'Gifted with a Second-Sight': Professor Derrick Bell the Teacher
In G. J. Ladson-Billings & W. F. Tate IV (Eds.), Covenant Keeper: Derrick Bell’s Enduring Education Legacy (Forthcoming)
36 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2016 Last revised: 12 May 2016
Date Written: February 3, 2016
In this chapter, I illustrate how Professor Derrick Bell used his constitutional law course to teach not only legal doctrine, but also life lessons. In the words of the renowned African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, Professor Bell was “gifted with a second-sight”—and he also gifted his students with that “second-sight.” I show the evolution in Professor Bell’s thought, particularly his experimentation with different teaching methods and how these reflected his own evolving life philosophies. I also use direct quotes and examples (with permission) from students I supervised in Professor Bell’s classes — many of whom I keep in touch with. These anecdotes convey the richness of the interactions and relationships that Professor Bell had with his students — which was central to his radical humanist pedagogy.
This chapter is organized as a series of short narratives, reflecting my stories of Professor Bell and of the lessons he taught in his class. First, I briefly describe my relationship with Professor Bell, as a New York University (NYU) law student and then as the 10th and final Derrick Bell Fellow — my first job out of law school. Next, I discuss Professor Bell’s courses in constitutional law, the subject he taught for the last two decades of his career. After briefly covering the structure of the courses and the participatory method he used, I discuss four aspects of Professor Bell’s pedagogy and illustrate these through anecdotes about his teaching: 1. His approach to constitutional law (“The Constitution is like roach power.”); 2. His view on Critical Race Theory and critical perspectives more generally (“It just means telling the truth …”); 3. His incorporation of life lessons into the classroom (“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”); and 4. His efforts to “humanize the law school experience.” I conclude with a poignant, personal story about Professor Bell’s last days — one that illustrates his dedication to teaching and to his students until the very end.
Keywords: constitutional law, critical pedagogy
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