Teaching law from class to courts

Innovative approach to instruction earns professor big honor

`He makes you think'

April 17, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Know this about Patrick J. O'Guinn Sr.: He thinks facts aren't terribly useful in isolation.

Which explains why the public defender turned Howard Community College instructor assigns textbook chapters but also sends his students to trials, directs them to study criminal cases at the Howard County Circuit Court Law Library and asks them to give "opening statements" in class.

His teaching style is partly what prompted HCC officials to name O'Guinn outstanding faculty member of the academic year.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the associate professor of criminal justice and business law also developed HCC's first online Web page for student advising, wrote the college's intellectual property policy, negotiated an agreement with the Howard County Police Department that gives officers course credit for life experiences and designed a workshop to help faculty members work with disruptive students.

O'Guinn, a Clarksville resident and father of four, came to HCC after three years as an attorney in the felony trial division of the Baltimore City public defender's office, where he handled some attention-getting murder and child-abuse cases. Before that, he was a police officer in California.

His background is unusual for a community college teacher but helpful, said Ron Roberson, HCC's vice president of academic affairs.

"He has quite a bit of credibility in the classroom," Roberson said. "He brings a real-world perspective, and students respond to that. It's not abstract."

That's O'Guinn's goal at HCC: He wants to help students understand how their textbook information applies today. "You see how it really works," explained O'Guinn, a soft-spoken man who coordinates the criminal justice program and the business law curriculum. "If there was anything I felt I was cheated on in my education, it's that I got all the theory and very little application."

As a faculty adviser, O'Guinn gives students the feeling that he has plenty of time for them, said Barbara Greenfeld, director of admissions and advising at HCC.

"It's just very obvious to see that he's extremely enthusiastic about working with his students," she said.

Those in his classes are enthusiastic about him, too. Tara Gibson, 28, who's taking her first course with O'Guinn, gives him high marks.

"He makes you think," said Gibson, a Columbia resident. "He's very spontaneous -- it helps you to be prepared because you never know what he's going to do. He's one of the best professors I've had at this college."

Gibson, who wants to design skill-development classes for people serving prison time, said O'Guinn went out of his way to help when she missed a week of classes because of a death in her family.

"I called him, and he gave me blow-for-blow what he was going to go over [in class]," she said.

During his "Evidence and Procedure" course last week, O'Guinn guided students through the sometimes complicated legalese they'll need to know for the next test, terms such as "admission by silence" and "documentary evidence." Often, though, the class simply talked -- about Miranda rights; about Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy at the center of an immigration and custody battle; about children being suspended from school for playing cops and robbers.

Oh, and about traffic court. Some of the students sat through cases as part of O'Guinn's in-court requirement.

O'Guinn says he feels an obligation to all his students, not only those who are interested in the criminal justice field.

"A big part of my job is to help students find a sense of direction," he said. "I get the first-semester, second-semester college student who's frightened to death. They don't know if they can do the work. My job is to give them the confidence."

He first worked as a police officer during his final year at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. He's also worked as a private investigator, a free-lance photographer, a court clerk, a janitor and a championship martial artist.

"All these things I've done, I've never perceived it as wasted time," said O'Guinn, who also is HCC's diversity committee chairman. "Everything has a value. So what I try to impart to students is: Everything you do will add up to what you want to become."

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