Patti Alleva Among Nation's Best Law Teachers
A four-year study focused on identifying the country's best law teachers has uncovered something many UND Law School students and alumni already knew — Professor Patti Alleva is an example of national excellence in law teaching. A new book published by Harvard University Press prominently features Alleva, the Rodney & Betty Webb Professor of Law, as one of 26 "best law teachers" in the United States.
"Patti's teaching, and her innovative curricular contributions, inspire a type of transformative learning," said Dean Kathryn Rand. "That's the kind of educator Patti is — truly one of our profession's best, and I'm delighted for her, our law school, and our State, that Patti's extraordinary impact has received national recognition of the highest order."
Alleva's former deans share similar sentiments. She is "a teacher's teacher of superb skill and dedication to craft," said Jerry Davis. And Paul LeBel, describing Alleva as a "consummate professional," sees her as "one of the most intentional thinkers about education" that he has encountered in his academic career who "challenged us to be very serious about how we taught, why we taught in those ways, and how we could become even more effective in serving the needs of the generations of law students who would shape the profession for the next forty years."
WHAT THE BEST LAW TEACHERS DO, authored by noted legal scholars Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerry Hess, and Sophie Sparrow, is the culmination of their work that sought to identify extraordinary law teachers. It is the first systematic study of its kind. "The book describes how 26 amazingly dedicated and dazzlingly effective law teachers do their work," said Schwartz.
Alleva was selected out of more than 250 nominees nationwide. The authors, in addition to reviewing submitted teaching materials and letters of support, visited each of the study subjects at their law schools in order to observe their classroom behavior and to conduct lengthy interviews with the subjects as well as their current and former students. "The study itself inspired me to examine, in new ways, who I am as a teacher-scholar," Alleva reflected. "It was not only an honor to be involved, but an invaluable learning experience."
So what makes Alleva — a two-time recipient of UND's Lydia & Arthur Saiki Prize for Graduate or Professional Teaching Excellence, a multiple winner of UND's outstanding student advisor award, and an articulate advocate for legal education reform whose recent article on learning was featured on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog — an outstanding teacher? The authors describe the study subjects as thoughtful, creative, authentic, humble, engaging, and committed to and respectful of students and the process of learning. According to Hess, who came to Grand Forks and sat in on Alleva's innovative Professional Visions class, "All of the teachers we studied are regarded as being among the most rigorous professors at their law schools who have high expectations of every student, yet they also are known for their kindness to their students."
Impacting the Lives of Her Students
A review of the many letters in support of Alleva's selection clearly show the impact she has had on the lives of her students both within and beyond the classroom walls. Carlee McLeod, '05, credits Alleva with giving her a "gift" that she uses every day in her career. That gift is "the knowledge that every decision, every direction, has a life of its own," she said. "To really understand our role in society, we need to jump into the ripples our actions cause and understand, from every possible angle, their whole effect."
Other letters highlight Alleva's commitment to her students and their professional success. She challenges them, but takes an interest in them as people. Several explain how she has been a mentor, helped deal with academic concerns, served as advisor on extracurricular activities,
and assisted in their job search. Lori Conroy, '09, said, "Initially, I asked Professor Alleva to draft a letter of recommendation. What she offered in return went much further. I was absolutely amazed at the care, precision and effort she exhibited on my behalf during the search."
Alleva's commitment to class preparation and teaching style engages the student in the learning process. "You wanted to excel in her class because you knew that she was dedicated to your being the best you could be," said 1996 alumna Alana Bassin. "Her teaching wasn't just about covering the syllabus for the sake of academia – it was about conveying the information so that a student could understand its significance in the real world context."
Shawn Seiler, '03, agrees. "She is not afraid to use dramatics, comedy, or puppets to help students learn. She exemplifies the true spirit of teaching and it is immediately apparent that her only goal is to help students learn." Seiler added, "Her approach is not to intimidate or scare students. Instead, she fosters an environment where students are not afraid to give the wrong answer. She teaches through her own pure enjoyment and enthusiasm for life and the law. This environment allowed me to leave my fears at the door and absorb everything she taught."
This is Alleva's 26th year teaching at UND, and she feels fortunate to serve in her role as professor. "I am privileged to participate in what I hope is the transformative process of helping students to reach new understandings of subject, self, and society that, in turn, will fuel their distinctive contributions to the world at large," said Alleva. Jackie Stebbins, a 2009 graduate, said "[Alleva's] enthusiasm and compassion are two of her most powerful characteristics and the combination makes her an influential law school professor."
Professional Visions Course Inspires
One of those influences is a unique course addition to the UND Law curriculum, which explores professional identity, judgment, and the relational side of lawyering. Professional Visions, which Alleva designed from the ground up and first taught in 2003 before the current focus on these subjects, is an example of her interest in helping students understand their future role as an attorney and the impact they will have on the lives of those they work with. The class uses theory and literature to examine the human dimensions of being a lawyer, especially the interpersonal and emotional dynamics between lawyer and client as well as the lawyer's metacognitive realm. "[S]tudents can discover the humanity of the law. It's not just about applying rules to fact patterns," said Dean DePountis, '10, about the class. "Practicing law is also about learning to be comfortable with awkward circumstances and finding a way to navigate through the grey mess that is life." Her students describe Professional Visions as one of their favorite and most important courses taken in law school. As DePountis described it, "[Alleva] has an uncanny ability to challenge without intimidating and to guide without molding," said 2009 graduate Wendy Ellis-O'Konek of the class. She inspires you to be a better person and to appreciate the honor and privilege we have as the few who become lawyers, to serve our fellow mankind."
Alleva believes ultimately, the best teachers are perennial students who never forget that sometimes there is as much to learn as there is to convey, and that true teaching is not imposing ideas on students, but facilitating understanding and creation of their own. "One of the most powerful and lasting lessons Professor Alleva taught me was that lawyers are lifelong learners," said 2005 graduate Melissa Burkland. "Knowing that I will never be done learning has made me a better lawyer." Alleva's selection as one of the best law teachers in the nation is summed up most aptly by 2005 graduate Candace Hawkins who said, "Professor Alleva is a teacher that changes lives — the lives of her students, and perhaps most importantly, the lives of the clients her students go on to represent."