What the Best Law Teacher Did

This essay was written by Nelson P. Miller, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus.  Dean Miller recently received the honor of being named one of the best 26 law teachers in America in a book mentioned below.  Rather than touting himself, Dean Miller has written about his esteemed Cooley colleague, Professor Phil Prygoski, who likewise is listed in the book. Cooley is the only law school with more than one law teacher featured.

The best.  How few get to say that they were the best at anything.  Ruth and Aaron in baseball.  Nicklaus and Woods in golf.  Lincoln as president, Churchill as prime minister, Patton and Eisenhower as generals.  Shakespeare as playwright and Milton as poet.  Einstein.  Mozart.  Maybe Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, though in the latter case time must tell.  And then Cooley had Professor Phil Prygoski.

prygoski

Harvard University Press just published a 323-page study What the Best Law Teachers Do collecting and presenting evidence of the inspirational teaching practices of 26 of the nation’s best law professors.  The book makes Phil Prygoski, for 35 years a beloved constitutional law professor at Cooley, prominent among those 26—in our own view, the best of the best.

The book liberally quotes Phil’s students saying the following about him, among other glowing credits to his decades of teaching at Cooley:

  • “He knows so much and his knowledge is so thorough you just can’t help but want to get to that point… .”
  • “For somebody who’s been doing this thirty, thirty-five, maybe forty years, for him to still love that process, I’ve got to love that process too.  Because if it still excites him after that long, I want it to still excite me after that long.”
  • “I think part of what makes him so successful is just the knowledge he has… .  So he’s constantly not just making us think and keeping us in tune with everything, but he does it for himself… .”
  • “The class is always forward thinking … based on what you know now of the constitutional law.”
  • “He forces you to operate in the gray area and understand that you might have these preconceptions when you walk in… .  But by the end … you open your eyes and you say, ‘There are arguments on both sides of this.’”

Phil would have shrugged off the compliments to turn the attention back to his students.  As the book records one of his students saying, “He didn’t want me to, you know, praise him and tell him how awesome he was and how much I learned.  It was more like, ‘talk to me about my experience.’”  Phil was not the focus of his own teaching.  Rather, he kept the focus where it belonged, on the subject and students.  As another student reported, “As long as you were prepared and you were trying, he wanted to hear what you had to say.”

Yet the Harvard Press book is exquisitely poignant in lauding Phil so highly. Phil has not taught since March 2012, shortly after the study collected its data on Phil, when he suffered a severe brain injury in the classroom.  After months of hospitalization and special nursing care, Phil now recovers at home under the care of his wife and family.  Colleague Pat Corbett and other Cooley faculty recently led a fundraiser to buy a wheelchair-accessible van and home therapy equipment to aid in Phil’s arduous recovery.

Phil can no longer reveal for students the rich mysteries of constitutional law, an intellectual task that challenges the healthiest and most able of law professors.  Yet nothing—not age, nor disability, nor even demise—will ever take from Phil that he was the very best at that privileged task.  Consider what the book quotes Phil as saying about his students and craft:

  • “You’ve got to start them out easy.  You’ve got to nurture them.”
  • “I think a big part of motivation … is the passion for the subject … and if they see that you’re passionate, and you’re jacked up about it, and that you care, they’re going to buy into it.”
  • “I think the ability of the student to empathize with the teachers, with the other people in the room, with the people in the cases that we’re talking about, [and with] clients, I think that’s very, very important.”
  • “Getting [a] good answer from … and praising them … this is extremely important to me.”

John Wayne.  Fred Astaire.  Van Cliburn.  Louis Armstrong.  Beethoven.  Mozart.  The best, Phil.  You were the best.  Your Cooley family celebrates what it has long known about you and celebrates even further that the world now knows it.

Cooley’s faculty just completed its own book tribute to Phil, dedicating the just-published Teaching Law Practice:  Educating the Next Generation of Lawyers (Vandeplas 2013), to Phil’s rich legacy of instruction at the school.  

1 Comment

Filed under About Cooley Law School, History, Faculty Scholarship, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics

One response to “What the Best Law Teacher Did

  1. Words like “nuture” and “empathize” might give the impression that Professor Prygoski, Dean Nelson, and the other Best Law Teachers won their coveted spots by being softies. But the authors of the book make clear that “Most of the teachers use Socratic-style questioning as an important teaching tool to engage their students. Overwhelmingly, the teachers expect all students to speak in class regularly, and, regardless of whether the students have volunteered, call on students.” And Dean Miller argues for preserving the Socratic Method, legal education’s “signature pedagogy,” in the May 2009 Michigan Bar Journal. It CAN be employed in a nuturing, empathetic manner, as Dean Miller and Professor Prygoski have proven so well.

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