Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Teaching as Product Differentiation: Studying under Professor Arthur D. Austin

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Teaching as Product Differentiation: Studying under Professor Arthur D. Austin

Article excerpt

No one I know wanted to miss class when Professor Arthur Austin taught. Professor Austin taught my first-year Contracts class, which met four days a week, including Fridays. And the class began before 8:00 a.m. Thursday nights were an essential social event for the majority of our first-year class. It is thus significant that people still wanted to be in Professor Austin's class so early on Friday morning.

The emphasis on attendance held true, even when you knew that there was a substantial likelihood that you would be put on the spot that day. Professor Austin did not warn students that he would call on them ahead of time, nor did he move through the class list alphabetically, by row, or by seat. He did, however, use fairly identifiable and objective criteria; they were just different than the usual criteria for student selection.

If the case concerned a contract to which Allegheny College was a party, (1) for example, and a student in the class attended Allegheny College for his undergraduate studies, that student could be fairly confident that Professor Austin would call on him to discuss that case. (2) Or, if it was a Friday before a football Saturday on which the University of Notre Dame was scheduled to play, and a student attended the University of Notre Dame for her undergraduate studies, she could be fairly certain that she was going to be called on. (3) It was perhaps more difficult for my classmates who grew up in the Cleveland area and had attended either University School or Hawken School. For them, every day was a day that Professor Austin could put them on the spot.

On top of his somewhat unorthodox method of stimulating class participation, Arthur Austin was not a particularly easy grader. He did not let his students off easy in class.

Given all the courses that students could chose to take, and given Professor Austin's demanding grading style, participation expectations, and the early hour of the class, the question remains: why would students rarely miss his class? (4) In general, Professor Arthur Austin taught law in much the same manner as his faculty colleagues--the Socratic Method. He was as entertaining as anyone can be teaching first-year Contracts, but never abandoned his purpose for being there. Rather, the answer lies with two aspects of Professor Austin's approach that subtly shaped his students and drew their interest into the particular subject matter.

First, before his students walked into the classroom, Professor Austin seemed to know an alarmingly large amount of information about their pasts. This is even more incredible considering that these were the pre-Internet days of 1987. Professor Austin seemed to know far more than would be possible if he had each student's entire application file in front of him. Though never unnerving, exactly how Professor Austin had acquired such information is the academic equivalent of a proprietary trade secret. What his "research" really showed, however, was that before his students walked into the classroom, Professor Austin not only invested time in his course's subject matter (which he obviously knew cold), but also devoted hours to learning about his students.

Second, Professor Austin's teaching style never divided the class or encouraged competition among the students. Rather, he made class more like a friendly contest (relatively) between the class and himself. Professor Austin's message was far different from the overly dramatized 1L stereotype that 33 percent of the class would be decimated through all-out competition. (5) Rather, he emphasized collaboration among classmates. In this way, Professor Austin's view was farsighted.

These two aspects of Professor Austin's teaching style--getting to know the students and encouraging cooperation among them--were part of his way of differentiating his instructional product from that of the other highly regarded professors in the law school. …

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