Remembering Professor Stan Corbett
It was the third week of 1L. We were in Public Law waiting to learn the GM Test. No one particularly knew what was going on. Professor Corbett was late as usual. Class started when he arrived, and he always arrived at least five minutes late with nothing in hand—undoubtedly coming out of a meeting with a student or discussing students’ issues at the Faculty Board.
The lecture began. Professor Corbett drew a diagram to illustrate the division of powers in section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. As usual, the diagram consisted of two crudely drawn boxes labelled “A” and “B” with an arrow pointing from Box A to Box B. The diagram would have meant nothing to the outside observer. Only Professor Corbett’s explanation could give life to chalk shapes on a blackboard—no PowerPoint to be found in his classroom. Except that day, his explanation did little to enlighten us as to what those shapes meant. It was September, so we were all still up-to-date on the readings, yet those chalk boxes were like hieroglyphs and there was no Rosetta Stone to be found. What happened? Professor Corbett was teaching Wednesday’s class material.
But it was Monday
What happened? Professor Corbett was teaching Wednesday’s class material, but it was Monday.
We had so much respect for this man that no one dared raise his or her hand to suggest that he had made an error. Either we were too scared or we weren’t quite confident enough in our own abilities to know for sure that this was not Monday’s class. It was at that point that Professor Corbett lifted the veil that is the first few (or more than a few…) weeks of law school and informed us that, yes, it is appropriate to challenge a professor—especially when he or she is wrong.
Of the countless pieces of advice I’ve heard from professors and students over the past two years, the encouragement to critically analyze everything and to speak up when something doesn’t look right is the most important. It is crucial to law school success.
To do well with Professor Corbett you needed to be engaged. Answering his are-you-kidding-me-is-he-actually-asking-this questions, including “What is a tree?”, “What is wheat?” or “What is aeronautics?” established the connection between teacher and student necessary to demystify the most complicated of public law concepts.
For me, no memory of Professor Corbett is as profound as the final class before that frightening 100 percent December final exam. He told us to revisit a case we had read in the first week of the semester, which had seemed like an impenetrable jumble of jargon at the time. He told us to read the case again and tick off every concept mentioned that we now understood. We were shocked when the mystery was revealed to be not so mysterious after all.
We had learned from an excellent teacher, and we will always remember him.
The above was written by Adam Sadinsky, a student of Professor Corbett in both his first and second year.
The law school professor occupies a peculiar place in the academy. While some graduate departments enjoy a more collegial atmosphere, in which the relationship between student and professor is akin to colleagues, these boundaries are more clearly defined in law school. Dr. Stanley Corbett was an outlier in this sense. His lectures were academic but often free-flowing, facilitating conversation between professor and student that oftentimes extended into a post-lecture drink. He was a professor, but he made you feel like a friend.
I was lucky enough to be a member of the Bader International Study Centre (BISC) class of 2014 where Dr. Corbett taught his final castle classes. Thinking about that is jarring, to say the least. I never thought about the luxury it was to attend those classes, nor did I think about how unique a law professor he actually was.
I asked a good friend, now himself a professor, what made Dr. Corbett so special.
“His class was one of the most playful, challenging, and engaging classes I’ve ever taken. I still sometimes self-consciously try to teach a little like he did,” he reflected. Those three words—playful, challenging, and engaging—describe my experience at the BISC with Dr. Corbett.
From his meandering lectures to conversations in the pub, time spent with him was time spent with a friend who challenges and engages you. His lectures never felt like pontification. Our conversations in the pub were friendly and without pretense. Dr. Corbett never presented himself as a professor, only a colleague or a friend, and it is for this reason that he became a favourite amongst the students at the BISC.
When I remember Dr. Corbett, it’s hard to say whether I will miss him most as a professor or friend.
I do know that without him my BISC experience would have been very different, and for that I am thankful.
The above was written by Jonathan Nehmetallah, a student of Professor Corbett at the Castle.