My Semester With Professor John Sexton

This past semester, I spent two hours every Tuesday night with 15 fellow freshman in President Sexton’s seminar, the Supreme Court and the Religious Clauses. With weekly 5 page papers to write and the hundreds of pages of Supreme Court opinions to read,  it wasn’t an easy class by any means. Every Monday night – or Tuesday morning, if procrastination hit exceptionally hard – I’d wonder why the hell I’d ever thought taking the class was a good idea, as I summarized an especially sassy opinion by Justice Scalia or a 60-page nap-inducing dissent by Justice Brennan.   

Every class, though, I remembered exactly why the course was worth the coffee-powered all-nighters.

Contrary to what you might think, Sexton did not enter the classroom each week wearing the money suit from the Geico commercials made from the finest NYU tuition dollars. Rather, the same deep blue Brooklyn Prep sweatshirt seemed to suffice. From the first class, it became clear that the casual attitude didn’t stop at Sexton’s wardrobe. Very quickly, everyone in the class received a hug and an invitation to call him “John”.

At the beginning of each class, John looked around the table and reminded everyone that he had a PhD in religion. In other words, he could read minds. If I hadn’t slept in 72 hours, chances are he could recognize that the Red Bull was indeed wearing off and remind me to get some sleep. On multiple occasions, he welcomed me to lie down on the floor and get some rest, or simply put my head down on the table and sleep. I’d be lying if I said I never took him up on the offer, but unlike some classes – I’m looking at you, Writing the Essay – this wasn’t a class you wanted to sleep through.

Whether it was a quick story – or an epicycle, as he referred to his tangentially-related anecdotes – about his days as a clerk for Justice Burger or his good friends John and Sandra (as in, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), I quickly began to realize that what had originally sounded like name-dropping did not stem from pretentiousness. The man could just make any Stern student green with envy of his networking skills.

When the class conversation finally returned to the three or four court cases from the night before, John’s teaching skills became apparent. Rather than standing in front of the class and lecturing dully, he forced us to come to the conclusions on our own, to recall what he had learned weeks earlier and analyze the cases for ourselves. He conducted each class session as if third year law students rather than freshman filled the classroom, never “dumbing-down” the material but instead expecting us first-year undergraduates to rise to the occasion. Each class, he treated one or two of the students in the class as if they were lawyers presenting the case, posing hypothetical questions and playing devils advocate to the point that you could seriously wonder what you were arguing in the first place.

The last day of class, John hosted what he called “the Steel Cage match”, where each student in the class had to challenge the claims made in his 1979 Harvard Law Review article “Towards A Constitutional Definition of Religion”. With the TAs as judges, each student stood up and attempted to make an argument, though most could barely get out a few words before being interrupted and immediately put on the defensive as John paced the room and eventually climbed on the table. When it was my turn, I stood up semi-confidently and grabbed my laptop, ready to deliver what I thought was a the lethal blow to his paper. In a debate style I can only describe as WWE-style, Sexton danced around my questions and aggressively took hold of the conversation. By the end of the four minutes, I wasn’t quite sure what I was arguing, but for all I know, I might have ended that debate enthusiastically agreeing with him.

One night, he came in with a student from Hashtag NYU, who was helping Sexton live tweet his day. After fumbling around on the iPhone in an attempt to figure out how taking a “selfie” works, he proceeded to ask if anyone could dislike the photos he posted. Once the class assured him that there was only a “like” button, he turned to the student sitting next to him and smiled. “A 100 percent vote-of-confidence? I like it!”

Whether it was offering to take a student who wasn’t able to go home to visit her family over Thanksgiving break out for coffee or stopping me on the street to ask if I was feeling better after missing a class the week prior, Sexton proved that he generally cared about his students throughout the course of the semester.

This is not meant to be any comment on President John Sexton, but rather Professor John Sexton. I’m not here to support NYU 2031 or argue about whether the tuition is too damn high or not. As a person and as a teacher, John Sexton is a professor with whom every student at NYU should try to take a class.

Oh, and about the hugs – they’re real, and they’re spectacular.

Image courtesy of Gerry Shalam


  • Robert Bohr
    December 14, 2013

    your post reminds me exactly of my experience in 1995 when I was fortunate enough to take this same class. I felt as you expressed, both humbled and honored to share the same classroom with a person so completely in control of the subject matter and how to present it and how to extract the best from each student. Almost 15 years past graduation, this experience stays with me daily. John is the best professor I ever encountered.
    thank you for bringing the full experience back to life for me.

  • K Wright
    December 22, 2013

    You’re a freshman. What classes are you taking that require you to pull so many all-nighters and stay awake for 72 hours? Develop some good study habits or you’re going to burn out before junior year.

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