My Favourite Professor

Celebrating 130 Years of Great Teaching

Dean Kim Brooks
from Hearsay Magazine
Volume 35, Winter 2013/14

We know a good deal about what makes a great university professor. Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson penned the best meta-study of good practices in university education in 1987. They identified seven principles of effective teaching: Students learn best when professors encourage faculty-student contact, support co-operation among students, encourage active learning, give prompt feedback, emphasize time on task, communicate high expectations, and respect diverse talents and ways of learning.

More specifically in the law school context, we have myriad learning objectives. We want students to learn and understand substantive law and to begin to understand something about legal procedure; to develop the ability to think like lawyers (by which we mean we want them to sort relevant from irrelevant material, to reconcile seemingly divergent legal and factual positions, to distinguish seemingly similar legal and factual positions, to understand the context and implications of legal decisions, and to make sound policy arguments); to develop sound judgment; to enhance their advocacy skills; to develop their critical analysis and analytical skills; to develop self-confidence; and to be motivated to pursue self-directed learning.

As this introduction suggests, there is no shortage of evidence-based advice about how to be a great teacher, and more so, how to be a great teacher in a law school classroom.

Fortunately, we have a long history of great professors at our “little law school.” I suspect that many of our greatest law professors were great not because of a thoughtful study of the rich scholarship of teaching and learning (although that is to be encouraged!), but rather as a result of a combination of instinct, talent and reflection. 

Last year, I asked you to think about the outstanding professors you had when you were at law school. I heard from dozens of you. Your emails and letters were always genuine, often moving, and frequently funny. There was a short period of time when I received a response every day or two. I came to look forward to stories of the contributions of current and former members of the faculty.

Many of these letters highlighted practices that align with the best research we have on great teaching, and we’ve excerpted parts of a few of those letters in this edition of Hearsay. Notice how many of you were inspired to pursue particular career paths because of your relationships with your professors, how often professors are acknowledged for their ability to effectively use humour, and most importantly, perhaps, the frequency with which you recognized the richness of the relationships you had with faculty members when you were students at the school.

Read stories of some of our memorable professors

My law school experience was most influenced by Professor Thomas Cromwell (long before he was appointed to the NSCA and SCC). The courses I enjoyed most were his Civil Procedure and Evidence classes, which inspired my passion to become a litigation lawyer.…Professor Cromwell’s door was always open for students, and he was immensely respected and liked.” —Sheila L. Bruce (’85)

I had the honour to be in the Contracts and Legislations classes taught by Dr. Horace Read. I will never forget his discussion about consideration and his reference to ‘a mere puff.’ I will also never forget the Legislation project he undertook for us in second year, which dealt with the welfare appeal rules. That project provided me with an unforgettable memory of the hard times which befall fellow beings. I shall never forget the late Horace Read.” — Brian Smith (’74)

I entered the law school in September 1968. I was 20 years old, a young lad from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, with a B.Comm from Memorial. I was frightened to death! However, when we attended our first lecture in the ground floor double classrooms we met R. Graham Murray. He told us a few basic principles to keep in mind as we started our legal odyssey:  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.  2. There are no answers, only more questions.  3. Every problem does not have a solution.  4. You have a duty to give back to your society when you leave here.”  — Doug Moores (’71)

I write about one of the most remarkable persons  I have encountered, Dean [Robert] Donald. I shall not forget the day when fresh from a mining camp in British Columbia, I arrived at the Law School to inspect the Weldon Law Building where I would spend an inordinate amount of time over the next three years. I was in the elevator at the first floor en route to the library on the fifth. As the doors were closing, a short grey-haired man joined us and pushed ‘3’. The doors closed and he looked at me and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Clark, how was your trip from British Columbia?’ As I picked my jaw up from the floor I mumbled something about the trip. He left the elevator at 3. I turned to the remaining students and stammered, ‘Who was that?’ ‘Dean Donald’ was the casual reply, as if that was to be expected. For me, he became a man I admired and deeply respected.  I was not alone. … An exceptional man and an exceptional Dean. Dean Donald’s example was broadly followed by the faculty. It greatly enriched our education. I am grateful.”  — Ross Clark (’72)

I was in my second year of law school in 1975-76 and constitutional law was a required course. This was pre-charter constitution, so the cases we read and studied dealt with the division of powers, many of them old, long and dry. Professor [W. Andrew] MacKay was, I believe, Vice-President Academic. Our classes were twice a week in the early morning (I think at 8:30). We were expected to be ready to discuss the cases of the day and Prof. MacKay would call on us randomly to answer his questions. Professing an inability to answer was not accepted for any reason and he would never move on to another student. Instead, he would coach the ‘victim,’ providing enough information about the case to facilitate an answer and begin the discussion. This coaching was always done in a non-threatening, but persistent manner. Once one’s name was called, there was no escape. That course was my only contact with Professor MacKay, but I always remembered and appreciated his gentlemanly manner and his politeness, combined with his insistence that we engage in active discussion of what I expect even he would have admitted was a challenging subject. He was not a dynamic teacher, but he knew his subject and cared deeply about its teaching. He gained our respect. Later, in my teaching career at Acadia, I strived to emulate those qualities of Professor MacKay.”  —Steven Enman (’77)

In my second year of the LL.B. program, I opted to take a course in Administrative Law from a professor who was new to Dalhousie, by the name of Leo Barry. Professor Barry came to Dalhousie Law School with an extensive background in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, having been a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly, Deputy Speaker of the House, and Minister of Mines and Energy in Frank Moores’ government. After being defeated in the 1975 election he served as chairman of the Newfoundland Labour Relations Board before signing on as a lecturer at Dalhousie Law School. Professor Barry seemed to relish the thrust and parry of a lively classroom debate. He had a finely-honed wit, which he used on occasion during lectures. I have not forgotten the specifics of a later display of Professor Barry’s wit. The incident took place on the last day of Administrative Law class, when Professor Barry was handing out the student evaluation forms for us to complete. A student who would remain nameless, were it not for my excellent memory of the event and my lack of discretion, that is to say, one Stephen Abbass, blurted out in a loud voice, ‘Sir, how do you spell atrocious?’ Leo Barry shot back without hesitation, ‘F-A-I-L, Mr. Abbass.’ Professor Barry was an excellent teacher; knowledgeable about the topic he was teaching and generous with his time whenever a student asked for help after class.”  —Robert Simpson (’79)

Two professors come to mind for taking extra effort to help me absorb academics and learn from other sources as well in a very short span of time: David VanderZwaag and Philip Girard. They generously shared their knowledge and time to analyze how the Canadian experience could help the Philippines. They were not even my thesis advisors. After graduation, they continued to help create an environmental law and policy subject at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos – School of Environmental Science and Management. I taught the subject for two years to other professors. The subject is now offered in many state colleges and universities.”  — Donna Zappa-Gasgonia (LLM ’93)

I began to suspect that Professor Philip Girard did more than teach first-year Property when I saw a posting outside his office door advertising a research position to work on what would become his award-winning biography of Bora Laskin. My undergraduate degree in history might help secure the job, I hoped, but my real advantage was that I hailed from Laskin’s hometown, Fort William, Ontario – now Thunder Bay. I had, after all, slept in a bed purchased at Laskin’s Furniture. I am also fairly certain I was the only one who applied for the job. My research work on the Laskin biography led me into the dusty corners of a subject of unimaginable dullness, Canadian legal history. Or so I thought. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover not only the richness of Canada’s legal past, but that I had been hired by Canada’s leading legal historian. The following year, I took Professor Girard’s legal history seminar. Looking back, I still marvel at his approach to that course. Early on, he marched us over to the Nova Scotia Archives, signed us all up as researchers, and insisted that our essays contain original, archival research. That is, after all, what legal historians do, he insisted. The paper I wrote in that course became my first scholarly publication. While the breadth, creativity, and quality of Philip Girard’s scholarship continues to set a daunting standard to strive for, at the very least, I have tried in my own academic career to emulate his professionalism and generosity as a teacher, scholar, and colleague.”  —Eric Adams (’01)

In the early 1990s I took three courses from Vaughan Black: Conflict of Laws, Commercial Law and Judicial Remedies. The content of these courses was (and remains) technical and detailed, and Vaughan conveyed that content in ways that made it highly interesting. He did not shy away from complexity and refused to oversimplify for the sake of ease of understanding. He teased details out of the material, especially statutory language, which one would normally overlook. He thought about issues in a different, creative way and asked his students to do the same. He was also accessible, whether in his office or when encountered on occasion in the pubs downtown. Vaughan’s teaching sparked my interest in conflict of laws. After graduation, Vaughan became a mentor, supporting and encouraging my plans to attend graduate school and to become a professor. In my first 10 years of teaching my memories and records of his courses were models for me to follow. More recently, Vaughan has become both a friend and close colleague.”  —Stephen Pitel (’92)

I was fortunate enough to have many fine teachers. Rollie Thompson took me under his wing a little bit when I was at Dalhousie Legal Aid during the summer of 1981. He cared about less fortunate people and was passionate about his work and helping others. Brent Cotter was also at Dalhousie Legal Aid that summer. I recall how impressed I was with his cross-examination of a witness. That man oozed of professionalism. I was young when I attended Dalhousie Law School. I looked up to my teachers and for the most part, they did not disappoint.”  —Stephen O’Leary (’83)

Professor Lorne Clarke was extraordinary in his knowledge of torts and, of equal importance, in how to cause students to want to be in his classes. He was probably the most entertaining of our professors whose presentation was beyond reproach; whose humour kept us alert; who would cease speaking mid-sentence when the class closing bell rang and who would pick up from that mid-sentence two days later at the next class, causing many of us to scramble to remember where he left off last class.… Professor Clarke was wonderful as a professor, mentor and friend.”  —Justice Arthur Lutz (’60)

David Blaikie was an innovative professor. Lectures were never boring—I was always engaged during his classes. Beyond ‘tort law,’ Professor Blaikie looked for ways to teach some ‘life lessons’—perhaps to encourage his students to not commit a tort themselves! One such lesson was taught by way of a ‘VeggieTales’ movie, which is a children’s series created to teach lessons on the consequence of lying or causing harm to others. While there were some raised eyebrows at the intro singing and dancing of the Vegetable characters, he tied the content to the course material in an effective way. Beyond the classroom, Professor Blaikie connected with his students in a personal way. One Thanksgiving, he put out the offer to anyone who was not going home for the holiday, to join his family for a turkey dinner. Given my very tight budget during law school, not only was I not going home, but I wasn’t anticipating a turkey dinner either. Together with a number of other students, I carpooled out to Professor Blaikie’s home and joined his wife and two young daughters for an afternoon of great food and conversation. It was an act of kindness and generosity that made a difference in my law school experience.”   —Tonya Fleming (’02)

The early 70’s were a bit of a golden age for Dalhousie Law School. To have the blazing intellect and rapier wit of Innis Christie at 8:30 a.m., the empathy, experience and charm of Bill Charles at 10 a.m., and the sheer genius of John Willis at 1 o’clock could actually make your head spin. Jim Rendall with his air traffic controller arms waving and his sonorous ‘Come in Mr. So and So…’; Hudson Janisch who appeared to terrify everyone (maybe even Dean Ronald St. John Macdonald) and dear Murray Fraser who would greet dazed first years in Torts class by rolling up his sleeves and saying: ‘Okay, what are the insane rumours floating around this week?’ The sartorially splendid Don Kerr, who made boats and whistles sing. One of my own strongest memories is of the great Dr. Horace Read, in a gesture to the first year that saw a significant increase in the enrolment of women, asking, ‘Miss Clancy, what would the reasonable person think?’ The warm welcoming personality of John Yogis, friend extraordinaire to generations of students, is a treasure for all who know him—but as with Bill Charles and Hugh Kindred, we of the Class of ’74 feel they belong particularly to us. How amazingly fortunate we were, to be educated by such scholars and professionals. But even more fortunate to be able to call these exceptional people friends, mentors, advisors, and guides. It was a golden age and a golden time and those of us who benefited so greatly are forever grateful to all our shining faculty, to the law school and to Dalhousie.”  — Mary Clancy  (’74)  

Spot your favourite professor

  • Archibald, Bruce
  • Arnold, Terence
  • Arymowicz, Charles
  • Ashley, Susan
  • Axworthy, Christopher
  • Aylward, Carol
  • Balogh, Leslie
  • Bankier, Jennifer
  • Barry, Leo
  • Batt, H. Graham
  • Beckton, Clare
  • Beeson, Eunice
  • Bissett-Johnson, Alastair
  • Black, Vaughan
  • Blaikie, David
  • Boyle, Christine
  • Bradbrook, Adrian
  • Bradley, Sarah
  • Brooks,  Kim
  • Carrothers, A.W.R.
  • Cavarzan, John
  • Charles, William
  • Chircop, Aldo
  • Christie, Innis
  • Clark, Donald
  • Clark, Lorenne
  • Clarke, Lorne
  • Cotter, W. Brent
  • CoughLan, Stephen
  • Cowan, Gordon
  • Cowie, Ian
  • Crocker, Brian
  • Cromwell, Thomas
  • Crouse, George
  • Currie, Robert
  • Curtis, George
  • Darby, Peter
  • Dawkins, Joan
  • Deturbide, Michael
  • Devlin, Richard
  • Dickson, William
  • Doelle, Meinhard
  • Donald, Robert
  • Downie, Jocelyn
  • Doyle-Bedwell, Patricia
  • Duncan, Linda
  • Durnford, Eric
  • Edmeades, Bazett
  • Edwards, John
  • Elgie, Robert
  • Elkadem, Sherifa
  • Emond, D. Paul
  • Erdman, Joanna
  • Evans, Keith
  • Evans, Richard
  • Feeney, Thomas
  • Foote, Arthur
  • Franey, Donna
  • Fraser, David
  • Fraser, Murray
  • Gibson, Elaine
  • Giffin, Judith
  • Ginn, Diana
  • Girard, Philip
  • Gold, Edgar
  • Goode, Matthew
  • Hadskis, Michael
  • Hammond, Grant
  • Hancock, Moffatt
  • Hansen, Brian
  • Harris, Edwin
  • Harrison, Rowland
  • Hendry, James
  • Herder, Matthew
  • Hertz, Michael
  • Hughes, Elizabeth
  • Hutchins, Clayton
  • Hyndman, Patricia
  • Inrig, George
  • Janisch, Hudson
  • Jobson, Keith
  • Johnston, Douglas
  • Jones, T. Cedric
  • Kaiser, H. Archibald
  • Kemsley, Thomas
  • Khimji, Mohamed
  • Kindred, Hugh
  • Krishna, Vern
  • Lafferty, Lorraine
  • Lahey, William
  • Langille, Brian
  • Lederman, W.R.
  • Letalik, Norman
  • Llewellyn, Jennifer
  • Loomer, Geoffrey
  • Lowry, David
  • McBride, Timothy
  • Macdonald, Angus
  • Macdonald, Ronald St. John
  • MacDonald, Vincent
  • McDougall, Ian
  • MacIntosh, Constance
  • MacKay, A. Wayne
  • MacKay, W. Andrew
  • MacLauchlan, Wade
  • MacLeod, C. Douglas
  • Macklin, Audrey
  • MacQuarrie, John
  • MacRae, Donald
  • Machum, Donald
  • Makuch, Stanley
  • Malcolm, Candace
  • Marks, Bernard
  • Matthewman, Anne
  • McConnell, Moira
  • Meagher, Arthur
  • Mills, Stephen
  • Milner, James
  • Morrison, Ann
  • Mullan, David
  • Murphy, Ronalda
  • Murray, R. Graham
  • Nicholls, Christopher
  • Nicholls, George
  • Nunn, D. Merlin
  • O’Brien, H. Leslie
  • Oguamanam, Chidi
  • Ortego, Willard
  • Penney, Jonathon
  • Pothier, Dianne
  • Read, Horace
  • Read, John
  • Rendall, James
  • Reynolds, Graham
  • Rodley, Nigel
  • Rossiter, Gary
  • Russell, Benjamin
  • Russell, Dawn
  • Samek, Robert
  • Saunders, Phillip
  • Savage, Harvey
  • Scassa, Teresa
  • Shapiro, Jonathan
  • Skene, Graeme
  • Smith, Sidney
  • Soberman, Daniel
  • Sommerville, T.  William
  • Steinberg, Lawrence
  • Stuart, Barry
  • Thomas, Paul
  • Thompson, D.A. Rollie
  • Thornhill, Esmeralda
  • Tomblin, William
  • Townsend Gault, Ian
  • Turpel, Mary Ellen
  • Trakman, Leon
  • VanderZwaag, David
  • Walker, David
  • Weldon, Richard
  • Wiktor, Christian
  • Wildman, Sheila
  • Wildsmith, Bruce
  • Williams, Michelle
  • Willis, John
  • Woodman, Faye
  • Yogis, John