Lawyer John Cotton Dana once said “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.” Professor Thomas Eisele is a testament to this creed. With three degrees, numerous publications, and constant additions to his classes’ supplementary materials, Eisele has made the learning experience enjoyable for students as he learns along with them.
Eisele knew he wanted to teach after receiving the Harry A. Bigelow Teaching Fellowship at the University of Chicago Law School in 1978. After practicing law in Chicago for five years—first as an associate at the firm Isham, Lincoln & Beale and then as the Deputy Director of the Lake Michigan Federation—Eisele spent a year at the University of Chicago Law School teaching legal research and writing through the Bigelow program. Following this experience, he considered a career change. “I spent so much time writing and thinking about the law that I realized ‘Tom, you’re not going to make partner by publishing articles, but you get tenure.’” Although he knew teaching would be his next venture, Eisele’s passion for the subject, lingering from his undergraduate years where he studied Philosophy at the University Wisconsin, prompted him to enter a doctoral program in Philosophy at the University of Michigan initially. “I thought I would go straight into teaching following the fellowship,” Eisele admitted. “But about halfway through the experience I realized I wanted to learn more about Philosophy.” He had been offered a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study Philosophy at one point. He didn’t take it. “I wanted to change the world though law,” he explained. “Harvard kicked that out of me pretty quickly,” he added laughing. “After working for years, I had to tell my wife I wanted to go back to school.”
Luckily, Eisele’s wife had the same inclination. A school teacher, she had decided that she wanted to become a doctor. When Eisele finished working as a Bigelow Fellow, his wife graduated from Northwestern with her medical degree. They moved to Michigan where she was placed for her residency. “I thought to myself, you know, you could get your PhD at the University of Michigan,” he said. And that is what he did.
A Change of Scenery
After receiving his doctoral degree at the University of Michigan, Eisele spent time teaching at The Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee before joining UC Law as a visiting Professor of Law in 1991. He taught Wills & Estates and The Legal Imagination. In 1992, Eisele joined the law school faculty full-time, teaching a variety of courses including Property, Estates & Trusts, Jurisprudence, and Professional Responsibility. “When I graduated from Harvard [law], if you had told me I’d spend 25 years teaching the law I would have laughed so loud,” Eisele said. “I would have never presumed I could have taught this stuff. I was still confused after three years of teaching.”
Refining His Style
With an educational philosophy in mind, Eisele changed the law school experience for many students. “At the time I started teaching, the Kingsfield cliché was a truth,” he explained. “I didn’t want to treat students like that. A lot of how I teach is in reaction to the way I was taught. If I went through it and didn’t prosper from it, I’m not going to foist it on someone else,” he continued. “Let’s try to avoid it!” For starters, Eisele tries his best to learn every student’s name in class. This past semester with a Wills class of about 100, students were pleasantly surprised on the first day to be called by name. “I look at the seating chart and I start visualizing,” he explained. “I don’t get everyone’s name right away but it is meant to tell students that they aren’t anonymous. They’re all individuals. None of my professors knew me and I always felt it hurt the learning process.” Additionally, Eisele’s repetitious lesson plans help students commit concepts to memory through road mapping. “I tell students what I’m going to teach them, I teach them, then I tell them what I taught them.”
In addition to the time Eisele spends preparing for class, he supplements class materials with handouts and notes he’s compiled over the years. “If I feel like there is a better way to explain it, I want to do that. Initially I spent an immense amount of time preparing for classes. It is so frightening to be standing in front of a large size group and purport to teach them about the Rule Against Perpetuities. Maybe five years into teaching I came up with charts and began to understand it,” he explained.
Connecting Law and Life
When he’s not teaching, Eisele enjoys spending time with his wife and three children. “We’ve had a terrific marriage of close to 37 years and my children are the light of my life,” he said. Eisele noted that adopting children doesn’t change the struggles of parenthood. “We had the same issues: who are they dating, who is getting the car?” While his wife complains that he has no hobbies aside from reading and writing about the law, Eisele assures that he loves to travel and appreciates his wife’s love of roses and gardening. “Any square foot of untended dirt will get a pot in it,” he said with smile.