David DeFazio is a professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), and is an instructor in CGS' Administration of Justice and Legal Studies programs. He has operated a family law practice since 1988 and is an active trial practitioner with more than 29 years of criminal litigation experience.
The following article was originally posted in the Teaching Times, published by Pitt's Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).
Instructor: David DeFazio, J.D.
Years of teaching experience: since 1981; at the U. of Pittsburgh since 1987
Select Courses Taught: “Introduction to Civil Rights,” “Sex, Law, and Marriage,” “Society and the Law,” “Separation, Divorce, and Custody”
Education: Central Catholic, B.A. LaRoche College, J.D. Duquesne University
When did you know you wanted to be a college professor?
Well, it’s a funny thing: it’s one of those ideas that you think is just too big to dream up as a goal. I grew up with very limited beliefs. I have a blue-collar background…my father was a roofer, my uncle was a roofer, my grandfather was a carpenter. When I was in my first year of law school, I put myself through college as a roofer. I had a little truck and a little business—I mean little: me, a truck, and maybe a helper, and I was going into law school after graduating from La Roche, I opened up the Sunday paper and saw a teaching position available at South Side Catholic high school in the South Side of Pittsburgh. I had an undergraduate degree in administration and management, and I applied for the job. I don’t know why I applied but I did and I wound up getting it. I did that for a year, and then in January in 1987, Community College of Boyce hired me to teach a tax course, and then in June of 87, Pitt needed somebody to teach another tax course, a 6-wk summer session, and I taught it, and they kept me on ever since. Now I’m an attorney who makes the national news on cases that he does, and I’ve been teaching now twenty-six years here at Pitt, but when you’re a roofer tacking shingles [laughs] you don’t think in those terms, that you could someday teach at a major university.
If you had to identify one thing you do uniquely in your classes, what would it be?
I can tell you what I try to do, which is try to engage the student in what I believe to be myths that people acquire through the media that misguide them. I call it myth-busting, you can call it paradigm-changing. I have a domino theory of thinking, that if you can knock over one domino, the rest will fall into place. So you just have to get those fundamental ideas accurate, and their own logic will take it from there. For example, many kids were taught that discrimination is wrong, people are taught that democracy is the perfect form of government, people are taught that you have to be either Pro-Life or Pro-Choice—these are all myths. It’s my job to wake them up to see that there’s other ways of looking at this. And because, at this point in my career, I’ve still been able to keep my finger on the pulse of what students are thinking, I get a response to that.
I walk in the very first class and start creating hypothetical, where I say I’m representing a client: that my client is doing things that are legal, but morally questionable. I’ll say, “My client divorced his wife because she turned 50,” and they’ll be offended by that. I’ll say, “Yeah, she’s getting older, her hair’s turning gray, so he decided to get a new car and a new wife.” And I point out that this is a no-fault state, and that what he did is 100% legal. Then I’ll take it a step further, and say “He met his first wife when they were juniors in high school, so he’s at the local high school trying to meet a 16 or 17-year-old.” And the age of consent in Pennsylvania is 16, so they’ll be offended by that, but it’s legal. I keep giving those examples until I’ve creeped them out, until one of my students says, “Just because its legal doesn’t make it moral,” and I’ll say, “Aha. Good for you, that’s where we were headed.” And we’ve established that as a basis for the class. That will become very useful when we discuss the divorce issue [later in the term], and I will remind them what we established on the first day of class.
What do you like most about teaching the most?
Many things. I just like the entire university atmosphere. I just like the energy when you walk onto a university campus. Young people looking forward to their future; they haven’t committed to a particular life strategy just yet, so they’re open-minded. They don’t have any investment in any particular philosophy yet, so it’s easy to introduce new ideas to them: and I don’t have an answer, I just introduce them to the issues.
What do you like least about teaching the least?
I can’t think of a thing. I’ve been doing this a long time. I make a lot more money practicing law than teaching, but I’m always giving myself some excuse to get on campus, every day. I can’t think of a single thing.
What do your students like most about your teaching?
I think students have so many options available to them, and they really want you to demonstrate to them that what you’re offering is something they should invest their time and energy in. And sometimes I just show them what’s a waste of time, and what are the real issues. I know that when they come out of their high school, for example, that they’ve been taught in their high school civics class that democracy is almost a perfect form of government. And one of the first things I teach them is the concept of the tyranny of the majority: that the majority can be tyrannical to certain individuals. And they’ve never thought of it that way. 19th Century America displaced the Native Americans, built half the country with slave labor—and that was “democracy in action.” Just as I teach that just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral, I also teach that just because it’s illegal doesn’t make it immoral. I will say to them, “I went to 4 different schools where there was a crucifix in the room. Every classroom I’ve ever been in as a student had a crucifix.” I ask, “Why do we honor this convict? Jesus is a criminal. He was convicted by Pontius Pilate. Why do we honor this criminal? Why do we honor Rosa Parks? Why do we honor these people who violated the law?” Sometimes the person is not wrong, the law is wrong. And that’s we honor Jesus and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Socrates. So you get them to get out of those knee-jerk reactions, that just because it’s legal it’s moral, that that must make it ok. And they respond to that: “Oh wow, I never saw it that way.”
What do your students like least about your teaching?
Some people are already locked into their ideas. When I talk for example about the abortion issue, I point out that law is one form of behavior modification: there are others. And if you read the opinion of Planned Parenthood vs. KC, the majority of the Supreme Court does not want to give the government that kind of power over a woman’s body. When I start talking about the abortion issue—and I teach 200 students a year—there has to be a mathematical probability at work that someone in class has a personal connection in their own lives to abortion. And you have to be very careful about discussing this issue, [because some people] are tied in: they’ve already had an experience, directly or indirectly. You’re maybe threatening. I’ve been trained to read body language—I’ve been in law enforcement—and I can start getting a sense that people are getting uncomfortable through body language, and I start toning it down a little bit.
I get students thinking that if you’re pro-choice, you’re pro-abortion. But if you read the [Supreme Court] decision, you can see that it’s a false binary. You can be neither, legally pro-choice but pro-childbirth in the sphere of personal choice, or pro-choice and pro-abortion. Out of all the institutions, [the Supreme Court] doesn’t want to give the government that power over a woman’s body, but they advocate educating and informing women that this abortion is not necessarily the preferable option. They don’t really say specifically, but the information is slanted toward childbirth over abortion. It’s just a political science issue of who is going to get power over a woman’s body, so let’s look at the other social institutions and see if they can modify behavior.
Thinking about one of your favorite teachers, what did they do in the classroom that made them so effective?
Based upon my own upbringing, I had parents who were pretty much preoccupied, and did not give my brother and me a lot of face time. My dad was a disabled war veteran who collected disability due to what they then called “shell shock,” and now call post-traumatic stress, so he just liked to be left alone. So to bond with him, you really had to sit down with him on a Sunday afternoon and watch the old movies with him, so otherwise you weren’t going to do anything with him. That was a double-edged sword, because I can tell you more about movies from the late-30’s and early-40’s than you would expect a guy my age to know, even when I was twelve or thirteen, so it had its positive side. But to walk directly into a classroom where a teacher spoke directly to you, and then would respond to you, to what you talked about, that was huge.
When I was a student, I also always liked the practitioners. When I was in high school, one teacher was an aspiring actor, and he would come in and talk about the plays he was in to illuminate the theory. When I was in college, I had some instructors who had come to education late in life, so they had a lot of industry experience and could provide practical applications. I myself am a practitioner. I do some of the biggest criminal cases, so when I come into class, I can often say, “Let me tell you about a case I had.” Because I’m a practitioner who has to make law work in everyday life, I can give my students practical applications of the law: it helps illuminate the theory.
How has your teaching changed over the years?
I think if you talk to people who have taken me over the years for “Sex, Law, and Marriage,” we talk about divorce, custody law, and support. On the first day of class, I put a giant T on the board, and one side I call government regulation, and on the other side, personal freedom/personal accountability, and I tell them we’re going to talk about government regulation, but you’d be surprised how much freedom family law gives you, so you have to be self-regulated, and the book I choose to use is The Road Less Traveled. And when I tell you I’ve taught this course for twenty years, I taught it when I was happily married, when my marriage was starting to fall apart, through the divorce, post-divorce issues, so if you talked to a student from over those years, it depends upon when they took me. [Laughs] You know, there might have been a tinge of bitterness in my lectures. The tone has changed, from time to time. The tone now is [pauses] pretty much accepting.
What is one of your favorite moments from your career as a teacher?
You’d be surprised how often somewhere someone will recognize me. I’ve been teaching at least 150 students per year for 26 years. My mother was at a store a few months ago, where she was using her credit card, and the clerk said, “Do you know David Defazio, the professor?” She said, “Yes, that’s my son.” And the clerk said, “Oh, this is one of my favorite professors.” So it’s nice to have your mother hear that you didn’t make the wrong turn. [laughs]
What advice would you give to a new college professor?
I think throughout history people have had to look at how technology is changing the landscape. I think teachers in the digital age need to have that engaging style, where you are literally almost acting as a doctor, when it comes to teaching. Where you are sitting with the student, monitoring the student, and giving the student what they need in that moment, because with Massively Open Online courses, I don’t think we’re going to need a lot of lecturers, because MOOCS will create an environment where the best and the brightest worldwide will be doing lectures, and I assume they’ll be doing them very well, so the students won’t need to sit in class and listen to someone lecturing on and on. So I think you’re going to need a professor who can literally have a conversation and engage the students, with that student expressing where they are in that moment, and that teacher is able to tell them what they need in that moment, to live in the present moment.
What is one of your favorite things to do in Pittsburgh?
I’m just an Oakland guy. If I’m not jogging on the trails of Oakland, I’m going to Pitt athletic events, Pitt theatre or music events, and I do the same thing at CMU, and I do the same thing at Duquesne. I work out at the fitness centers. I spend most of my time with daughters and my grandkids, in Oakland eating at one of the ethnic restaurants. I just can’t say this enough: I’m just an Oakland guy. If I’m not on Craig Street, I’m on Atwood street.. Being in Oakland you have the best of both world: you have division 1 athletics at Pitt, and then you have two small universities in Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne that have symphony orchestras and drama departments, and you’re able to have a well-rounded life within half a mile of the Cathedral.
What is the next big thing you want to scratch off your bucket list?
I’m working on my third book that talks about my travels to Italy. I go to Italy once a year, usually in August, and go up to the mountain towns, and there’s usually a lot of festivals. As an Italian American, thinking that just because my name ended with a vowel and I ate spaghetti on Sundays, that I would fit like a glove in Italy, it was, and still is an adjustment when I go there because I realize I’m not Italian, I’m an American, and I have some adventures—most of them misadventures, where I ying-ed when I should have yang-ed, so I’m writing a book about that.
If you could do anything differently, what would it be?
When I was a young man, there was no aspect of law I would rather have done than trial work. I liked being in the courtroom rocking and rolling. It’s really the mix. As I get older, I don’t really like that every day, day to day being in the courtroom in an adversarial situation. I still take on big cases, I will occasionally take a smaller case, but doing it 365 like I used to do--I’m getting older, there’s a little bit off my fastball. So the mix is different. So if I could do something different, I would probably want to teach more classes and consult more occasionally. It’s the nurturing environment of the university, versus the adversarial environment of the courtroom.
By Joel Brady, part-time lecturer at Pitt and a Teaching and Learning Consultant at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education