Showing Up

I’m sure you’ve all known people who hate talking about themselves.

I’m not one of those people.

I’d like to begin by thanking at least a small number of the people to whom I feel very grateful right now. Of course, first on this list is Paul Rutter and the Rutter family for their generosity and farsightedness in creating and sustaining the Rutter Award, not only here at UCLA but at other California law schools as well. It’s a bittersweet thing for me that I’m unable to shake Bill Rutter’s hand personally today. Although I’ve attended many of these ceremonies and several times had the opportunity to say hello to Bill, I don’t think I ever told him how much I hoped that I would one day win the award that he so generously created. But it’s a great pleasure to be able to share this experience with Paul and to thank him.

I’d of course also like to thank Dean Rachel Moran and the members of the secret-handshake club that apparently decides on these things, and which I’m told I will now have to join, at least for a year’s trial membership. Rachel and her decanal predecessors during my time here—Steve Yeazell, Michael Schill, Norm Abrams, Jon Varat, and Susan Prager—will always have my affection and appreciation for all they’ve done to support me and to make UCLA School of Law the most wonderful place to work that I could ever have hoped for. And I also want to recognize those of my colleagues who, in my earlier years here, helped me to teach better and just to be better—Alison Anderson, Jerry Lopez, Steve Yeazell, David Binder, and my late friend and colleague, Julian Eule. I’m also the daily beneficiary of proximity to a master teacher of literature and writing—my wonderful wife Andrea Bell.

But, more than anyone else, I would like to thank my students, who have done more than they know over twenty-two years to inspire me, at times to buoy my spirits, and to help me to grow. We who teach here are truly blessed to engage on a daily basis with the intoxicating mixture of intelligence, curiosity, and hope that is our student body. So long as I teach at UCLA Law, I need never fear that I will wake up one morning and wonder if my daily work holds meaning and significance for me. That meaning and significance are imparted to me every time I enter the classroom.

Although for many years after joining the UCLA faculty I doubted my own abilities as a teacher, it did not take me long to make a crucial contribution to pedagogy at UCLA Law—one for which two decades of new professors have had reason to be grateful. At the end of my very first Civil Procedure class in January of 1993, a student—I’m pretty sure that it was Stephen Simon ‘95, now Executive Director of the City of Los Angeles Department on Disability—came up to the podium and advised me that he found my manner of gesticulating and waving my arms around to be distracting and that he would appreciate it if I stopped that. I knew that I had numerous rough edges as a teacher, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have a habit of waving my arms when I taught. (I leave that to Steve Yeazell.) I then noticed that I had left the bright green dry cleaning tag on the sleeve of my suit jacket. It has ever since been communicated to new law professors at UCLA that, no matter what they do, they will never win the award for the most vivid self-immolation committed by a first-year professor here. It is really just a battle for second place.

Stephen’s pitying diplomacy is just one of the many acts of generosity bestowed on me by my students, who have always seemed to want things to go well, not just for their own sake, but for me too. I think of Susie Santana, Julie Martinez, and (I believe) Kristi Cobb, who made a pilgrimage to my office that same spring semester of 1993 after I failed to react in class to a particularly insensitive remark made by a classmate. They were so open hearted in their message that I almost forgot that I was being hauled on the carpet. That experience has never left me. I thank them and the many students who have engaged me in similarly constructive and supportive dialogue since that day.

So—what about teaching?

Some years ago I read some words written by one of my favorite musicians, the pianist Keith Jarrett, in the liner notes to one of the albums recorded by his jazz trio. In describing the characteristics of the music the trio seeks to create in live performance, Jarrett says:

It is a discrimination against mechanical pattern, for content, against habit, for surprise, against easy virtuosity, for saying more with less, against facile emotion, for a certain quality of energy, against stasis, for flow, against military precision, for tactile pulse. It is like an attempt, over and over again, to reveal the heart of things.Given the above, jazz is not “about” the material.[1]

Now, I’m not so pompous as to suggest that there are many parallels between the kind of brilliance offered by Keith Jarrett’s trio and what goes on in the classes I teach. An episode of the TV show The Price is Right is probably a closer analogy. Still, I’m struck by Jarrett’s comment that “jazz is not ‘about’ the material.” Jarrett’s trio always starts with “material,” usually a musical standard drawn from the American pop repertoire. Yet what matters is what they do with that material. That “doing” is never prefabricated or preordained.

Similarly, in Civil Procedure we always begin with something, with some “material,” that is recognizably Civil Procedure. Obviously I’m not going to assign material about German history or the second law of thermodynamics, although students of mine know that I’m not above making the music of Cole Porter a central feature of our study of summary judgment. Yet it is what we teachers can do with the material that invites students into the enterprise and makes learning a real and dynamic experience. Sure, deep knowledge of the subject and careful preparation are indispensable, but students have a right to think of these as minimal standards for any competent teacher. Nor is it a matter simply of technique, even though there’s some technique involved.

Really, for me it comes almost completely from the fact that I love what I teach and I want to be there in that room. For twenty-two years I’ve taught a subject, Civil Procedure, for which my training did not especially prepare me and on which I have published virtually no scholarly work. Yet I never tire of the dialectics of res judicata, or of what my beloved teacher, Bob Cover, called “the irony of jurisdiction.” I can’t help it. It’s good to have weird tastes sometimes. I’ve been amazed to learn over the years how one’s evident enthusiasm for the subject and one’s palpable desire to be present can compensate for a multitude of pedagogic sins. It is enough to create a sense for me, and I hope my students, that we are involved in something worthwhile. The classroom dynamics that result are the closest I am able to get to what Jarrett calls the “attempt . . . to reveal the heart of things.”[2]

I mentioned the desire to be present—something I can’t reasonably expect on a daily basis from students, especially during Final Four season, but to which I aspire for myself. Woody Allen is frequently quoted as saying, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.”[3] I’ve invested that statement with a particular meaning, probably different from what most people take it to mean. And it doesn’t just apply to teaching. So get ready—I’m about to say something insufferably wise.

To me the Woody Allen quote suggests that, maybe, getting to a place where you feel comfortable in yourself and confident in what you’re doing isn’t just about constantly striving and straining to improve and to be the greatest thing. Sometimes it’s about “showing up” each day and following two basic rules: (1) treat others with respect and (2) don’t phone it in. Herculean efforts and impossibly high standards are appreciated but not required. It’s about the fact that actually “being there” during the years as they pass, and eventually getting to some other place we couldn’t have imagined, is something in which we can take pride and satisfaction. There are many texts on this theme—I think of the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”: “You do not have to be good.”[4] Or a line from the song “Secret O’ Life” by James Taylor, another of my favorite poets: “Try not to try too hard.”[5]

I can’t close without mentioning the most important experience I’ve had since arriving at UCLA, one that has really had an effect on my teaching. I’m speaking of my participation, several years ago, in the work of the Task Force on Learning Environment and Diversity (LEAD) at UCLA Law. Of particular importance to me was my participation in an extended series of intensive, hour-long focus groups in which my colleagues and I listened to firsthand accounts from numerous students concerning their experiences at UCLA Law, in particular the first year of law school. Many of the groups consisted of members of particular student organizations, including identity-based organizations. For me, it wasn’t simply that many of these experiences had been painful ones for these students, although that of course was chastening. It was the fact that I had had such a narrow conception of what it means to be a student sitting in a classroom, or wandering the halls, at UCLA Law. That I had known quite a bit less than I assumed about the hearts and minds of those whose faces I look into each day in class.

There is poignancy in this realization, but also the thrill of discovery. I take less for granted now; my ears and my heart are more open to the ways in which particular words, particular figures of speech, a particular tone of voice, and particular ideas appear differently to different people. It might seem that what I’m implying here is that there is a balkanization of human experience—that we really do not have a common language for coming together and learning together—but to me, the implication is really just the opposite. It is true that we as teachers should aspire to a certain cultural competency, to understand how and why members of diverse groups, indeed diverse individuals, may ascribe different meanings to particular interactions and particular communications. But inculcating a deep awareness of, or at least a deep interest in, the way in which our students are experiencing their varied lives at UCLA School of Law actually brings us back to what is common to all of us. Everyone in this room and at this school understands what it is like to feel alone or isolated. Each of us craves the feeling of home, rather than being simply a guest in someone else’s house. We all want to feel that the teacher or speaker is speaking to us, and not just to some other people in the room while we happen to be observing. There is nothing “else” or “other” about this. To use Emerson’s words, “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”[6]

Well, enough. I’ll conclude with a familiar Yogi Berra-ism, by noting that I’d like to thank everyone who made this day necessary. I look forward to seeing you at the reception. Thank you very much.

[1] Keith Jarrett, Liner Notes to Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings (ECM 1995).

[2] Id.

[3] Steve “Frosty” Weintraub, Woody Allen Interview– Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Collider (Aug. 15, 2008),

[4] Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, in New and Selected Poems, Volume One (2004).

[5] James Taylor, Secret O’ Life, on JT (Columbia 1977).

[6] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, in The Portable Emerson 138, 139 (Carl Bode & Malcolm Cowley eds., 1981).

About the Author

Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law.

By uclalaw