Honoring My Teachers: 2019 Rutter Award Acceptance Speech

Thank you Dean Mnookin, for those very kind remarks, and thank you all so much for being here. I am so incredibly grateful for this honor. When Dean Mnookin called me to tell me I had received the Rutter Award I immediately thought of the 2017 Academy Awards when Warren Beatty announced that La La Land had won the Oscar for Best Picture when in fact Moonlight had won.[1] I expected at any minute she would say that there had been some terrible mistake. But here we are, and that has not happened yet, so I’m going to run with it.

I want to begin by thanking Paul Rutter and his family for establishing the Rutter Award and for recognizing that teaching is something to be celebrated in the legal academy. One of the reasons I felt so lucky to join the faculty at UCLA is because this is a school that values teaching, and receiving this award is such a wonderful confirmation of that.

There are also a host of people here at UCLA Law that I would like to thank. There is always a risk that in naming people that you will leave someone critical off the list, but I would be remiss if I did not thank the following:

  • my colleagues Tendayi Achiume, Devon Carbado, Kristen Eichensehr, Richard Re, Joanna Schwartz, and Alex Wang, who have been constant sounding boards for me regarding teaching and engaging our students;
  • the incredible educators who teach legal research and writing to our first-year students at UCLA, giving them a firm grounding in the law and thereby making it so much easier for those of us who teach doctrinal courses to do our jobs;
  • Wade Carney, Hagen Tannberg, and Dan Warme, who spearhead our Audio/Visual Department and have saved me more than once from my lack of technological prowess;
  • Jessica Sonley, who is truly the brains of our operation and who helps me in myriad ways from helping create my syllabi and reading materials, to polishing up my final exams, and so much more;
  • And Emily Scivoletto, Tony Tolbert, Brian Hansen, Sean Pine-Treacy, and their The work they do is critical to ensuring the health and happiness of our students, and I have learned a tremendous amount from them all.

I also have to thank Norman Spaulding and Jeannie Merino at Stanford Law School. They opened the door to academia for me by selecting me for the Grey Fellowship and ensured that from day one, I saw teaching as critical to the academic enterprise.

Finally, I am thrilled to be able to thank my parents, Steve and Sue Colgan, who flew all the way from South Dakota to be here today. I would not be the person or teacher that I am without their love and support.

When I was contemplating what to focus my remarks on, I immediately thought about how very lucky I have been to have had many great teachers in my life. There are three in particular that I find myself thinking about a lot when I’m teaching, and so I’d like to spend my time today talking about        what made them so phenomenal and how I try to honor them with my work.

The first person I would like to recognize is Professor Steven Drizin at Northwestern University School of Law. Professor Drizin was my clinical professor in law school. I have so many amazing memories of working with him. He was beside me the very first time I met with a client, the very first time I spoke in court, the very first time I advocated for change in a legislature—he even coauthored my first law review article and my first book chapter.

One of Professor Drizin’s true gifts as a teacher is that he sees his students as partners in the legal enterprise. He, of course, brought to the table the insights, knowledge, and talent he had honed over years of practice, and I learned so much that would shape my career from that alone. But he also sought out his students’ thoughts and opinions as we developed case strategy, collaborated on briefs, and prepared for hearings. In doing so, he helped us learn to trust our instincts and to see our potential as advocates.

And so, in my teaching, I try to honor Professor Drizin by recognizing that my students are fellow travelers in understanding the law.

For example, this year I’m teaching a seminar in which we investigate pressing issues in criminal justice reform—including the opioid epidemic, penal disenfranchisement, the criminalization of homelessness, and more. In the class we seek to identify interventions that can reform and improve policies related to those issues. In every class, I find myself surrounded by a group of brilliant, insightful, dedicated, soon-to-be lawyers interrogating some of the most pressing policy matters of our time. I learned a great deal from these students; not only have they opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about these problems, but the experience of teaching this class has made clear to me that UCLA Law alums can and should be at the center of criminal justice policy reform in this country. I cannot wait to see the ways in which these students will bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.[2]

The second teacher I walk to talk about is Professor Jody Maxmin at my undergraduate institution, Stanford University. I only took one class from Professor Maxmin because I didn’t find her until nearly the end of my undergraduate career. The class was Introduction to Greek Art History and there is a significant chance that if I had taken the class as a freshman that right now I’d be an art historian instead of a law professor.

The reason Professor Maxmin was so important to me as a student, is because she helped me understand my worth.

As many of you know, I grew up in a very small town in South Dakota, and while I had in many ways a good education, I did have educational deficiencies as compared to many of my peers at Stanford. I didn’t even know what an “AP” class was when I arrived on campus as a freshman, let alone have an opportunity to have taken one.

A few weeks in to my freshman year, one of my instructors asked me a question in class. I remember steadying my nerves and saying something along the lines of, “Well, if you take it from the perspective of the boor-gee-os people . . . ” Before I could get any farther, the other students and the instructor all started laughing. And the really awful part was I didn’t even know why they were laughing, because I had never heard the word “bourgeois” before so I had no idea what I had done wrong. And while in retrospect there is a certain delicious irony in it being that word, the lesson I took from that day was that I did not belong, that someone in the admissions office had made a terrible mistake in letting me in, and that I would never, ever speak in class again.

And so, while I love my alma mater and had so many tremendous experiences there, what I did over the next several semesters was keep my head down, never go to office hours, and try to stay invisible. And I regret that, because there are so many great conversations I may have participated in, and so many opportunities to learn at a deeper level that I missed.

Enter Professor Maxmin. I did not know the first thing about Greek art when I walked into class but by the end of day one, I was hooked. She made the art come alive—you could practically feel the wind in your face at the Parthenon when she spoke of it—and I couldn’t get enough.

If she hadn’t been so compelling I may have dropped the course, because the first major assignment for the class was to write a piece of poetry regarding the art we were studying, which we then had to read in front of the entire class. Suffice it to say, my nerves were a jumble. But when I arrived in class that afternoon, and saw that everyone was nervous, I realized that we were all in the same boat: we were all non-artists writing poetry about art. And while Seamus Heaney[3] or Langston Hughes[4] I was not, my poem held up fairly well in class.

When it came time for the next assignment, the imposter syndrome I had felt throughout college had subsided just a bit. As a result, I was able to write with a renewed sense of confidence.

That waivered after turning the assignment in of course, but when I got comments on it from Professor Maxim, she solidified that confidence and set me on a new educational path. She had spent so much time with the piece, pointing out what worked, what could be improved—she even suggested a book about the writings of Abraham Lincoln she thought would interest me. She displayed the same enthusiasm for my efforts as she had for Greek art itself. And that enthusiasm and her belief in my work led me to believe that I belonged.

I still have those comments. And every once in a while, when I feel imposter syndrome creep back up again—as it did when I first began in my academic career and on occasion since—I take them out and read them.

To honor Professor Maxmin, I try to do two things: first, when I’m in front of the room or with students in office hours, or commenting on a paper, I try to make the law come alive. Fortunately for me, I get to teach about police interrogations,[5] eye witness identification,[6] stop and frisk,[7] deadly and excessive force,[8] law enforcement’s use of new technology to surveil people,[9] and so many other issues that are of critical importance to understanding the way the Constitution does and does not provide us protection from government overreach, as well as how those protections may depend on who we are and where we live.[10] This area of study is inherently exciting, and I just hope that I do the material justice.

Second, I try to create spaces where students who don’t think they belong, who are unsure of whether they have what it takes, can find their footing. And it is important to me that I do that in the way that Professor Maxmin did: by setting the bar high and knowing that my students can meet it, even—and perhaps especially—in settings outside of their comfort zone.

That is one of the key reasons I use the Socratic method. I fully understand that some, and perhaps many, of my students feel nervous or unsure of themselves when called on in class because the dialogue we have is on issues for which they necessarily do not have expertise. I also know that if they put in the effort they can reach any bar I set. And I believe that each time they hear their own voice reasoning through the law as I heard my voice reading that poem, the closer they will come to understanding that they can be great at this profession.

The final teacher I want to talk about happens to be in the room today. It’s my mom—Sue Colgan—sitting right up here.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m from a very small town, and so there were very few teachers, and my mom was one of them. I actually had my mother as a teacher three times. In addition to that, our middle and high school buildings were attached and so from sixth grade through twelfth grade, every day I went to school my mom was there. And as you might imagine, for a preteen and then teenage girl, that wasn’t always ideal.

Let me give you a few examples.

One day, as my mom trudged up the steps of our high school, she realized she was limping. She was in a hurry though, and didn’t have time to think about how she might have been injured, so put it out of her mind. Later that day in the middle of her sixth period class, one of her students raised his hand and politely pointed out that she was wearing two different shoes. She’d gotten dressed in the dark that morning to avoid waking my dad, and managed to put a sensible brown pump with a one-inch heel on her right foot and a black sling back with a one-and-a-half-inch heel on her left. She and her students got a good laugh out of it, but when the story got back to me, I was not quite so amused. Not only was my mom spastic enough to wear two different shoes and think she’d spontaneously developed a limp, but the boy who pointed it out was three grades ahead of me and arguably the cutest boy in school. I was horrified.

Here’s another one. Once during class, she reached into her desk drawer for her Chapstick. She grabbed the familiar-feeling tube, popped off the top, and applied the creamy concoction to her lips. But as she began to rub her lips together, she realized something had gone terribly wrong; her lips seemed to be sticking together. Looking down, she saw that the tube in her hand wasn’t Chapstick, but glue stick. As her students began to giggle, she grabbed a tissue to quickly wipe it off. Unfortunately, the tissue adhered to the glue and stuck in clumps to her lips, making it look as if her mouth had been tarred and feathered.

She could have used some Chapstick on the day she kissed a pig in front of the entire high school. A fundraiser for the school had begun a few weeks earlier, which involved jars being placed in the principal’s office bearing each teacher’s name. The teacher belonging to the jar that was stuffed with the most money would be required to kiss a pig. Let me just pause here a moment to say to Dean Mnookin, please don’t get any fundraising ideas here. So as it turned out, the history teacher was sneaking in each morning and moving the money around so my mom’s jar would be far in the lead. When the bills and coins were tallied, his ploy had worked. My mom therefore stood in front of a gymnasium full of laughing, chanting students, puckered up, and planted one on the little porker.

Years later, when I was home for the holidays, I woke up one morning to find my mom was gone. Once again, she’d snuck out early, this time to visit a student who had been arrested and was being held in the local jail. Christmas is my mom’s very favorite time of year—I’ve never met anyone who loves it as much as she does—and she didn’t think anyone should be alone on the holidays. By that time she’d moved on from my high school and had taken a job at an alternative school for kids who couldn’t manage a regular school environment, because they were in trouble with the law, seriously ill, pregnant, or from families who were just too poor for them to choose fulltime school over a job. Most people give up on kids like that.

The thing is, my mom was a phenomenal teacher. The reason she wore two different shoes is because she woke up and got to school before dawn so she could prepare for her classes, oversee drill team practice, or do any of the hundreds of things she did for her students. She ended up with tissue glued to her lips because she was so engaged in what her students were saying that she wouldn’t dare take a few seconds to look down for her Chapstick. She kissed a pig because she knew our school was an underfunded rural school and she believed her students deserved books and computers and all the materials they needed to learn. And she taught the kids most people gave up on because she knew all of her students had worth. And on top of all of that, she’s the teacher that assigned To Kill a Mockingbird[11] and made me think for the first time about a future in the law.

And so, to honor my mom, I keep in mind that every one of my students deserves my best effort, even when that means doing something slightly embarrassing. So if I have to bring out my childhood Princess Leia[12] doll to teach my first year Criminal Law students about valuation of stolen goods,[13] or if I have to reveal my lifelong crush on movie icon Patrick Swayze[14] so that my Criminal Procedure students will remember the role probable cause plays in the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement,[15] I am happy to do it. Because as my mom will tell you, doing this job is a tremendous honor.

So to conclude I will just say this: I feel so very privileged to have a career where I can strive to honor the great teachers who have shaped my life, and I am deeply grateful for this recognition.

Thank you.

[1]. 89th Academy Awards (ABC television broadcast Feb. 26, 2017).

[2]. John Craig, Wesleyan Baccalaureate is Delivered by Dr. King, Harford Courant (June 8, 1964) (quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”).

[3]. See, e.g., Seamus Heaney, Requiem for the Croppies, Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996 23 (1998).

[4]. See, e.g., Langston Hughes, Let America be America Again, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes 189–91 (1995).

[5]. See, e.g., Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

[6]. See, e.g., United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218 (1967).

[7]. See, e.g., Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1967).

[8]. See, e.g., Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).

[9]. See, e.g., Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018).

[10]. See Devon Carbado, From Stopping Black People to Killing Black People: The Fourth Amendment Pathways to Police Violence, 105 Calif. L. Rev. 125 (2017); Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[11]. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

[12]. Princess (later General) Leia Organa is a primary character in the Star Wars film franchise. See, e.g., Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm 1978).

[13]. See, e.g., People v. Renfro, 250 Cal. App. 2d 921 (1967).

[14]. See, e.g., Dirty Dancing (Great American Films Limited Partnership 1987).

[15]. See, e.g., California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991).

About the Author

Beth Colgan is a Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. Her primary research and teaching interests are in criminal law and procedure and juvenile justice.