Alex Nunn: Unorthodox Pedagogy

Assistant Professor Alex Nunn

Alex Nunn, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, became the darling of social media at the onset of COVID-19 when his smartly hilarious lecture video went viral. Nunn serves as the associate producer (and occasional guest host) of Excited Utterance, a podcast focusing on scholarship in evidence and proof. He is also a member of the executive committee for the AALS evidence section and the programming committee for the Evidence Summer WorkshopAttorney at Law Magazine recently caught up with the professor to talk to him about his career, teaching style and thoughts on other topics.

AALM: Can you briefly describe your career thus far?

AN: After graduating from Vanderbilt Law School, I clerked on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Thereafter, I pursued (and am continuing to pursue) a doctorate in Law at Yale University. I’m completing my doctorate from afar, however, as I started teaching on the law faculty at the University of Arkansas in 2018. I joined the faculty full time in 2019.

AALM: Please describe your “typical” classroom comportment. Is humor an important element to your teaching style?

AN: My pedagogical approach centers around engagement. I want my students to want to come to class. That, of course, isn’t always easy, especially as different students will necessarily have different interests in the law. But I think projecting enthusiasm from the front of the classroom is the most effective way of engaging students.

I remember being asked what my favorite classes were during my first year in law school. My answers had almost nothing to do about subject matter—they were primarily based on which professors I found to be genuinely passionate about their teaching subject. I seek to emulate those professors, projecting energy whenever I can. And if I slip a joke or two into the lecture, well that’s just unavoidable for me (even when I receive more eyerolls than laughs).

AALM: You seem to be a naturally funny person. Does humor play a large role in other aspects of your life?

AN: I learned pretty quickly that people only laugh at about five percent of my jokes. But that five percent makes it all worth it…

AALM: What drew you to academics?

AN: My interest in the academy developed pretty early on in my law school career at Vanderbilt. I was fortunate enough to have a great mentor in Professor Ed Cheng. He introduced me to the scholarly side of the academy—articles and commentary examining and critiquing evidence law. Even as a 1L, I found it all fascinating. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not reminded of how fortunate I am to be a law professor.

AALM: What do you most enjoy about teaching?

AN: There’s no better feeling than sharing a great learning session with students in the classroom. I cover a lot of difficult material, and at times it could perhaps be described as dry (although I think it’s the most exciting stuff in the world). Balancing serious doctrinal work with candid levity makes teaching fun.

In law school, I remember being amazed by how knowledgeable my professors seemed at the front of the classroom. They set a great example for what it means to be a great teacher. And, although I’m not sure I’ve reached that mark yet, there’s nothing I enjoy more about the job than going to the law school and having a great class.

AALM: Who were your heroes or models for your career?

AN: I can easily say that I would not be where I am today without the mentorship of Ed Cheng at Vanderbilt Law School. Some people can point to an individual who opened a door for them into the academy or helped them along in the journey. That’s an understatement for how much aid Ed has given me. He helped me navigate barriers to entry that were completely foreign to me five years ago. And, despite endless emails, he still tolerates my questions to this day.

AALM: You were the 2019 recipient of the Lewis E. Epley, Jr. Professor of the Year Award for Excellence in Teaching. Can you tell us a bit about the significance of this honor and how it felt to receive?

AN: Receiving the teaching award was an incredibly humbling experience. I put a lot of time into my teaching; I’m very intentional about it. To see that work reflected with positive feedback from the students is always gratifying. More than anything, it’s a sign to me that my teaching style—however perhaps unorthodox in its mixture of doctrine and humor—is resonating with students.

AALM: Can you talk a bit about your experience while clerking for Honorable Karen LeCraft Henderson of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit?

AN: Clerking on the DC Circuit was an incredible honor. I always tell my students that there is no better way to truly appreciate the operation of the law than to work in a judge’s chambers. To have that opportunity in our nation’s capital was immensely rewarding.

AALM: What changes/improvements do you see evolving in law schools? Do you see significant differences between now and when you were in law school?

AN: The COVID-19 crisis, I think, is causing law schools across the country to take a close examination at what works (and what doesn’t) in legal pedagogy. As I mentioned before, in my mind, it all comes down to engagement. If remote learning becomes a mainstay, the question will be how to format it in a way that keeps students invested. At the University of Arkansas, we’ve been spending the summer intentionally designing courses to engage students regardless of the delivery method.

AALM: How important do you believe video “lectures” and other digital applications are in today’s education?

AN: I think it’s a medium that will be increasingly important. Many of us studied for our respective bar exams through video lectures rather than in-person classes. Perhaps that change will come to law schools, too, sooner rather than later. Those schools that think about how to engage students through the new medium will have a competitive advantage.

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