pageok
pageok
pageok
Clark Byse:
I was saddened to learn this weekend that the legendary Harvard Law professor Clark Byse died earlier this month at the age of 95. Byse is often said to have been the inspiration for Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase." Harvard's press release is here.

  I came to know Professor Byse in my third year of law school in the Spring of 1997 when I was writing a seminar paper on the Socratic Method. (That seminar paper later became a short article, The Decline of the Socratic Method at Harvard, 78 Neb. L. Rev. 113 (1999).) Byse had been a famously Socratic professor at Harvard before he retired from teaching there, and I visited Professor Byse in his office and asked if he was willing to be interviewed as part of my seminar research. He didn't know me from Adam, but I explained to him that I was interested in his views of different teaching styles as a student and how his views as a student had influenced his style as a young professsor.

  I'll never forget his response. "As a young professor?!?!", he proclaimed. "That was 1939!!!! Do you think I can remember all the way back to 1939?!?! Up yours, Buster!!!" After about a second of surprise I burst into laughter. Here was this legendary professor, still obviously quite with it, poking fun at his own age and proclaiming "up yours" to a student he had never seen before. I sensed that it was a test, and I was right: Upon seeing my open laughter, Professor Byse immediately softened and a big smile broke across his face. He asked, "Are you free for lunch sometime? I'd be happy to talk about it."

  About a week later, he and I met for lunch at the Hark and he charmed me with stories about his career, about teaching, and about how legal academia had changed in his five decades as a law professor. It was an extraordinary treat for a student interested in academia, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Byse was somewhat saddened that his rigorous Socratic approach had gone out of style; he thought that being absolutely demanding in class was the best possible way to sharpen the minds of students and teach them how to "think like a lawyer." He saw it as something like Marine Corps boot camp: very tough, but very tough for a very good reason. He thought it unfortunate that the modern approach was "kinder and gentler," as he feared that rigor had been sacrificed along the way.

  I occasionally kept in touch with Professor Byse to let him know how I was doing. I remember being particularly proud when I wrote to tell him I had been hired at GW; he wrote me back a very gracious letter in return that I still have in my files. Anyway, I'm sure many VC readers knew Professor Byse much better than I did; I hope some readers who knew Byse will consider leaving a comment or two about him.

  UPDATE: One recollection from a former student is here.
Matt Bruce (mail) (www):
I had Byse as a 1L in 1996-97. The in-class exchanges were superb, bringing to light just how deeply motivated he was to have students who had mastered the material and who really knew how to think and act like top-notch lawyers.

One of my biggest regrets about law school is failing to keep in touch with some fantastic professors (one of whom is a VC contributor).

The most famous blogger among Byse's former students is probably Markos Moulitsas. This Google search seems to indicate a lack of obituary, though that may change soon.
10.29.2007 3:06am
Dennis Nolan (mail):
Clark Byse was one of the best teachers in my educational experience. I took his Contracts class way back in 1967-68 and immediately grasped the power of his use of the socratic method and his respect for the system of private ordering created by contract law.

One correction to a widespread myth. Byse was not "the" model for Kingsfield. The author of the book, my classmate Jay Osborne, wasn't in Byse's section. If I remember correctly, he had Lon Fuller, who was the antithesis of Kingsfield. What Jay did, I believe, was put together stories of various tough Harvard profs among whom were Byse and (from an earlier generation) Bull Warren. Jay now teaches in California. I hope he sees this post and responds to it.

One example of Byse's method: I was the 1967-68 victim of a "shrouding," in which Byse mimicked putting his suit jacket over me as a shroud and telling me to shut up for the rest of the semester. (Try that in your next class and see what it does to your student evaluations! My "sin" was to have suggested on three occasions that Traynor's decision in Drennan v. Star Paving was worth considering. Byse thought that the worst decision Traynor ever wrote.) I understood his pedagogical technique and, after the immediate embarrassment and shock, I got over the shrouding and came back from the departed.

Byse and I, incongrously, found ourselves on the same side of a later dispute. As on other campuses, the antiwar left tried to shut down the law school by the usual means. Byse, a traditional liberal who demonstrated his belief in academic freedom in his work with the AAUP, was appalled. We were among the small minority who protested those activities at a public meeting.

Byse was one of the greats. Those who knew him will feel the loss.
10.29.2007 9:23am
HappyConservative:
I think that having a harsh teaching method benefits some students and harms others.

(1) Some students who have thick skins will find the whole process amusing. That would be someone like me.

(2) Some student who do not have thick skins will develop thick skins. But after going through some emotional trauma, the costs and distraction of which will vary in individual cases.

(3) Some sensitive individuals will not develop thick skins and will face high emotional costs not only during the class, but afterwards. They might even write a book afterwards about how traumatic the whole experience was. For these people, the costs of employing harsh teaching methods likely far outweigh the benefits.

On the whole, it seems like harsh teaching benefits probably have higher costs than benefits. The small benefits that many people experience (thicker skins and artificial external pressure as opposed to internal motivation) are probably outweighed by very high costs to those who are sensitive and who will never "get over it."
10.29.2007 12:12pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
I sensed that it was a test, and I was right: Upon seeing my open laughter, Professor Byse immediately softened and a big smile broke across his face.

I'm curious--what do you think he was testing you for? Would you have failed if you'd taken his response as implying that he was trying to get rid of you, and politely apologized for bothering him, then left? Would you have passed if your laughter had signified your having concluded that he was obviously hopelessly senile, and therefore could be safely mocked to his face?

In Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis writes about Wall Street firms testing applicants to see whether they can be even ruder, more arrogant and more belligerent than their interviewers. Could law professors really be so much worse that they throw the same test at random visiting students, just for kicks?
10.29.2007 3:50pm
OrinKerr:
Dan,

My understanding is that Professor Byse had encountered a lot of hostility from Harvard Law students in the 1970s and 1980s. Harvard was politically pretty radical back then, and Byse was seen as a representative of the old conservative order that many students had fought to overthrow (although he himself was politically liberal, as I understand it). That's why Byse no longer taught at Harvard in the 1990s, as I understand it: he would commute and teach at BU instead because students were less obnoxious to him there. So I understood Byse to be seeing if I was like the Harvard students he was trying to avoid by teaching at BU. That's my guess, at least.
10.29.2007 4:21pm
Damon:
He scared the hell out of me at BUSL in the early 90's.
I hadn't thought of him in years, but was just last week sharing Clark Byse stories with a colleague whose wife is teaching at HLS this semester.

It's a shame he's gone, and I'm disappointed the news wasn't better spread. But he had a long run, and he'll be long remembered.
10.29.2007 5:08pm
Attila (Pillage Idiot) (mail) (www):
Scared the hell out of me, too, quite a few years ago in Administrative Law. I responded the only way I could -- by trying to wisecrack my way out of a bad situation. I'm not sure how well that went over with him, but he definitely appreciated the practical joke. One friend in my row hadn't been called on for half a semester, so I sneaked in before class and put a note next to his picture on the seating chart asking Byse, "Please call on me. I'm too shy to volunteer in class." This really cracked Byse up.

Despite his tough side, I had no doubt by the end of the semester that Byse cared more about teaching than pretty much anyone else there. He was a good man.
10.29.2007 10:21pm