Michael Collins Wins UVA All-University Teaching Award
One of the most vivid memories Sarah Tomeo Hertzog '10 has of University of Virginia law professor Michael Collins is the long lines of students that would wait outside his door to talk to him — a testament, she thought, to the interest in law he inspired.
"Professor Collins was always accessible and willing to patiently answer questions, as well as engage in challenging discussions about his lessons," said Tomeo Hertzog, who now works at Ropes & Gray in Washington, D.C.
Collins' dedication to teaching was rewarded recently with the University of Virginia All-University Teaching Award. He is one of nine UVA professors to receive the accolade this year.
"I'm really happy to get the award," Collins said. "It means a lot to me, particularly because there are so many good teachers at the law school and because the faculty seems to take teaching seriously."
Collins, who teaches Civil Procedure, Federal Courts, Conflict of Laws, Civil Rights Litigation and Evidence, is the Joseph M. Hartfield Professor of Law. He previously taught at Tulane Law School, where he won the school's distinguished teaching award three times. In addition to his numerous published articles, he has co-authored casebooks on federal jurisdiction, civil procedure, and most recently, on transnational civil litigation.
Collins said that listening to students' feedback over the years has helped improve his teaching , starting with one seminal episode early in his career.
"In my first year of teaching, a student came into my office, closed the door, and proceeded to tell me everything I was doing wrong — basically, I was trying to model my own teaching on that of a former teacher," Collins said. "The episode helped me develop my own style, to be myself and to start to really enjoy teaching."
Collins said he tries to teach something new every so often to keep things fresh, and to vary the mix of subjects he teaches every year.
"'I've experimented with different teaching styles, and I've found that what's critical is to make the material accessible to the students, and to realize what it must look like to someone who is encountering it for the first time," he said. "This is particularly important for procedural courses, to which students do not easily relate. Also, being genuinely enthusiastic about the subject is a great help when trying to get the class to move from the basics to the more challenging stuff."
Katherine Mims Crocker '12, who will clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2013-14, took two courses with Collins and said he was known for his hours of preparation for each class session.
"The amount of care that Professor Collins brings to classroom instruction is extraordinary. His lectures are clear and logical, and he explains dense and difficult ideas in an accessible way," Crocker said. "Best of all, he conveys a sense of excitement for material that may otherwise seem tedious, and, as a bonus, he can make dry legal doctrine funny."
Crocker said Collins is as impressive behind the scenes as in the classroom, and each semester signs on to advise several students who are undertaking research projects that result in a lengthy paper. After working with Collins on two research projects, Crocker earned two awards for one of the papers.
"He imparts confidence to explore complex questions in difficult areas, which always results in a rewarding and unforgettable intellectual experience," she said. "He has inspired many students to consider careers in academia, and I believe that there can be no greater credit to a teacher."
Seth Stoughton '11 said he decided to take Collins' Federal Courts class after his friend raved about the professor.
"The rumor was that he could teach a cow Federal Courts," Stoughton said. "I learned firsthand that, despite the complexity of the subject matter, the rumor was incomplete — not only could [he] teach a cow Federal Courts, but both he and the cow would have a great time doing it."
Stoughton, who is now a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, said Collins has been a valued mentor to many students and helped students who had teaching aspirations as well.
"He has the rare gift of building close relationships with a great many of his students," Stoughton said. "In my own classes I have attempted to emulate his enthusiasm for teaching, the energy of his presentations, and his willingness to work with each and every one of his students to maximize their learning experience."
Previous Law School winners of the All-University Teaching Award include professors Risa Goluboff (2010-11), Jim Ryan (2009-10), Caleb Nelson (2007-08), J. H. (Rip) Verkerke (2006-07), John C. Harrison (2004-05), Barry Cushman (2002-03, Law and History), Kenneth S. Abraham (1999-2000), Anne M. Coughlin (1998-99), Paul G. Mahoney (1997-98), Michael J. Klarman (1996-97) and Pamela S. Karlan (1995-96).