looked around slowly. Certainly someone would say something in reaction to his verbal abuse. However, nothing was said from the entire group and note taking smartly ceased. The heads slowly began to pop up again until the room was orderly with eyes tight on his form. It was similar to him engaging in a staring contest with a pride of passive lions; whatever he did was passively recorded but nothing he did could get someone to leave the pack.

"During the year," continued Powell, "Many of you will be suffering unexplained events ranging from idiopathic illnesses to the loss of some inconsequential freedom of discretion."

Again, he waited and hoped someone would say something. He continued to scan the crowd until one small-faced student looked up and tentatively raised his hand.

"Yes?" said the Professor. His voice was further amplified by the combination of his growing excitement and the crowd's collective silence.

"I think you are full of crap,” said the student.

The Professor smiled and thought that there would be hope for this class yet.

The class took a shared inhale of the already-electrified air while Powell and the student began a personal staring contest. Powell had no intention in resolving this tension; it was too important to today's lesson. The student, not sure of her role, had no interest in hiding from the statement. She felt compelled to call this Professor arrogant and way down deep, she was confident that she had been baited by this guy and she was never one to shy away from a challenge.

"I applaud both your brevity and candor but will ignore your salty language. Does anyone, other than your brave classmate, know why?"

Again, the silence filled the room. Powell wanted to pull another face into the conversation but instinctively the group hunkered down behind their barriers; pens at the ready.

"Anyone? Bueller?

The joke got a nice cordial laugh and as the ice was breaking, he asked again, "Does anyone know why I am not taking offense with this student's comment?"

A few tentative hands began to rise.

Powell quickly pointed at a young woman on the other side of the room. "You, in the blue, tell me why."

"Because you don't want to treat a student poorly?"

"No, not even close but I will credit it as a good guess. Someone else?"

The same group of hands, sans the young woman's, rose again. Powell pointed at a young man, sitting by the door.

"You."

"Because you baited her?"

"Correct."

Professor Powell gathered up his materials and headed for his door. This was a great time for a perfect exit. The conversation of the last five minutes was a great springboard for the class to start talking and there was no value for him to hang around to reassure the engaged that they were on the right track. Powell left out a side door and was at least five minutes ahead of the most excited student but his office hours would show who wanted to talk. Surprisingly, no one came to his office but what Professor Powell didn't know, but was hoping, that the class remained the lecture hall to continue to argue and to organize an effort to demonstrate some collective moxie in the near future.

Five minutes went by and no student had moved from their seats. As the best estimate, the class was not supposed to end for at least another hour and these 1L's didn't know what to do. There other classes had began and ended on time and everthing said by their instructors were safely recalled and already highlighted from the pre-reading. Finally, the student dressed in blue felt compelled to speak said, "I think he wants us to figure out what he said."

"What do you mean?"

"'He said, Many of you will be suffering unexplained events ranging from idiopathic illnesses to the loss of some inconsequential freedom of discretion.'"

"What does that mean?"

"I have no idea," said the only student who was declared correct by Professor Powell. "But we can either work this out here or we can all go our separate ways and begin to dread the next class tomorrow."

"I propose we sit here and come up with an united front." That comment was said by a back-row student who had just decided to engage. "Either he is just crazy or this is what he wants us to do today."

Being the last class of the first day, a majority of the class remained to discuss the problem. In a few minutes, they had cobbled together all his comments and quickly wrote the main points on the board. The groups broke into smaller squads to either attack or qualify his comments and then reassembled to share their findings. Each piece of the puzzle was disjointed and open to numerous interpretations and it eventually led to the mass reading, in unison, of his comments. After that exercise, they realized that he had to be kidding. These jumbled-up comments had no real substance and only because they were uttered by a living legend did they avoid standard scrutiny from the audience.

"I think the old guy collectively jerked our chains," said the young woman in the blue. "Oh, and my the way, I have no intention go being referred to as 'the one in the blue' for the rest of the year. My name is R'Lou Jefferson."

The group all smiled and made a point to introduce themselves to each other:email addresses and general contact information was exchanged as most of them were still in the hunt for study group partners. As they walked out, there was an noticable order to their exit; all cooperating and showing some common courtesy, the flow moved quickly out the down, the lights were turned off and the door slammed shut. The game was apparently on.

The next day, Professor Powell walked into the class and he saw thirty faces staring at him demonstrating neither fear or contentment. Smiling out the group, he said, "Now, we might be getting somewhere."

The class kept staring, they were not going to get away with any more meandering soliloquies on a variety of subjects: the children appeared locked and loaded. He looked around the room, making eye contact with everyone and felt it was time to begin teaching.

"I am going to leave five minutes at the end of class to answer any questions you may have."

He opened his lecture notes, turned on the display monitor and took off his watch and faced it towards him.

He spent the lecture telling a story about the key foundations of contract law; ranging from classical contract theory and ending with the concept of a complete contract. His teaching style was elegant and when he saw a student drop their head to take a note, he would pause and tell them to listen instead of writing. He knew that the first few days established the key concepts of contracts and he had to make sure the group collectively saw this information as true foundations rather than a typical overview of a subject.

True to his word, he stopped his remarks with five minutes to go. He closed his lecture notes, which he never had referenced, and said to the class, "Now, what questions do you have about anything?

The students adjusted in their seats, looking around to see if anyone had the gumption to say their opinion of yesterday's events. Finally, a hand went up in the back.

"Yes?" said Professor Powell.

"What the hell was yesterday all about?" The tone was polite but the desire for enlightenment was obvious.

"I assume you are referring to my opening remarks."

"That is correct." The tone became calmer and Powell liked its apparent glide path and detemined they were now ready to start learning about the law behind the law.

"Yesterday, I saw approximately 30 first-year law students intimidated and hiding behind bad hair and laptop screens. Today, I see the same thirty students looking directly at me seeking enlightenment and that is what I want to happen. I am not the bad guy nor am I the person you need to impress. You need to start to stand on your own metaphorical feet and take on the law."

"If you think you will achieve your goals based on your note-taking abilities, you are sadly mistaken. If you think the court of public opinion is important to the pursuit of the law, you are not only sadly mistaken, you are also delusional and if you think I am training you to rely on rote memorization to periodically throw up finite facts on examinations, you are nuts." Professor Powell paused and continued, "To learn the law is to make no assumptions about the facts: whether I am a blowhard yammering on for ten minutes or if I am an eloqent orator that keeps you spellbound with the golden tones of my voice, it matters not. What matters in law in general and contracts in specific...it is one concept: the collection and analysis of facts. Cold, hard, indisputable facts and don't act if you are a victim of a false doctrine: get active and stay playing offense."

"Please engage with me on any issue and do not give me any relief outside of common courtesy. If you continue to swallow masses of information and feckless data, you will lose the salient points of the larger issue. Focus in on the facts and stay true to case law: everything else is just clucking. One can argue that you might learn more by accident than by specific purpose in this classroom but I don't care the journey as long as you trust your reading of the facts, your work ethic and try to learn to love the law."

The room again was silent as the day before but he saw little lights going on inside their tiny youthful heads. "This is a good day" he thought.

"Any more questions?" asked Professor Powell.

There were none and this time, as the time before, that was his goal. He loudly snapped his lecture notes closed for a sound effect and headed towards his private exit. He looked back and said, "I will see you tomorrow, study hard but start thinking harder."

Believe it or not, I don't know where this one is going but I have every confidence that this baby will write itself.

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