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Class clown

With hundreds of costumes, props and skits, UF business professor Robert Emerson takes a theatrical approach to teaching students about law.

By TED SPIKER
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 11, 2003


photo
[Photo: Tristan Maher]
University of Florida professor Robert Emerson, dressed as superhero the Flash, has turned his classroom into theater for 15 years to teach his students about legal principles. This getup was for a lecture about the differences between crimes and torts.

GAINESVILLE -- "Anthony," Professor Robert Emerson yells to his director. "Music please."

On cue, music spills from the speakers in 210-seat Bryan Hall auditorium at the University of Florida.

Stripper music. Boomp. Bah boomp. Bah bump. Bah boomp.

Emerson peels off his T-shirt to reveal a short-sleeve, button-down, purple, pink and yellow plaid shirt.

"Our next subject is fraud," he tells the business law class attended by 970 students this semester, in the auditorium, on TV and online.

Emerson unzips his khakis to unveil clownlike pants with two-toned vertical purple stripes.

"And my fraud outfit is a used car salesman," he says.

Twirling his khakis over his head, Emerson tosses them offstage and adds a purple and yellow clip-on tie. Then, this 46-year-old bald business professor shakes his hips with the grace, style and rhythm of, well, a 46-year-old bald business professor.

For his final touch, Emerson dips his fingers in a cup of water and greases his smooth dome.

"Slick hair. Even though I don't have hair, I need slick hair to be a used car salesman."

The audience laughs, and Emerson hams it up for another half-minute. Then he begins his lecture on fraud, covering principles such as material fact, causation and misrepresentation. During the class break, he changes into a white T-shirt and shorts, then prances and skips along the stage. He adds fuzzy yellow slippers, a bib, an oversized pacifier and a bonnet. But his baby costume, which he uses to illustrate the legal definition of capacity, isn't complete.

Standing center stage, the Harvard law graduate slides an adult-size diaper over his shorts.

Students raise their eyebrows and open their mouths.

From the 14th row, one student shouts, "Okay, now you're scaring me."

Silly but interesting

For 15 years, Robert Emerson has been dressing up -- and acting out -- to teach his students about legal principles.

"I always thought it was very sad when you had a professor who was boring," says Emerson, a professor of business law and legal studies. "It just seemed to me that a professor should try to do what he can to engage the students."

What Emerson did was juxtapose law with entertainment. Costumes, hats and props fill 57 plastic bins and eight large white laundry baskets in his office. He has more stuff stored at home.

Emerson dresses like a gladiator "because I think it ties into the whole thing of lawyers as gladiators, that they'll do anything for their cause." He wears a shark hat for a lawyers-as-predators point. He wears a stars and stripes bathing suit and an Uncle Sam hat to talk about the powers of national and state government. He wears a Riddler costume to symbolize the questions that arise in breach-of-contract cases (some costumes are a stretch, Emerson admits).

He dresses as a judge, an old lady, a witch, Zorro, a mummy, a Colorado Rockies fan, a six-eyed monster, a gangster, a pirate and countless other characters during his 58-class semester.

"Every class I try to have at least something connected to the class as to why I'm wearing what I'm wearing," he says.
photo
[Photo: Tristan Maher]
Andrew Davis, left, a business administration senior, dresses as Jason from the Friday the 13th movies to help Robert Emerson with his crimes-and-torts lecture.

Not everyone likes Emerson's style -- some think his act is frivolous -- but most of the audience applauds him. For Emerson's spring 2002 course, students gave him an overall rating of 4.77; 5 is the highest. Subjective comments on teacher evaluations touch on his originality, humor and enthusiasm.

"Professor Emerson is pathologically motivated and driven to excellence in teaching," one student wrote in an unsigned appraisal. "If you took his teaching away from him, the voices in his head would stop telling him to teach and start telling him to kill. For God's sake, make sure his tenure never ends."

Emerson says he isn't going anywhere.

"Tomorrow I'm going to dress up as a vampire, because I'm going to talk about illegal contracts, and certainly sucking somebody's blood, even if they agreed to you doing it, would be an illegal contract," he says.

A life of the mind

Before class begins on a recent Tuesday, Emerson and two volunteers haul eight printer-paper boxes of costumes and props down to the stage. This is Emerson's stressful time, making sure everything's in place, that he has all the props, that he has reviewed his 203-page list of costumes, props, skits, comics and videos. He shifts into the director's role.

"Who wants to be in a skit?" Emerson shouts as the 70-some showups file into the 9:35 a.m. class. The class is also being videotaped for airing that day on the UF TV station.

"Anybody in the back want to move and bring down two chairs?"

"My four players in the skit. You all have a mike? You got a mike? You got a mike? You don't have a mike? This great big university we are, we only have three mikes." Everything's finally in place. "I guess when you're ready, Anthony." The class hears a long beep, signaling that the tape is rolling, and Emerson morphs from director to performer, a role that lends the most insight into his personality traits, such as: He's got shtick. In one class, Emerson shows a comic of several sperm fighting for the attention of one large egg. On the 6- by 8-foot screen to the right of the stage, director Anthony Bouton superimposes Emerson's face in the egg. "Why does he always make me the egg?" Emerson says to a laughing audience. Bouton responds by shrinking his face into one of the tiny sperm.

He loves performing. Besides the occasional sword fight with students, he'll also show videos of himself in local theater productions. One clip features Emerson holding a woman above his head during a dance; one hand is hidden under her dress. The class: invasion of privacy.

He knows more than law. He loves introducing students to classical arts. In one class, he plays music by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. "You recognize it from the Die Hard movies," he says. (Sebelius dropped out of law school, which is how Emerson makes the connection to his class.)

After Harvard, Emerson worked at several law firms in Baltimore, primarily as a litigator, while teaching courses in business law at Johns Hopkins University. A multiple winner of college and university teaching awards, Emerson has also written numerous books and academic articles, and he has testified in front of Congress about franchising.

"You talk about the crazy man with all the costumes and here are these pretty sedate business issues," Emerson says. "One of the things I really do like about being a professor and academia is that you really can have a life of the mind."

That life doesn't stop with law, his family says.

"Years ago, we were playing Trivial Pursuit," says his wife, Heidi. "And the question was how many dimples are on a golf ball. Rob's never played golf, but he knew the answer. Everybody thought he cheated and looked at the card, but he just knows a lot about everything.

"He's always an educator. He just teaches, whether you want him to or not."
photo
[Photo: Tristan Maher]
Robert Emerson, right, performs a skit with UF marketing junior Natalie Crozier. Emerson’s aim: to help illustrate how differences in language and word usage can affect the meaning of what someone says. The skit focused on the word “culpable,” which is used in English and Spanish.

Mixed reviews

Watch Robert Emerson long enough and you realize it's not his costumes, skits or hammy jokes that command your attention.

It's his Jack-Nicholson-as-the-Joker photogenic mouth.

Not only does it look huge, with its pronounced creases in the corners, but it makes huge sounds, too. Loud and soft, high and low, fast and slow.

"His face is very mobile. He's like Lon Chaney in that he can change faces very easily," says Kim Tuttle, artistic director of the Gainesville theater company DANCE ALIVE! Emerson performs each year in the company's Nutcracker parody, Cracked Nut.

"He has no inhibitions about making a fool of himself," Tuttle says. "He'll take his shirt off and get down to next to nothing with no shame."

The closest Emerson has come to embarrassment onstage happened while he was wearing a Middle Eastern robe during a lecture.

"I kept noticing someone pointing and gesticulating. And I kept asking what's going on," Emerson says. "Finally they shouted, 'You need a slip.' I was wearing underwear but I wasn't wearing shorts. Apparently the way the light was, they could see a little more than they wanted to." For some students, a little Emerson goes a long way.

"The first day, I thought it was going to be hilarious, but the rest of the semester just wasn't," says Alixander Lim, a UF senior who took Emerson's course and got an A. (Emerson, known as a tough grader, says 10 percent of his students get As, with most getting about a C-plus.)

"I guess he tries harder than most teachers to make it different, but it's hard to watch someone (who's making jokes) who isn't getting a lot of laughs."

John Kraft, dean of the college of business administration, says that some faculty members also may be "concerned with (Emerson's) style, one, because it's not traditional, and two, because people can see it on TV. They could be concerned that it reflects badly on the college." But, he says, Emerson is an effective teacher, and that's what counts.

"I'm sure there are a few that think if I didn't do this, I would have more time to focus on business law," Emerson says. "I don't really like that criticism. Even if on average (students are) only getting 46 minutes of law as opposed to 50, it's still 46 minutes where they're being engaged."

--Ted Spiker is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Florida and a freelance writer.

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