Rod Macdonald: A lifetime educating, not indoctrinating

Posted on Thursday, December 1, 2011

Page 7 Law professor Roderick Macdonald (second from end, right) with his legal education seminar students. The class is held in the Old McGill Room of the Faculty Club. / Photo: John Kelsey

Law prof honoured at Convocation with lifetime achievement award

By Neale McDevitt

When McGill Reporter photographer John Kelsey was assigned the job of taking a picture of law professor Roderick Macdonald last week, he was given pretty specific instructions. Because Macdonald had just been awarded McGill’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning – the University’s highest teaching honour – it seemed appropriate to get a picture of the F.R. Scott Professor of Constitutional and Public Law standing front and centre in the foreground of a classroom with his students in soft focus in the background.

Macdonald had other ideas.

“Prof Macdonald didn’t really want to stand in front of his students,” wrote Kelsey in an email after the photoshoot. “He thought that kind of went against all he is trying to do.”

Instead, in typical Macdonald fashion, he posed for the picture you see above, alongside his students, just another interested party in a classroom of people eager to learn.

“People sometimes ask me what my ambition is as a law professor. I say that I hope my students know more about themselves at the end of the course than they did at the beginning,” says Macdonald just prior to his legal education seminar held in the Old McGill Room of the Faculty Club.

“‘What about practicing law?’ they ask me and I tell them that students might learn that too, but that’s secondary. The law is just a vehicle. What matters is that students are thoughtful, engaged, passionate and full of ideas. Your calling as a teacher is to help nurture their virtues.”

Now in his fourth decade at McGill, Macdonald has been nurturing the virtues of generations of students who, along the way, have learned a fair bit about the law as well. His research assistants have gone on to teach around the world, eleven have been Deans, one a university president and one now sits on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Education, not indoctrination

When Macdonald talks about the accomplishments of his former students his pride in playing a part in their success is evident. But he takes even more pride in the fact that his students are not just duplicates of himself.

“Apparently one of the people who nominated me for [the Lifetime Achievement Award] wrote ‘this guy has hundreds of graduate students and research assistants, many dozens teaching law all over the world, and I don’t think that he has a single disciple. Not one.’ If I died tomorrow, I’d be happy knowing that.”

“Education isn’t about indoctrination, promoting my view of the world or cloning myself,” Macdonald says, smiling. “The only thing that matters is the personal growth and development of really fine people.”

Among his students, Macdonald is admired as much for his seemingly limitless expertise – he is a renowned scholar in such diverse fields as legal philosophy, secured transactions and constitutional law – as for his inclusive approach to teaching.

“He has one of the most versatile minds you’ll ever find – he can get his mind around a million different things” says Paul Fitzgerald, for whom Macdonald currently serves as doctoral thesis adviser. “If you want to study baseball analogies and how baseball rules apply to the legal system, or what lessons legal people can learn from a Mozart symphony or a Puccini opera – he can do it all.

“But he’s so humble and down to earth. He doesn’t stand there in front of the classroom and say ‘I’m the teacher and you’re the students.’ He sits there with everyone, eye to eye, and tries to draw out our ideas.”

Life lessons from piano teacher

Macdonald jokes that for the longest time, most law professors were thought of as failed lawyers. But, unlike many law professors of his era, the Toronto native has never considered himself a lawyer.

“I think my first conscious thought about teaching was in my third year at university in liberal arts,” says Macdonald, who nonetheless has been in a teaching role most of his life as a Cub pack leader, a camp counselor and director and a Sunday school teacher. “In the late ‘60s, Canadian universities were hiring a lot of Americans and my undergraduate adviser suggested I research what faculties were still hiring Canadians if I wanted to teach. Law it was.”

For a guy who chose law almost by default Macdonald has racked up an impressive CV. In addition to serving as Dean of the Faculty of Law from 1984-89, he has served on a wide variety of provincial, federal and international commissions, and been a consultant to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the World Bank in Ukraine. In November 2008, Macdonald was elected the 111th president of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), the first law professor ever to hold the position.

Included among the prestigious awards he was won over the years are a Killam Prize (2007); the Sir William Dawson Medal for the Social Sciences by the Royal Society of Canada (2007); and the Canadian Bar Association’s Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Law (2010).

But Macdonald says many awards often miss the people most deserving of them.

“When I was growing up in Toronto I had a piano teacher named Miss Knechtel who taught for 45 years,” says Macdonald. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older until I realized that Miss Knechtel wasn’t just teaching music, she was teaching dedication, hard work, practice, the joy of learning to do something well that is very difficult to do at all, aesthetic appreciation and a sense of how one communicates who one is to others… I didn’t realize it at the time, but she gave me something that 20 years later, I say ‘Holy mackerel, now I know where that comes from!’ She should be the one getting the Order of Canada.”

In the end, Macdonald says, his enthusiasm for the classroom is fueled as much by learning as it is by teaching.

“I refuse to divide the world up into teachers and learners. You have to watch and learn from everybody – especially your students,” says Macdonald. “They are not passive consumers, they are active in teaching their colleagues and their professors. This is a relationship. It’s not a one-way projection of anything.

“Whenever I engage a summer research assistant we go through the whole rigmarole and at the end of the interview I ask two questions: ‘what do you think I can teach you over the course of the summer?’ and then I close with ‘OK, but what can you teach me?’”





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