Who, What, When
Down and dirty, yet cosmic Prof. Kyle Nichols, landscape scientist
Art and design that jumps of the page Fox-Adler Lecturer Barry Moser
Teaching is a gift, in more ways than one David Porter takes new Tisch Professorship
Bringing the constitution into the classroom Prof. Beau Breslin wins teaching prize
Autumn greening North Woods and other eco-projects
Hispanic heritage Author Junot Diaz keynotes Raices observance
Tracing Darwinian disquietude Phi Beta Kappa talk on evolution in pop history
Campus opens up for big weekend Celebration Weekend welcomes families and alumni
Sportswrap Fall sports highlights
Bringing the constitution into the classroom
It’s week five of the Scribner Seminar “American Liberty: Our Enduring Struggle over Constitutional Rights,” and Beau Breslin has his freshmen grappling with the concept of the penumbra. They’ve been analyzing the landmark 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, regarding the right to privacy. On the board a student draws a simple circle of the sun with rays squiggling off it, and that symbol becomes a tool for understanding a critical concept: that certain rights not specifically spelled out in the Bill of Rights nonetheless emanate from the core. Thus the right to privacy, while not expressly enumerated, has been found to exist in the penumbras of rights in Amendments 1, 3, 4, 5, and 9. And from the First Amendment—which includes freedom of speech—emanate “the right to read, to receive and distribute information, the right to inquiry, the right to gain knowledge, to learn, and the one I like: the freedom to teach,” Breslin says.
That one is also a favorite of his students, who say his enthusiasm is infectious. “I love the fact Beau is so into the material,” says Matt Rothenberg ’12. “We can tell that he knows it like the back of his hand, but also that he cares deeply about what he’s teaching.” His colleagues can tell that too, and this year they honored him with Skidmore’s Ciancio teaching award.
In class he is animated, funny, and demanding, calling on students to explain the cases, holding them accountable for legal positions they offer, prodding them
with a wry “What constitutional right is
that, counselor?” and supporting them with “Outstanding,” “Fantastic argument,” or “I like that answer; keep going.” He gives students their due, and he gives them time. “I call on students randomly, and then I wait,” he explains. “There is great value in the silence: Students have time to reflect on the question, and the entire class has to come to terms with the fact that any individual student might be next.” Robin Kroskinsky ’12 appreciates the way Breslin “gives students the opportunity to teach themselves, by finding the answer and creating an argument to back it up. He protects an individual student’s right to think about a question and come to a conclusion.”
Breslin, an associate professor of government, is teaching the freshman seminar despite his administrative commitments as assistant dean of the faculty and also director of the First-Year Experience. He says he just couldn’t live a semester completely outside the classroom. Over his decade at Skidmore, Breslin has taught on constitutional law, civil liberties, constitutional thought, and capital punishment. His publications include two books, The Communitarian Constitution (2004) and From Words to Worlds: Exploring Constitutional Functionality (2008). He regularly engages his upperclass students in providing research for actual, and often urgent, clemency petitions in death-penalty cases, supporting the pro bono work of attorney John Howley ’80. This year Breslin involved his first-year students as well.
“My passion for teaching is always what drives me,” says Breslin, who went to college planning to be an art teacher “and fell in love with political science.” He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and counts it especially fortuitous that the year he entered the job market there was an opening at the alma mater of his mother, Wendy Worseley Breslin ’62. “Skidmore has always been in my blood,” he admits.
“I always wanted to teach at a liberal arts college, and I actually think Skidmore is the very finest one around,” he adds. “We’re creative, and we have a gifted faculty. Our students sustain my intellectual energy in ways I don’t think I can get any other way. They make it a pleasure to come to work.” —KG