[Though I originally wrote this as an op-ed, the places I submitted it to properly recognized that this was more of a personal note than an op-ed, so I am posting it here instead… of course, if lightening strikes and this gets picked up anywhere else, I’ll provide links (though I doubt it).]
When I first started teaching, I thought I could be friends with my students. I was young, 26, and naïve. That year I taught some of my favorite students, people who I still keep in touch with and whose lives I observe through social media. Since then, I have many more students who are my “Friends” on Facebook, but I have come to accept that we are not really friends. In their minds, I will always be “Professor Rosser,” even if they do become comfortable calling me by my first name. And I don’t blame them. Though being a professor myself helps break down some of the barriers with my mentors, I likely will never consider them peers. In the back of my mind they are professors for life, even if we end up working together or writing together.
This separation between professor and student is strongest in my large lecture class. Ninety-five students this semester will dutifully laugh at my jokes—unless they are incapable of turning off Facebook during class—as we march through the intricacies of 1L Property Law. On the first day, I ask them to try to find the joy in Property, but if I am honest with myself, the best I can hope for is that some of my joy spreads to them. There isn’t actually all that much joy in the rule against perpetuities or aesthetic zoning. I like my students, I want the best for them, but I only really get to know the handful of them that I teach in my upper level classes.
Partly because our relationship is necessarily limited, there is a wall in the most professor-student relationships. And this wall extends to politics. I invite progressive students to observe and debate the racism in many of the opinions we read, but I also am quick to encourage conservative students to express their disgust at doctrines, such as adverse possession and eminent domain, that can serve to take property away from landowners. I often see my role as facilitating disagreement and, if need be, playing devil’s advocate so that the discussion brings out both sides of the debate. The book I teach from is the middle-of-the-road textbook and my only standard “political” stance every year is to dedicate one day to studying the poor. But, in my defense, it seems absurd to study “property” without spending some time on those without property.
For me, the Trump Era forces the question of how much politics is it appropriate for a professor to insert into a standard syllabus? I know other professors for whom everything has always been political. When I was a student, I was taught Constitutional Law by a brilliant professor who worked on the Bush-side of the Bush v. Gore case. His class was a constant series of political moves that culminated with an end-of-the-semester celebration of United States v. Lopez, a Supreme Court decision limiting the reach of the Commerce Clause and elevating states’ rights. I respect such professors for their honesty, but until now, I did not struggle with my choice to remain largely neutral in my large lecture class. After all, if there is anything I have learned from teaching a seemingly endless series of Property classes, it is that it is great when libertarians feel comfortable enough to speak their mind in class. Every year, I have more than a fair share of instinctively progressive students, but the classroom dynamic is best when libertarians do not let their position get drowned out by the self-righteousness that seems to be a pre-condition for going to law school. I get to know many of the progressive students well—the most progressive of them seem inevitably to sign up for my upper level Poverty Law and Federal Indian Law classes—but I often have the most fun with the conservative students.
I have been very reluctant to interject my (far-left-of-center) politics into the classroom not only because I am afraid doing so might silence debates in class but also because I feel that only my wife needs to suffer through my political ranting. (Oh to have been born in a society that actually cared about poor people…) But this year I think is going to be different because Trump and the Republicans in Congress are different. Their record already shows that they do not care about making sweeping changes that are antithetical to our nation’s ideals. This is a man, a party, and far too many supporters with no sense of decency, no understanding of history, and no shame in embodying the worst parts of human nature. These are dark days.
America is a truly great nation and in many ways has been a beacon for other nations across the globe [which I write despite teaching both Indian law and poverty law]. It seems to me that the professoriate not only should be allowed to be more political nowadays but ought to speak openly with students about the grave danger the country is in today. In such a crisis moment, I hope my students will forgive me if from time to time I break down some of the walls between professors and students by being honest about the need for resistance.