Tovia Smith, NPR
Boston University School of Law Professor Mark Pettit channels his inner "Tom Petty" and sings to his contracts class.
Tovia Smith, NPR
The Full Version of Professor Pettit's Songs, Plus More from the Interview
It's not hard to imagine how "Contracts" can be one of the most tedious, dry and dreaded classes that first-year law students have to take. But one professor at Boston University School of Law has gone so far to keep class entertaining, that he is known on campus as the professor who rocks — literally!
For nearly 20 years, Professor Mark Pettit has been spicing up his classes by singing legal spoofs of Top 40 hits, from Michael Jackson's "Beat it" (Pettit sings "Breach it") to Britney Spears. (Think: "You're not that innocent!")
A tweedy, balding, buttoned-up kind of guy, Pettit says he came to his singing reluctantly.
"I'm pretty much an introvert," he says.
But when a student submitted a creative rendition of the Brady Bunch song, with lyrics that paralleled a famous case study, Pettit agreed to sing it. That spurred other students to write more spoofs, and 20 years later, Pettit has a collection of greatest hits that run from rap to rock – all written by students.
"He's wonderful," gushes student Alexis Rollins. "He's probably my favorite professor. He puts a little levity into [class] and makes it interesting when he sings."
Today, Pettit seems to be as into his performance, as his students are. He even shows up with props, like a toy guitar, mirrored sunglasses, and a white glove for his Michael Jackson numbers.
"You can tell he gets into it," says student Kim Parr. "It comes through in those moments where he's just going at it, and forgets he's in class. There's some part of him that's definitely living some fantasy."
"I guess that's true," Pettit says. "I have to confess. Maybe at some inner level it is."
But, he says, his shtick is really about breaking the tension in class. He says his willingness to embarrass himself in front of students encourages them to take more risks as well, and they participate more in class.
Doing his best Red Hot Chili Peppers in a closed classroom is one thing; putting himself out there in front of a national radio audience is another.
"We'll see how wise this turns out to be," Pettit laughs. "I'm not sure this is the image that BU Law wants to project."
So far, it seems to be working for the law school. This year, The Princeton Review ranked Boston University No. 1 in faculty quality, citing "quirky professors who make class more interesting."