The New York Times has a good article on Barack Obama's time teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.
But Mr. Obama's years at the law school are also another chapter — see United States Senate, c. 2006 — in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself. Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was well liked at the law school, yet he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage. The Chicago faculty is more rightward-leaning than that of other top law schools, but if teaching alongside some of the most formidable conservative minds in the country had any impact on Mr. Obama, no one can quite point to it.
"I don't think anything that went on in these chambers affected him," said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. "His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he's always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he's never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings."
Mr. Obama had other business on his mind, embarking on five political races during his 12 years at the school. Teaching gave him satisfaction, along with a perch and a paycheck, but he was impatient with academic debates over "whether to drop a footnote or not drop a footnote," said Abner J. Mikva, a mentor whose own career has spanned Congress, the federal bench and the same law school.
Douglas Baird, another colleague, remembers once asking Mr. Obama to assess potential candidates for governor.
"First of all, I'm not running for governor, " Mr. Obama told him. "But if I did, I would expect you to support me."
He was a third-year state senator at the time. . . .
For all the weighty material, Mr. Obama had a disarming touch. He did not belittle students; instead he drew them out, restating and polishing halting answers, students recall. In one class on race, he imitated the way clueless white people talked. "Why are your friends at the housing projects shooting each other?" he asked in a mock-innocent voice.
A favorite theme, said Salil Mehra, now a law professor at Temple University, were the values and cultural touchstones that Americans share. Mr. Obama's case in point: his wife, Michelle, a black woman, loved "The Brady Bunch" so much that she could identify every episode by its opening shots.
As his reputation for frank, exciting discussion spread, enrollment in his classes swelled. Most scores on his teaching evaluations were positive to superlative. Some students started referring to themselves as his groupies. (Mr. Obama, in turn, could play the star. In what even some fans saw as self-absorption, Mr. Obama's hypothetical cases occasionally featured himself. "Take Barack Obama, there's a good-looking guy," he would introduce a twisty legal case.) . . .
Because he never fully engaged, Mr. Obama "doesn't have the slightest sense of where folks like me are coming from," Mr. Epstein said. "He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on the other issues."
Because my daughter, who is doing an internship at the Chicago Law Library, recently made copies of Obama's course evaluations for the Communications Office at the Law School, I sort of expected that a story like this was coming. The Law School then releases course evaluations to curious outsiders only with permission of the instructor. [This paragraph has been corrected to reflect more detailed facts.]
The Times blog has his syllabi and exams as well, and our own Randy Barnett will be commenting on them on Wednesday.