Artifact Five: In the Classroom with Professor Obama

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. Each Monday and Thursday for the next three weeks, we’ll publish a new artifact for each candidate. Check back this afternoon for a new artifact from Mitt Romney.

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artifact one

Credit: Notes courtesy Kenworthey Bilz

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By 1997, five years into Obama’s time teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago’s law school, he was already a sitting state senator. But many students were interested in taking classes from more renowned professors at the school.

“When I signed up and told people I was taking his class, they were like, ‘Why don’t you take it from somebody famous?’” recalls Kenworthey Bilz, now a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. “I got the last laugh on that.”

Obama taught Bilz in a third-year constitutional law class, which focused on the 14th Amendment provision that guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law. Bilz said she chose him because she was interested in a senator’s perspective on the law.

Obama, she said, approached the questions of the law from the problems of practical governance. According to her notes from the first class, he opened the course with a discussion of Brown v. Board of Education — a classic equal protection case. But Obama introduced more nuance, she said, raising the question of how to implement Brown once it’s decided. “I remember thinking that Brown, which is already a case that’s well known, was a lot more complex than I thought.”

Obama was a dynamic professor, charismatic and distinctive, according to Bilz. “There’s a sense, listening and watching him, that you’re watching someone who could make things seem really promising,” she said.

Laurence Tribe, who taught Obama at Harvard Law School, said that he took a similar approach in teaching constitutional law, looking at the case from alternative perspectives rather than preconceived conclusions. But Tribe said that Obama’s class, only seven years later, focused more on the “practical difficulties and conceptual puzzles” involved in implementing Brown. “It’s certainly not a class taught either by an ideologue or by a cynic,” he said.

Coming Friday: A discussion of this week’s artifacts with David Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story), Jodi Kantor (The Obamas), Michael Kranish and Scott Helman (The Real Romney), Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz and Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows. You can read the discussion of last week’s artifacts here.

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