Prezbo’s Class: Holding Court
Written by Sylvie Krekow
Here’s a sneak peek of the Autumn issue of The Blue & White, which will be out next week (damn you, Sandy!).
One blustery October afternoon, approximately 60 students shuffle into 501 Schermerhorn for class. Some fiddle with their water bottles, others heave hefty copies of Constitutional Law, Sixth Edition out of their bags. President Bollinger—for the next hour and fifteen minutes, anyway—will become Professor Bollinger. As he glances at the roster and starts to call out names, the classroom falls silent. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief when he’s settled on two students, a Mr. Fine and a Mr. Chen. Mr. Fine and Mr. Chen are not relieved. For the duration of the class, they’ll have to answer any question Bollinger throws at them, in front of their peers, TAs, and, of course, Professor Bollinger himself. “Mr. Fine?” He calls, smiling. The student raises his hand and begins to speak.
Bollinger is as much a campus legend as he is the face of the University. Many students know him from the parody Twitter account bearing his name, or his widely-discussed (and acclaimed) haircut, before they meet him in person at one of his famous Fireside Chats—that is, if they get the chance. A sighting of PrezBo strolling down College Walk is a gossip-worthy event, chronicled in exclamatory text messages to friends. Students want to know him, impress him, critique him, and so, with visions of trumping the LSAT dancing in their heads, they flock to his class.
Political Science W3285, or Freedom of Speech and Press, holds a certain cachet among Columbia students, thanks to its unique pedagogy and the man behind it. President Bollinger, who has taught the class for 25 years—first as President of the University of Michigan, and now as the President of Columbia—favors a loose version of the Socratic method, a manner of teaching typical of law schools.
Bollinger arbitrarily calls upon several students at the beginning of class to answer questions about the assigned reading without assistance from their peers. In the words of Mica Moore, CC’14 and an English-Political Science major currently enrolled in the course, “he doesn’t do the ‘phone-a-friend-does-anyone-else-know-it.’” One CULPA review from March 2005 sums it up nicely: “Remember in Legally Blonde when she freaks out in her first law class because the professor randomly calls on her and expects her to have read and understood case law? Ok, that’s really how law classes work. And that’s not even half as intimidating as it really is.” Students skilled in the art of classroom equivocation are in for an Elle Woods-equivalent reality check. When asked if he could instantly tell if a student hadn’t done the reading, Bollinger chuckled and said, “Yes. Oh, absolutely. Can’t you?”
Moore has already been the designated respondent and describes the experience as “extremely nerve-wracking. Because he asks you multiple questions, and it’s just you, and he doesn’t [accept] a lot of answers.” She also notes Bollinger’s tendency to “play stupid” in order to “dig answers out of the students.” Jessica Eaton, CC’14 and a Human Rights major, was the first person Bollinger called on this semester. She remembers it as “terrible. I’ve never been so nervous—it’ll be a moment I remember for like five years after I leave Columbia.”
Bollinger, described by Eaton as “quite cold,” was unconcerned with her stage fright. “When he called on me, I said to him, ‘I just about died when you called my name.’ And he was like, ‘Okay, whatever, answer the question.’ He wasn’t sympathetic at all.”
Nevertheless, both Eaton and Moore, who hope to attend law school, found the interrogation worthwhile, and, in Eaton’s words, “very effective.” Bollinger defends his method, unique among undergraduate classes at Columbia, explaining, “It’s certainly not to produce terror. It is because the best way to learn about this subject, which is law, and using freedom of speech and press as illustrations for law, is for people to talk and think about it out loud.”
Both students and TAs commented on Bollinger’s ability to fiercely question a student to keep them on point, and his intolerance for poorly thought-out or unarticulated answers. “He doesn’t tolerate going off topic; he’ll cut you off and force you to speak on the topic. He asks you a question, he wants the answer. It encourages such a good learning atmosphere,” says Eaton.
From a student’s perspective, the nerve-wracking prospect of being called on in class cultivates an intense environment—but only until you hear your name. The moment Bollinger finishes with the roster, Eaton explains, “those people are super zoned in, but if your name’s not called it’s almost like ‘oh, great, my name wasn’t called so I can focus on something else.’ So when you walk into class there’s a heightened sense of awareness, but then he doesn’t call you, and then you go on Facebook.” Moore disagrees, saying that students are more serious than in other lectures, and that “it’s hard to step out of what he’s saying.”
To an observer, the student dynamic feels fairly typical of any lecture. I counted one sleeping student, and one sitting in front of me furiously refreshing her Gmail. But the majority of participants seemed engaged and interested in what Bollinger had to say, and a slim percentage of students seemed to hang on his every word—which perhaps speaks less to the content of the class than to the character of the man teaching it.
A local celebrity in his own right, Bollinger is an obvious draw. Moore admits that her interest in registering was partially because “it’s PrezBo, and I thought that’d be cool.” Eaton agrees. “I think it’s something people want to check off their bucket list.” But both also recognize him as a First Amendment heavyweight—an accomplishment substantiated by his frequent appearances in the assigned textbook.
“I’ve thought about this field [freedom of speech] for years and years, and I continue to think about it. In some ways, I can’t stop thinking about it. So it’s just part of me,” says Bollinger. Along with believing in the importance of the subject, and the importance of preventing academic administrators from “los[ing] touch with their field, their scholarly interests, their writing,” Bollinger says he teaches the class to relate to the student body.
“I think it’s also very important for people who are in academic leadership positions to continue to connect with students. Tonight I’m having an undergraduate Fireside Chat, and those are wonderful, but I think you should do it in the way that is the core mission of the place—that is, teaching. I really feel it’s integral to what it means to be a president of a university.” Bollinger does admit he is unable to hold office hours due to his administrative obligations. He does claim to “see students by appointment”—much to the surprise of several of his students. There is perhaps a distinction between how accessible Bollinger sees himself, and how accessible his students think he is.
“Freedom of Speech and Press” runs on Bollinger’s clock. Students cannot ruffle him, and he refuses to acknowledge chance distractions—such as an errant Snapple bottle rolling down the center aisle onto the floor beside him. Everything happens at his pace. He allows students to ask him a question at the beginning of class on anything—the reading, his opinion on a legal issue, or general life advice. This can be tiresome. Moore recalls once, “he spent half of the class talking about his own experience with the Supreme Court. It had nothing to do with what [reading] we did.”
But some students value Bollinger’s digressions. Recently, a student asked him about taking time off before law school. According to Eaton, Bollinger “gave a really, really long answer, like a life guidance answer. In the end he advised you to take time off—he spoke about how you get into the routine of life, which you can’t imagine now, but you will, and you’ll fall into this pattern of life that’s almost impossible to escape once you have children, and a wife, and so on.”
The mystique surrounding Bollinger extends to his classroom. Moore says that part of the reason why his method of teaching is so intimidating is because students are hyper-aware that he’s not merely a professor, but the President of the entire University (this consciousness is perhaps reinforced by the presence of his personal bodyguard, who escorts him to and from class every day). Bollinger’s class isn’t just full of First Amendment enthusiasts; many sign up solely due to the President’s reputation on campus, not his reputation in law books, and one CULPA review warns students about the “annoying PrezBo sycophants” that tend to populate the class. Bollinger says “many students” have asked him for recommendations (which he offers to write for anyone in his class)—reinforcing the notion that, to some, his name speaks more loudly than any well-cultivated relationship with a less famous professor. On the one hand, Eaton says, students want to impress him “because he is the First Amendment scholar—he’s not just anyone teaching this material.” On the other hand, “he has a status. He comes in a suit, and a tie, and he’s very professional-looking. Very regal, almost.”
Still, being Columbia royalty doesn’t mean Bollinger can’t crack a joke. He is not without a sense of humor, frequently (and somewhat gleefully) swearing to illustrate free speech cases. He introduces hypothetical scenarios with statements such as, “I’m an occasional user of cocaine.” But he demands seriousness from his students, and keeps them on edge.
Katie Finke, a TA in the class pursuing a degree in communications, says she was taken aback by his self-deprecation, as he regularly “make[s] jokes at his own expense.” Moore says she doesn’t have a “clear idea” about his personality: “He’s funny sometimes, but it’s a nerve-wracking type of funny. He’ll give you really funny hypothetical situations, like, ‘what if I were walking down the street and someone yelled, ‘You’re a stupid jerk, PrezBo!’ at me,’ but then he actually wants an answer that’s extremely serious, so it’s kind of disarming.” This tension between funny and serious is best illustrated by Bollinger’s admittance that students call him “PrezBo”—but only outside of class. In class? “Never.” He can, with a calm smirk on his face, fluster students, asking follow up questions like “What do you mean by that?” and “Where are the cases?” During a recent class, one student stuttered to a stop and asked, “what’s the exact question?”
It seems from his commitment to the class and desire to stay in touch with those who take it that Bollinger sincerely cares about his students. At the end of every semester, he invites his students to dinner at The President’s House on Morningside Drive, and he personally responded to grant an interview the same day I contacted him. But there is something about Bollinger—his reputation, perhaps, or his confident, unshakable demeanor—that demands respect and, often, makes him an uncriticizable character: you cannot trip him up, you will not stump him, and part of you doesn’t want to.
His generosity is tempered by his guarded exterior and distance from the student body at large, and perhaps the best summation of Bollinger’s character comes not from a student’s perspective, but from a personal anecdote. Once, Bollinger told the class that he used to read cases to his children as nursery rhymes when they were going to sleep. In the end, “it worked out well—they both went to good law schools.”
—First image from upcoming magazine, second from Wikimedia Commons