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Home Videos on Teaching DePaul Faculty Oral HistoriesBen Alba
DePaul Faculty Oral Histories: Ben Alba

Browse the videos below to hear Ben Alba, Director the Bar Passage Program in the College of Law, reflect on what connects him to DePaul, his teaching firsts, and his biggest teaching influences.


What Connects Me to DePaul: Growing Up DePaul

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well in terms of my connections to DePaul prior to coming here to teach at the College of Law, it actually started when I was in grade school because I attended St. Vincent DePaul School, which was the parish grade school of St. Vincent DePaul Parish, which was the parish that gave birth to DePaul University back in 1898.

So I had already had many years of experience as a grade-schooler. I was attending St. Vincent's Church, so I got to know many of the Vincentian priests and brothers. And then there was a Vincentian high school called DePaul Academy, but I guess I can feel fortunate in saying that I was too young to have gone there because they closed in 1969, so I just missed it by a few years of being able to enter the school. But then I ended up doing my undergrad education at DePaul University at the Lincoln Park Campus, and I grew up and at the time I was still living in the area. So I was very connected to the university, to the parish church. For seven years I was actually the Director of the Contemporary Choir at St. Vincent's Church. So it really had, I mean, Vincentians have surrounded me; whether I liked it or not, they were always around me. They were never too far away, and so as I continued being a member (I'm a lifelong member of the parish), as I began kind of reassessing my career after 15, 16 years in litigation, I began to talk to a number of Vincentians who gave me great advice, and some of them gave me leads in terms of potential opportunities that I might try out here. And it actually took a few years before the right opening developed, and it happened to be in the Legal Writing department here. But the one thing that I feel grateful for is that when I began here in 2002, in many ways I didn't feel like this was completely foreign turf for me because it had the Vincentian atmosphere and just walking through the halls or seeing artwork by Vincentians that I know, I felt more at home starting here than I would had I been at a completely different institution.




What Connects Me to DePaul: Consciousness of People in Need

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

I take the notion of St. Vincent's consciousness of people in need, particularly the poor, but I don't necessarily think that we need to restrict that to those that are financially in great need.

Sometimes you might have, for example, students that are having difficulty following a particular subject or catching onto something or might be at risk for bar exam failure, and because of that I become more conscious of, well, here's somebody that's in need. And when you think about teaching in those terms it may alter your approach in some way. I mean, you might soften some approaches to it and at the same time you might think of ways to not be harsh but to really try to get the student to understand how important a particular concept is, or the need to take the bar exam more seriously because we sometimes get a number of students that underestimate the effort required and sometimes you need somebody there that's really going to be able to emphasize that in a firm but yet understanding and compassionate way. And I think you can be all three of those, and maybe that's what the Vincentian notion of being aware of people in need and trying to respond to those needs and just thinking about . . . and in many ways what I do is I try to model myself after attorneys and judges that I have admired throughout my career that have looked for ways to apply the law or apply the rules fairly but yet with a certain amount of humanity in there. Because it could be very easy just to apply laws mechanically and that might not serve the ends of justice, whereas if you look for ways to consider an entire situation and do it in the name of fairness and really think hard before you react to something then I think that's where really, I think, your better decisions are made.




My Teaching Firsts: The Student Jury

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well in terms of the first time teaching a class after finishing my active litigation career, in many ways I tried to think of the students, and maybe this is just instinctive because of my years in litigation, I thought of them as jurors so that it wouldn't be a matter of blaming them if they didn't understand what I was trying to teach.

But I really wanted to be sure that not only did they understand it, but I could persuade them to adopt the kind of approach I was taking to a particular legal skill and let them appreciate the reason why learning that skill was important. So in many ways I adopted sort of the jury method of teaching class, and I don't know if that was any different from what my colleagues would do, but it just sort of came instinctively to me that I needed to make sure, to the extent that I could, to get all these students on the same page, try to prevent them from learning the material grudgingly but try to develop a sense of enthusiasm. And in many ways that's what you try to do when you are in front of jurors is you try to get them to really see the case from your side and persuade them to, not that they can vote for you, but to be able to adopt your point of view.




My Teaching Firsts: The "Ah-Ha" Moment

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

The one “Aha!” moment that I could point to is the need to make sure that the class sessions move from one kind of presentation to another so that it's not just talking for 45 minutes or an hour or doing PowerPoint for all that time, but that we try to change things up periodically, at least maybe two or three times throughout the period.

So that I might be doing a brief lecture for a while, but then I have to stop at some point in order to refresh their attention, in order for them to better attend to what I'm saying and then better retain whatever it is that we're doing. So we might stop in maybe 15, 20 minutes the lecture and go into a small group discussion, and then after that go on to some other type, maybe have my teaching assistant make a presentation for five minutes. But any time that you change the speaker or change the activity that tends to promote better attention, and it makes the hour go by more quickly, and it makes it more fun too because the last person I would want to hear droning on and on for an hour and 15 minutes is me.




My Teaching Firsts: Teaming Up with the T.A.

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well one thing that I discovered when I began teaching the Legal Writing class here is the T.A., which is typically a student that had taken my class the year before and has since gone on to practice and apply those skills learned in my class in a law firm.

Let's say as a law clerk or as an intern, or if not at a law firm, at a government office or some place where you can actually apply these skills in a very practical way. Because of that experience, the T.A. I would notice would tend to be very eager to share with me in my office these experiences, like “We got to do this today,” or “Here's what happened at the firm, it's just like what you said,” and all of a sudden I get these very enthusiastic kinds of descriptions and it occurred to me that maybe there ought to be a way to incorporate those into the classroom dynamic. So I began turning to the T.A. periodically in class and just asking, “Well, Tim, what happened at the firm?” and knowing full well that Tim was prepared with this great story that he had already told me the week before, and I thought this would be a great thing to have him talk about at next week's class. So I began doing a little bit of that. Then at some points in the class the T.A. might feel that maybe whatever I said needed some further clarification, so the T.A. might take the initiative to ask a question, and I have a little dialog with the T.A. in front of the rest of the class, and then there'd be times where the T.A. might be in a position to explain to the students what it was like for him or her at this point last year when they got such and such an assignment from me, a big research project and it was their first one, and the T.A. would say things like, “Yeah, this is really daunting. I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I went home and cried,” or I don't know, whatever it was that might have been. And it gives the students a way to relate to a peer in a way that I don't think that I or any other professor would be able to do no matter how we tried to empathize with them because we're so far removed from their experience. So this notion of peer teaching I thought would . . . it just sort of naturally evolved into an effective way of keeping the energy level up and keeping the students more enthused and attentive.




My Teaching Firsts: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well in terms of my experience with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, it's something that I became more cognizant of as I've been reading the professional journals of, for example, the Legal Writing Institute or the Organization of Legal Writing Directors, and that's one thing that has become a growing aspect of the teaching, particularly of Legal Writing, where they're focusing on “how can we do this better, how can we make it more effective?”

Particularly because these are skills that students will have to apply directly in their professional careers. We're fond of saying that lawyers are going to make more first impressions in writing than in any other mode, whether it be in the courtroom, on the phone, in person, and so writing . . . oftentimes a judge will not hear the attorneys for a particular case in terms of arguing a position until after he or she has read the briefs. And there are a number of judges now, certainly in federal court, almost all of them and now more in state court, where they don't hear oral argument on motions. They just rule directly on the briefs, and as a result you've got to be able to make that correct impression and be persuasive in writing. So in order for students to adopt and maybe accept that mode, because oftentimes students come in and they don't realize how important precision and accuracy and clarity are in writing (because they've, in many ways, maybe because of the age that we're living in, there is a more casual approach to writing and maybe less precise approach), and we're really here at any fine law school to impart upon the students the importance of clarity and understandability in writing and being able to be precise and accurate. So oftentimes students will find learning the building blocks of that to be very tedious, and we have to give them ways to help them stay motivated because oftentimes even though it's exciting when you are actually in practice, oftentimes it can be terribly dry when you're learning how to put sentences together in a clearer way than you might have been used to before.




My Biggest Teaching Influence: Doing What Energizes You

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well in terms of how I felt when I began teaching, I think I already anticipated how I would feel based on the reasons why I wanted to change careers.

When I was in my early career at the litigation firm that I was at for 19 years I was put in charge of hiring and supervising our law clerks, and these would be law students coming aboard. And one thing that I noticed fairly early on was that there was a certain level of satisfaction that I got and gratification, both professionally and personally, from teaching and mentoring law students that was different from the satisfaction that I got arguing a motion or putting on a trial, and as much as I enjoyed that I still felt that if at some point a full-time opportunity would arise where I could actually work with law students all the time, I was anticipating that I would get more out of it. In many ways I felt like I was making more of a contribution to their careers, to their lives, to society, to the legal community. So I thought, and this is maybe about 15, 16 years into my career, I started looking around to see if there would be opportunities for that. When this terrific opportunity came up here at DePaul and I got hired to be a Legal Writing instructor, I anticipated that I would now be doing what I really wanted to do or at least take a step into a new chapter career-wise. So in many ways, I guess it might not be all that surprising, or it might be sort of a bland answer, but I was really able to find a lot of satisfaction from day one coming into the classroom, being able to deal with the students, interact with them, and then have chances to keep on refining my skills as I would go from section to section. And then the other thing that I felt was the energy that I got from teaching a class and from having a student come to my office with a question, or even just talking with students at a law school reception. I mean, all those little encounters that you have and you become part of and immersed in the law school community. As a good Vincentian friend of mine once told me when I was searching for a career change, he said, “Ben, really try to aim for doing something that energizes you rather than doing something that drains the energy from you,” and I had never thought about experiences or careers in that perspective, in that way, and so I began to become more conscious of it and as a result I really was living what I had anticipated would be happening here. So I've been very happy.




My Biggest Teaching Influence: The Courtroom and the Classroom

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well in terms of experiences that I had in court that influenced my teaching, I've had many very positive examples from judges that I've long admired in terms of the way they treat the attorneys, and then I had one negative example that really taught me what not to do (not that I think that that would necessarily be in my nature).

But I always find it very enlightening to see the effect that treating somebody harshly, whether or not they deserved it, would have on the victim of that type of treatment. And what I noticed one day in court, I was waiting for my case to come up, the room was full of lawyers and they had other cases ahead of me, and this particular judge had a young associate and maybe another opposing counsel in front of him there on the bench. And I think just probably out of nervousness (I could tell from just the tone of voice of the associate) that he didn't wait for the judge to finish. He would just sort of start chiming in right away, and for some reason that really annoyed the judge to the point where it angered the judge and the judge just very sternly told the young associate, “I'm talking so don't interrupt me!” and the young associate said, “Your Honor, I’m very s—” “Well you’re interrupting me!” “I'm sorry,” and I mean this poor guy got so flustered because he was trying to apologize. The judge wasn't even letting him do that and the judge was just . . . I don't know, I don't know if the judge was enjoying the power trip or what but I thought you would never treat somebody like that. That's not . . . nobody deserves to be treated in that fashion, and so I've always tried to temper or think twice before saying something to a student and thinking of, well, what may have motivated the student to behave in a certain way or is there a way . . . there was one time where a student in one of my Legal Writing classes, very early in the school year, was challenging the score that she got on one of the weekly legal citation assignments, which are only worth, and I'm not kidding, they were only worth one point and that point could be divided into halves or . . . yeah, I think that you could get a half a point, zero, or one point, depending on how many you got right, but these were not meant to be game changers. They were just meant to acquaint the student with certain types of rules in a rather non-threatening kind of way because they weren't like 50 point memos that you could score high on, these would just be worth one point. And she was fighting for this one point and even the tone of her email I was thinking well, this student might need a lecture on how to treat legal supervisors, because I was thinking you don't want to treat the partner at the firm in that fashion if they call a mistake to your attention. And so I bounced it off of my teaching assistant and I said, “Well what do you think about this? It looks like she needs a talking to,” and the T.A. said, “You know why don't we, if you don't mind,” he asked me, “Why don't I talk to her and just try to find out what was going on,” and it turned out that she had been given some bad advice from some 2L student that you had to fight for every point that you wanted to get, and the T.A. explained why that wasn't the correct approach and why that was just going to waste not only her time but everybody else's time, and that we're really trying to help her out in this situation. And without my having to be excessively confrontational, it turned out that the T.A. was able to resolve the problem and I actually ended up having a very good relationship with the student once she was able to kind of relax because she got so wound up in this, and the T.A. was trying to say, “I think you're hearing the wrong advice.” And coming from the T.A., it was much easier for her to accept than for me to give her a lecture, at which point I probably would have said, “This is really inappropriate,” and I don't know if that would've gotten through to her the way that my teaching assistant did. So again, just kind of doubling back to the value of being able to use a peer to the students effectively, that kind of underscores the success that I've had with that.




My Biggest Teaching Influence: Preparing Students for the Bar Exam

Featured Faculty Member: Ben Alba of the College of Law.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Well in terms of what inspires me about the Bar Passage Program, it's the last thing that they have to do to essentially complete their education and get their license. In many ways I guess the unfortunate reality is that simply getting the diploma is not your ticket to being able to practice. You have to go through that one more hurdle of passing the bar exam.

I often tell my students in a very empathetic way that graduation is sort of anticlimactic because you graduate but then you have to go into this grueling, very tedious commercial bar review course. And there are many different kinds that are offered here, but they typically go and have to sit through these lectures day after day of commercial lecturers condensing all the material that they need to know for purposes of the standardized exams so that it's not just simply carrying what you know from courses that you've taken here but now it's being boiled down in a very systematic kind of standardized way (and in many ways artificial), so that you're just aiming to grab points to pass this exam. And so students don't have a concept of what this is about. They know what studying for three final exams and handing in a paper might be like at the end of a semester and having three hours to do an exam revolving around one topic, let's say Constitutional Law, you'll have a three-hour exam concerning that. With the bar exam you're rolling 24 subjects into two days, and the questions come in random order, and they may even combine two or more topics into a single question. So I mean there are all kinds . . . in many ways it's like learning how to run a marathon because you've got to be able to pick up enough speed and endurance and then you add the knowledge component to it to perform so that you can do two days in a row of these grueling exam questions without conking out in the middle. And I tell students it's not like you can take the first day and get really wiped out by that first day and go, “OK, well I'm going to kind of just lay low for a couple days and I'll come back on Friday.” It doesn't work. You've got to have enough energy to get through those two days, which means you've got to prepare yourself mentally, intellectually, emotionally, financially, and physically in order to get through that. So that I think in many ways is what inspires me because there is a piece of . . . I mean, it's good if you're already a successful law student, you have the foundation for being able to pass this exam, but on top of that you've got to be able to learn new skills in order to not get caught short by some of the things that can really come up and sabotage you toward the very end.