President's Forum – Spring 2011
Back in the Classroom
In early January, I started teaching Constitutional Law II every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. I have taught this class almost 30 times before, but never to undergrads, so in some ways this is a first for me. As we approach the midpoint in the spring semester, I can happily report that the students in my class continue to pleasantly surprise me — and to teach me a thing or two.
I expressed the desire to teach a class of undergraduates soon after I arrived on campus last summer. There were some who tried to discourage me. I can appreciate their perspective. After all, as CUA’s new President, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. But if you think about it, I told more than a few people, isn’t this really the best use of my time?
We do many things at Catholic University, and at the root of everything we do are our students. They are quite simply why we exist. And now, twice a week, I have a captive audience of 30 of them. I know them all by name. We talk before and after class. We run into each other on campus and they introduce me to their friends. I’m finding out how they learn and what they want to learn, how they spend their free time, and what they like about CUA and what we can do better.
They want to get all they can out of their education, not just in the classroom, but in their involvement on campus and in Washington, D.C. And they are smart. Rather than teaching lecture-style as is the norm in most undergrad classes, I teach the way I would a law school class — by asking a lot of questions. They come prepared and they don’t duck the questions. I am impressed by their sophistication and by how much they are willing to learn.
It isn’t always easy balancing class with my presidential responsibilities (and I couldn’t do it without my wonderful teaching assistant, graduate student Anne Thomas). Scheduling travel, for instance, has been a challenge because I always have to make sure I am on campus every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. I’ve had to cancel the class only once and that was on the day of my inauguration. Trying to find a time to reschedule in which no one had a conflict proved difficult. So we met at 7 in the morning. I promised donuts and coffee as an incentive.
In the eight weeks I’ve been teaching the class, I can honestly say that I am getting as much out of it as the students. It is important to me as the President of a university to stay engaged in intellectual life. I have to write and speak about higher education issues all the time. It helps to stay connected to academia at its foundation — the classroom.
The Catholic University of America was founded as an institution for graduate education. It wasn’t until 17 years into our existence that we admitted undergraduate students. And to some degree, I think there is still the mindset that graduate education should be our priority. I believe there is more we can do to enhance the undergraduate experience. I hope my time in the classroom is just one small step on the road to doing that.