[Law Notes, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Winter 1995]

'Unconventional' Methods Earn Hibbitts University Teaching Award

It's obvious from day one that Bernard Hibbitts isn't your typical law professor. For one thing, he refuses to be anchored to the podium, preferring instead to roam freely about the classroom as he lectures. He's more comfortable conducting class in shirtsleeves, rolled up to the elbow, than suit jacket; he calls students by their first names, abandoning the more formal Mr. and Ms.

But when he launches into a rendition of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" on the first day of his Property I class, his students know they're in for something truly different. Hibbitts, a former Rhodes Scholar who also holds LLM degrees from Harvard Law School and the University of Toronto, uses the oft-recited children's tale both to set a tone, and because, he says, it is a valuable illustration of basic issues in the law of property.

"To a Property professor, 'Goldilocks' is striking in its emphasis on ownership--'someone has been eating my porridge,' 'someone has been sitting in my chair'--and in its implicit concern with trespass," Hibbitts says. "It also shows how deeply ideas about property are embedded in our everyday social norms and practices. And it tells the students that we will do things in this class that are out of the mainstream of traditional legal instruction."

Unconventional, yes. But effective? A resounding yes--both from the Pitt Law students, who gave him the school's Excellence-in-Teaching Award in 1993, and from the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor, who recently awarded Hibbitts the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award for 1995. Only five of the University's 2,000 faculty members are eligible to receive the award each year.

The Chancellor singled out Hibbitts for his "ability to make difficult, often dry material exciting and comprehensible." Indeed, Hibbitts makes a conscious effort to be enthusiastic about the subjects he teaches which, in addition to Property, include Estates and Trusts, American Legal History, and a seminar, Topics in English Legal History.

"Enthusiasm is especially important when I am attempting--particularly in a compulsory first-year course, like Property--to get students to explore the historical, philosophical, and social context of law," Hibbitts says. "Because this kind of interdisciplinarity isn't what students expect in law school, enthusiasm can help persuade them that the approach is interesting, illuminating, and worth their consideration."

His casual classroom demeanor isn't without purpose, either. "I think it makes it easier for students to talk in class and, ultimately, for them to learn," Hibbitts says.

Role-play is also one of Hibbitts' favorite techniques. On the first day of his American Legal History class, he "hooks" his students with a reenactment of Susan B. Anthony's 1872 trial for voting illegally in a federal election. Hibbitts, as the judge, repeatedly tries to silence the eloquent, impassioned arguments of Anthony, played by a female student.

The vignette has an obvious purpose--to introduce one of the substantive topics of the course--suffrage and the modern extension of women's rights. "But it also communicates that the history of law is not just about law; it's about people," Hibbitts says. "That's an important step in getting the class to think about law in an interdisciplinary context."

Such innovations take hours of preparation outside the classroom. Hibbitts develops his own course materials for most of his classes, and is constantly reviewing and revising them--and his methods--looking for new ways to challenge his students. He recently added multi-media presentations to his repertoire, using audio tapes of U.S. Supreme Court arguments and slides to further inspire his legal history class.

A native of Nova Scotia, Canada, who joined the Pitt Law faculty in 1988, Hibbitts also publishes frequently on legal history and past and present forms of legal discourse in scholarly journals including the Law and History Review, the Cardozo Law Review, the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, the Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, the Emory Law Journal, and McGill Law Journal. Hibbitts received his BA from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and an MA at Carleton University in Ottawa. He began his legal studies at Oxford University, earning a BA in jurisprudence; he then returned to Dalhousie for his LLB. Hibbitts is a former clerk to Justice Gerald LeDain of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Eight other Pitt Law faculty members have received the Chancellor's Award since it was first established in 1984. They include current Law School professors Ron Brand, Bill Brown, John Burkoff, Mark Nordenberg, and professor emeritus Herbert Sherman, Jr.