MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And we continue our coverage of higher education with a report about Boston University Law School where one professor has come up with a surprising way to keep students engaged in class.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Everybody knows law school can be pretty tedious stuff especially a class by contracts.

Mr. MARK PETTIT (Professor, Boston University Law School): Okay, Ms. Rick(ph), does Carbolic Smoke Ball Company condition its commitment on receiving a return commitment?

Unidentified Woman #1: You mean like…

SMITH: A few minutes in class and you begin to see why a professor like B.U.'s Mark Pettit would want to take a break from the Socratic method.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Behind his podium, this tweedy, buttoned-up law professor grabs a red toy guitar and mirrored sunglasses and in a Clark-Kent-like transformation, Mark Pettit emerges as Tom Petty.

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing to the tune of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'") There's this product, cures your ailments. You don't believe us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Call it a more inspired case study of the Carbolics Smoke Ball Company.

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing to the tune of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'") Smoke balling, I'm so smoke balling.

SMITH: And just like that, this not so buttoned-up after all contracts professor, is a rock star.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. ALEXIS ROLLINS (Student, Boston University Law School): Oh no, he's wonderful. Yeah, definitely.

Mr. ALEXANDER NAFF(ph) (Student, Boston University Law School): Probably the coolest thing that I have ever heard happening at a law school (unintelligible). It kind of blew my mind.

SMITH: Students - Alexander Naff, Alexis Rollins and Kirsten Johnson(ph) - say they appreciate Pettit's comic relief, and they say the fun actually help them.

Ms. ROLLINS: The songs get stuck in your hear. If you have so many cases, it's a lot easier to remember them when he does stuff like that.

SMITH: Do you think he had has a good voice?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROLLINS: I mean, he's no Michael Jackson, when it comes down to it

SMITH: Maybe not but don't tell Pettit that.

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Beat It") It doesn't matter who's wrong or right just reach it, just reach it…

SMITH: Pettit started singing, reluctantly, some 20 years ago, when a student wrote a spoof of the Brady Bunch song, and ask Pettit to sing it.

Mr. PETTIT: So I said, whoa, wait a second. I said, you know, I can't sing. I have to have some decorum in the classroom, some dignity.

SMITH: But Pettit couldn't resist.

Mr. PETTIT: But I said, you know,

(Singing) Tada dada tada.

I might be able to do that so…

SMITH: So a star was born, and students have been sending Pettit more and more challenging renditions ever since.

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing) Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…

SMITH: Like Britney Spears.

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing) Oops, you decided to trust what I said about rust, you're not that innocent.

SMITH: And you don't want to miss his "Stairway to Heaven."

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing) And they're buying a gateway computer woohoo…

SMITH: Pettit says he still blushes when he sings, but he see his personal humiliation as a noble sacrifice. It encourages students to take more risks, he says, when they see me willing to look foolish myself.

Mr. PETTIT: (Singing to the tune of The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge") I don't even want to feel like I did that day. Court said no relieves…

SMITH: But getting in touch with his inner-Red-Hot-Chili-Pepper in a closed classroom is not the same thing, Pettit notes, as putting himself out there in front a national radio audience.

Mr. PETTIT: Will I see how wise this turns out to be.

SMITH: Earlier this year, the Princeton review ranked B.U. law school number one in faculty quality, setting its quirky professors who make class more interesting. Consider Mark Pettit, Exhibit A of professors who rock.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

(Soundbite of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge")

BRAND: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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