Attention to Detail

–From Kathi Simpson, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Date of event: circa 1976

I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1978. We had a professor who was very cerebral, to the extent that he neglected many things that most people find routine—wearing matching socks, properly buttoning his shirt, and repairing the glasses that perpetually bore a safety pin or piece of tape on the earpiece. There are many stories about this distinguished professor but there are two that occurred in classes I attended.

The first was a Criminal Law class—the last class before the Thanksgiving break our first year. Our classroom was strangely configured in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning (the new Law School building was only weeks away from completion).

The “room” had been, in an earlier era, a suite of offices for the dean of women (when that position existed) and entry was through some very fancy french doors flanked by glass panels. The entry was not visible from the front of the room where the professor stood. It was visible, however, from most seats in the room.

The professor brought his two young sons to class and sat them down with crayons, paper and other diversions to last the lecture (many of the students were insanely jealous). As soon as the professor assumed his position, the crayons were abandoned and the real work of the boys began. From somewhere, they produced a ball of string and some scissors (that was a scary thought). They set to work to “spiderweb” the doorway, a task they completed to the amusement of the students. Their father, however, was totally unaware of their activities even as the class collectively turned to watch the construction, paying not one bit of attention to the lecture. When he did discover the handiwork, he fumed at the culprits to remove the offending web and we all were eventually able to depart and begin the holiday.

In our second year, the same professor taught Constitutional Law. It was the much awaited lecture on obscenity and pornography that packed class that one day (being second year students, we knew that class attendance was generally harmful to your academic success). However, the chance to observe the discourse between our very liberal professor and some conservative members of our class (“but they’re ONLY amendments”) proved a big drawing card.

Our professor was given to physical gestures to emphasize his point and, as he stepped from behind the podium, he waved his arms to illustrate some sage point (now long forgotten). It became immediately obvious to those in the front rows (where people had to sit—it was that crowded) that the professor had forgotten to “zip up” that morning. The laughter rippled through the room and the professor retreated to the safety of his podium to make the necessary adjustments.

McClurg note. Coming to class unzipped is a professor’s worse fear. Most profs check their zipper at least 10 times before every class. When I first arrived at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a long time ago, the legendary Professor Robert R. Wright pulled me aside to share an important tip: “If you’re ever teaching a class and discover your zipper’s open, just say ‘The rule in Arkansas is …’ Everyone will immediately look down to start writing feverishly and you’ll have complete privacy to correct the problem.”

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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