By Lori AthertonMay 8, 2015
Katherine Warren, '15, fondly recalls her Introduction to Con Law class with Professor Julian Davis Mortenson. As a then-1L who was still getting acclimated to law school, Warren was impressed by Mortenson's approachability, nurturing teaching style, and willingness to help students understand the material.
When Warren learned that Mortenson was named the recipient of the 2015 L. Hart Wright Award for Teaching Excellence, she couldn't help but be excited on his behalf.
"Professor Mortenson is completely deserving of the award," she said. "It's always easy to tell when professors care about students, and he does. He has compassion for students, a passion for teaching, and a true skill at being able to convey complicated ideas to people. At the end of our last class, he gave a talk about personal dignity and what it means to be a good lawyer. He cared about us as people, not just as students."
Rising 3L Mark McLoughlin, who took Intro to Con Law with Mortenson as a 2L, said that what stood out for him about Mortenson's teaching style was his ability to provide individualized attention, despite a class size of 150 students. "That I got a personalized interaction with him in a class that large speaks volumes," McLoughlin said. "He was always very giving of his time during office hours and group Q&A sessions, which is impressive considering how many inquisitive law students were constantly contacting him."
Mortenson, noted McLoughlin, "embodies the spirit of the Michigan Law community—he's a serious scholar who does not take himself too seriously." McLoughlin saw evidence of this as a member of Michigan Law's Headnotes a cappella group, which delivered Valograms to Mortenson for the past two years. "This year, moments after the Headnotes gave him seven singing Valentines in a row, I ran into Professor Mortenson in the hallway. He told me, 'You have no idea how embarrassing that was, but I love what you guys do for the community here. Keep it up.' The fact that I got to sing loudly at a [former] Supreme Court clerk for 10 minutes in the middle of his lecture and later have him thank me for it is a great reminder of why I love Michigan Law and Julian Mortenson."
A Law School faculty member since 2009, Mortenson also teaches International Commercial Arbitration and Legislation and Regulation. His teaching style, he said, is a mix of different methods, designed to challenge students and demand rigor without "abandoning respect" for them.
"The bread and butter is a flexible Socratic dialogue, supplemented by occasional clarifying/summarizing lecture, and the use of lots of visuals—whether pre-prepared slides or whiteboard diagrams," he said. "Following the lead of other Michigan colleagues, I've also started using detailed in-class exercises; the prompt is usually pretty similar to an exam question, with facts, law, and a question for us to answer on behalf of a client or court."
The L. Hart Wright Award, Mortenson said, is "the most significant professional recognition" he's received, given that it's awarded by the very students that make teaching so enjoyable and worthwhile for him. "Our students have such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and such a remarkable combination of rigor and decency," he said. "They're always seeing things I haven't seen; huge chunks of the way I teach Con Law now are directly attributable to memorable conversations with former classes. It's a joy to be in the classroom here."
Named after the beloved Michigan Law professor who was renowned in the field of tax law, the L. Hart Wright Award is presented annually by the Law School Student Senate (LSSS), with the recipient chosen by students. Mortenson will officially receive the award at the LSSS's faculty wine and cheese reception next fall.
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