Stephen Coughlan, professor of criminal law

A day in the life

Stephen Coughlan, professor of criminal law

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I assume students will call me by my first name. I wouldn't want to be in a teaching environment that had a really strong student/faculty separation.

Finding the fun in criminal law

When asked what he finds most challenging about teaching first-year criminal law, Dr. Stephen Coughlan (or Steve, as he prefers) says with an impish grin, “Nothing!”

And he means it. “I often point to a fundamental distinction: ‘have to’ versus ‘get to.’ I get to be in front of first-year students six hours a week,” he explains. “It’s too much fun to be challenging—things are challenging only if you don’t like them.”

Steve must really like teaching. He’s also Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and, normally, an administrative position like this comes with a reduced teaching load. But, Steve says, “I was willing to do it, on the condition that I could still teach the same amount.”

So he still “gets to” teach criminal law. Steve sometimes begins by looking at policy: “I let important considerations arise out of discussion—here’s something we need to think about, here’s a future implication. At first, it comes out in jumbled way—it takes a while to get a feel for legal language.”

But he has other teaching tricks to help students navigate through legalese. “There’s this,” Steve gestures at a shelf in his office. He takes down a plastic bag and rustles through it. “Driving without a licence,” he says, finding a toy car with a slip of paper tucked into the seat. “Waterskiing at night,” he holds up a toy motor boat. “Theft,” he says, proffering a small figure with a gun.

“Students have to discuss what they think the offense is,” he explains, pointing to a wooden shelf with labels such as “objective fault,” “strict liability,” and “absolute liability.” “They really get into it,” Steve says. “There’s a lot of laughter. Later, they talk about how much fun it was.”

Steve has also taught the moot courts. “I remember this third-year student who’d taken my first-year criminal law course—he was arguing a point in a very informed way. He’d done the research, it wasn’t just an intellectual exercise,” he recalls, “he just disagreed with me.”

“All of a sudden, the student stopped and said, ‘if you’d told me in first year that I’d be vehemently insisting my criminal law prof was wrong, I wouldn’t have believed you.’ It was a great moment,” Steve beams. “He didn’t care what I thought anymore, what mattered to him is what he’d found out.”