Hot for Teacher
Barack Obama was on Letterman the other night (video: Part 1 and Part 2). For some unexplained reason, the Republican National Committee used this as an opportunity to launch an early attack on Obama. For additional unexplained reasons, they put the attack in the form of a Top 10 List entitled “Obama’s Top 10 Fabrications.” The list is here. A couple of my favorites from the list: (8) Obama was fluent in Indonesian as a child; (2) Obama had heated discussions with a high school friend named “Ray” about racial issues; (1) Seeing a photograph in Life or Ebony Magazine changed Obama’s life.
I have no idea if any of those are in fact fabricated, and I don’t particularly care much, but I thought one item was especially relevant. The number 10 “fabrication” states: “Obama was a constitutional law professor.” Obama has said that he was a constitutional law professor at the
So, was this really a fabrication? Was Obama wrong to claim that he was a law professor? In actual fact he was not a Professor of Law, in the technical sense of the term. He was not tenured or a full-time faculty member, as during the time he taught his primary job was either with a plaintiff’s law firm or as an Illinois State Senator.
Despite this, I have no problem with Obama calling himself a law professor. First, we refer to nearly anyone who teaches law as Professor, regardless of whether that person is tenured or a practitioner. Perhaps this is just colloquial speech, or perhaps it is just polite, but I doubt that many of us mind if the many practitioners teaching at Boalt call themselves Professors. It would be quite disrespectful, in fact, if we insisted on sharp distinctions between “Professors,” “Lecturers,” and “Practitioners.” Second, Obama taught constitutional law for around a decade. If Obama had only delivered a few lectures his use of “law professor” would be questionable. But he taught Constitutional Law, a core law school class, for many years. I should think that a decade of Con Law entitles one to be called “Professor.” Third, Obama did not directly claim the title of “Professor.” The Top 10 list quotes him as saying “I was a constitutional law professor” (emphasis added). That is true, in the sense that one of his students at the time would have said, “My Con Law professor is Obama.” Were Obama attempting to delude people into thinking he was a full-fledged Professor of Law, he would have used the present tense. Using the past tense implies that he was the Professor for particular Con Law classes, not that Professor was his occupation and official title.
Although this is a minor issue, Obama’s campaign seems somewhat cognizant of it, as his website mentions his teaching only once, and is careful to say only that “he returned to
One more thing: I’m in no way belittling the hard-work of Professors of Law who dedicate their entire lives to teaching. I understand being full-time staff is different than part-time, but it still doesn’t change my opinion about Obama saying he was a law professor.