SAN FRANCISCO – Whenever law professor Myron Atwood teaches first year torts, two things remain constant: the students look progressively younger and he continues to deeply loathe each and every one of them. Disgruntled and professionally frustrated in his nineteenth year at Golden Gate University School of Law, he derives his only modicum of joy from taking out his disillusionment on his class.
Going into week one, Prof. Atwood eschewed the time honored strategy of spending a number of weeks establishing the basics of intentional torts and negligence and dove right into complex products liability. Telling his class it was best for them to start “at the deep end” to force them to either “sink or swim”, his actual desire was to cause maximum confusion. The ploy seemed to work as three students in his class of slightly over one hundred dropped out of law school within the first week.
“I consider causing a student to quit to be a badge of success,” confided Atwood, “though I do like to drag it out over at least a few weeks.”
Indeed, Atwood’s disdain runs deep. He can no longer remember a time where he did not view the students as the bane of his existence. He made it his personal mission to have torts be a so-called “weed out” course to separate the wheat from the chaff while traumatizing as many minds as possible. Of the over 15% of Golden Gate students who academically wash out their 1L year, 90% come from Atwood’s classroom.
However, for all the pain and mental anguish he inflects with the subject, he does not care for torts himself.
“I hate teaching [torts] almost as much as the students who have to take it,” lamented Atwood. “I can’t stand it when they look me in the eyes with those confused, hopeless faces –it’s pathetic. And no matter what the class: if you’ve got over 50 students there’s always at least one or two who look at you with expressions that are either highly distressed or constipated.”
Some trace the growth of Atwood’s animus to a stellar early academic career that inexplicably stagnated. His was the promising career that never was.
Atwood himself excelled in school, receiving his B.A., summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Missouri and his law degree, magna cum laude, from Columbia Law School, where he was on the staff of the law review. After clerking on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, he opted to bolster his academic pedigree and earn an additional M.Phil. in law in England with the goal of going into a career in academia.
Arriving back in the United States, he took his first academic position at Golden Gate with an eye on working his way up to other law schools via the traditional route of academic research, publishing and teaching. By all accounts Atwood threw himself into being a model teacher in those early years, and came a close second in a few student selected teaching awards. Somewhere down the line, his opinion began to sour.
As Atwood started to reach the decade mark at Golden Gate, he became increasingly concerned by the lack of offers from higher-ranked and more prestigious law schools. He began to publish more articles and attend more academic symposia in order to put his name out there. This began to create friction with his continued teaching obligations. He started to become increasingly frustrated that a relatively high portion of his students could not grasp complex legal thinking at the level he had in law school, leading him to spend more time explaining things outside of class than he thought necessary.
James Tykes joined Golden Gate with Atwood and is now a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. From his time at Golden Gate, as well as from his personal correspondence with Atwood, Tykes noticed as the transition started to develop:
“When he was young, he was a genuinely compassionate philosopher-professor,” Tykes recalled. “There was nothing he wanted more than for students to learn. That lasted about ten years. When the students proved to be incorrigibly stupid, he grew to hate them.”
After a certain point it became clear that Atwood had been at Golden Gate for too long: despite a respectable and workmanlike dedication to academics and teaching, he was no longer a serious candidate for a more prestigious institution and completely ill-equipped for going into private practice. He grudgingly accepted tenure and settled into being one of the senior faculty of the mostly part-time, regional institution. It was at that point, when he settled in for the long haul, that he began the progression into outright contempt for his students.
His words reveal a sense of melancholy as he recalls those pivotal years at Golden Gate: “It’s so hard to figure out. Was it my articles? I’d like to think they’re pretty good. I know did my M.Phil. at Leicester instead of Oxford or Cambridge, but I don’t want to think that it made a significant impact. I somehow slipped through the cracks and am stuck here with the dregs of the legal world –but at least I have tenure.”
The down moment turns into a sly smirk when he thinks to his upcoming classes: “Next week I plan to follow the first week’s look at products liability with an in-depth Socratic inquisition regarding negligent defamation and the proper application of First Amendment defenses. Hopefully I can make a few more of them cry.”