August 25, 2007
Glenn Coven (William & Mary)
- A.B. 1963, Swarthmore
- LL.B. 1966, Columbia
I have always felt badly that I could not answer the question, “And why did you decide to go into teaching tax, Mr. Coven?”, with something like “Gee, ever since I was a little kid I yearned for the day when I could put a smile on the faces of other boys and girls by explaining the beauty of the internal logic of section 336.” Not so. In fact, I seem to have gotten here by stumbling aimlessly down a path that just kept unfolding before me.
In high school I thought I wanted to be an architect (that would have been a disaster) but in my senior year I could not get into a class on mechanical drawing so I decided to become a lawyer instead. Apparently I didn’t reexamine that decision all the way through Swarthmore because I ended up at Columbia Law School. I was so impressed by that experience that, at the end of my first year, I applied to the New York Telephone Co. for a job as a lineman. They turned me down for the reason that I was over-qualified (which seemed untrue) and I returned to Columbia.
Following a slightly more pleasant second year of law school (law review helped), I took a summer associate position at what was then called Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts. On my first day tour of the offices, I was introduced to the senior tax partner and it seemed polite to remark that tax sounded interesting. Apparently no one had ever said that before. In any event, the remark landed me in the tax department where I spent a reasonably enjoyable summer. When I returned to the firm full-time (following an enormously enjoyable clerkship on the Second Circuit with Harold Medina), it was assumed that I would be a tax associate -- which indeed was just fine with me.
I greatly enjoyed the general tax practice of a Wall Street firm but in the mid-70s, the economy tanked and Congress passed the ERISA legislation. That combination of events suggested that I would spend the next few years rewriting pension plans and that meant it was time to change jobs. My plan was to pursue my hobby and become a studio potter while teaching on the side (how much time could that take?) until I became established. Happily (I think), the teaching worked out better than the ceramics and the rest is history.
I had the good fortune to begin teaching at the University of Tennessee which, at the time, had (and probably still does) a very strong socratic teaching tradition. That shaped my style to the present day although I must admit that today I am quicker to decide to explain the world as I see it rather than try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear perceived by my students.
Back in those early days and after my move to William & Mary, while I enjoyed teaching, I enjoyed writing much more –- which was a good thing. Who could forget all those happy hours spent hunched over a portable typewriter retyping page after page without the slightest thought of a summer grant. Like my career, my scholarship has followed a crooked path. In fact, it has been my policy (generally followed) to never write on the same topic twice. Writing on a broad range of topics is a great antidote to boredom –- and to the development of expertise with all its attend burdens.
Having never stayed with anything (except Joan, my wife) for a decade, it never occurred to me in 1976 that I would stay long in teaching. Yet, here I am 31 years later in my final year of full time teaching and very pleased indeed with what I stumbled into.
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