Roderick Macdonald: Exploiting failure

"We all have these reminders...that failure cuts both ways."

F.R. Scott Professor of Constitutional and Public Law, Roderick Macdonald has been teaching at McGill since 1979. His legal teaching has stretched across the boundaries of private and public law, with particular focus in administrative law and commercial law. He currently teaches courses on administrative process, secured transactions and a seminar on legal education.

Professor Macdonald, who was Dean of the Faculty from 1984 to 1989, has also written numerous articles and chapters on topics related to legal education and McGill's curriculum, and has contributed to many bodies dealing with legal education in Canada. Macdonald’s deeply personal approach to legal education earned him McGill's highest recognition, the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning in November 2011. He also accepted the Law Students' Association John W. Durnford Teaching Excellence Award in 2012.

What is your favourite teaching memory?

In my first year at McGill, I was teaching secured transactions for the first time, and Rosalie Jukier, who is a colleague now, was in the class along with five other students who eventually became professors.

I was teaching with my Civil Code from 1974 when I had studied civil law and said, “Now we’re going to talk about the three legal hypothecs.” And Rosalie said, “Professor Macdonald, I think there are only two.” And I said, “My Code says three.” And she replies, “Well, my Code says two.” I was baffled. I asked her to bring me her Code and I saw the annotation: “Legal hypothec for claims owed to a married woman – repealed, December 1979.” I was teaching early in January 1980 and wasn’t completely up to date. And so I continued, “Let me revise that: there are two legal hypothecs.”

Moments like this – and I can recall 10-15 – are particularly humbling and yet they’ve become some of my favourites! Why? Because they yank me out of that little bubble I’m in. They are important moments of groundedness.

We all have these reminders that when we slip up, we fail to live up to our own expectations of how we should be living or teaching, and we know that failure cuts both ways. It cuts positively because it helps students realize that all human beings are imperfect and that professors should not be idealized. But it cuts negatively, too, because it can have repercussions on individuals affected by such mistakes.

So, you hope that you can repair the damage with an appropriate apology and reflection on the challenge of legal change. And you also hope that your students are learning to be wise enough to understand that something positive can come out of such incidents. As such, I believe that the classroom experience is just a hypothesis by which human interaction is structured – that the particular subject matter is not the key focus.

Most important is that students learn to be self-critical and thereby to enhance their own capacity for seeking and generating knowledge.