In conversation with Marc Falkoff, Professor of Law at Northern Illinois University

Marc Falkoff is currently Professor of Law at Northern Illinois University.

Since 2004 he has represented prisoners being held by the U.S. military at Guantánamo Bay on suspicion of involvement with terrorism. For his work at Guantanamo, he was named the Charles F.C. Ruff Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year in 2005 by Covington & Burling, LLP. He received the Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award in 2007 from the Southern Centre for Human Rights and the Bill of Rights in Action Award in 2008 from the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Chicago. Professor Falkoff is a graduate of Columbia Law School and holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Brandeis University. Marc edited the 2007 book of prisoner poetry titled Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak. This was a bestselling anthology and has been translated into a dozen languages. 

Dr Jo Metcalf, co-director of the Cultures of Incarceration Centre, caught up with Marc following his keynote lecture to launch the Centre in April 2021 to discuss his current and future research, and his ongoing representation of Guantanamo inmates.

Mark Falkoff
Marc Falkoff is currently Professor of Law at Northern Illinois University

What most excites you about your current project?

Aside from my work on trying to get a new client out of Guantánamo (where he’s been detained without charge since 2003), I’ve just started some research that was inspired by the Civil Rights course I taught in the fall. Of late there’s been relatively little scholarship published in the law reviews on the status of school desegregation orders and consent decrees. I have a sense that, in light of some Supreme Court decisions from fifteen years ago that tamped down on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, desegregation efforts are just kind of evanescing, dying not with a bang but a whimper. If that’s an accurate assessment of what’s happening across the nation, I think it’ll be cool to understand the nature of that dynamic and what it means for the contemporary education experience for our elementary and high school kids.

What book (or author) has inspired you most during your career?

Clarence Darrow’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. Every lawyer aspiring to a meaningful career pursuing justice should read about Darrow’s representation of union members and anarchists; his campaigns against racial discrimination, overcriminalization, and the death penalty; and his legendary participation in the Scopes “monkey trial” and the Leopold and Loeb murder case. It’s fascinating, inspiring stuff.

Who do you think are the most important new voices in cultural criticism and scholarship?

I take “new” to mean anyone who’s still writing (which unfortunately excludes Matthew Arnold) and “cultural criticism” to mean anything that helps bring some clarity and coherence to the white noise we all experience. Even beyond that idiosyncratic understanding, I have idiosyncratic tastes. I find comfort and challenge in both Marilynne Robinson and Judith Butler, who are obviously very different, but at the same time .... That said, maybe I think I find my real peace with writers who help me look through an ever broader lens, like Carlo Rovelli and Alan Lightman in their writing on physics.

What’s your one piece of advice for students and aspiring academics?

Read widely. Don’t stick to your “area.” Embrace serendipity. Accept that inspiration lies where you’re not looking for it. Write about what’s important to you. Read Emerson’s essays again because even though our age too is retrospective, you don’t need to be. That’s all one piece of advice, just worded in a variety of ways.

What’s your next big project, and what is the impetus behind it?

I recently completed a pretty long stint as associate dean at our law school. Although you never hear anyone express such sentiments, I really enjoy being an administrator. The experience convinced me I’d be more effective if I had a more nuanced and theoretical framework for doing the work, so this past year I began an Ed.D. program with an emphasis in Higher Education Administration. My plan at present is to write a dissertation on the feasibility of creating diversity pathways from community colleges to law school and the legal profession, where members of minoritized communities in the U.S. are woefully underrepresented.

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