The Many Incarnations of a Very Keen Mind
How does one man influence Third World economics, Alzheimer’s preparation, religious freedom, calypso music and still have time to become one of Texas Tech’s most creative professors? Behold the new Renaissance man.
by Cory Chandler
Here’s a story Vaughn James uses to explain his teaching philosophy:
As a fledgling high school teacher in the West Indies, James once had to prepare an exam. Trained to adopt a hard-nosed teaching mentality, James of course set out to prepare the toughest, meanest, most bruising exam he could muster. Thirty-five students took the exam; only five passed. James was satisfied.
“I thought, ‘I have done my job well,’” he said.
But when his superintendent saw the test results, she said something that upended the young teacher’s educational outlook.
“There are two options here,” she said. “Either all of your students are dumb, or you did not teach them properly. I refuse to believe that the former is true, so it must be the latter.”
Fast-forward three decades, and here is an affable man holding court in a Texas Tech University School of Law lecture hall. The recent recipient of the Texas Tech University President’s Excellence in Teaching Award is handing out Almond Joy candy bars to students who provide witty or insightful responses to his questions.
The Almond Joys denote friendship and an extension of the philosophy that now guides James’ teaching. The Judge Robert H. Bean Professor said he considers himself a facilitator for student success.
“If a student fails to pass one of my exams, I take the failing grade as a sign that I did not teach the material correctly,” he said.
James focuses on providing practical curriculum components to supplement his teaching, drawing inspiration from the various incarnations of a driven, restless and very keen mind. A Renaissance man by nature, James changes mantles as needed; he’s been an elementary teacher, an assistant principal, investment banker, accountant and law professor.
This self-professed “tax man” and director of the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic still records and performs with his lauded calypso and reggae band, King Shakey & The Banned. His scholarship has made an impact on issues as diverse as Third World economics, Alzheimer’s care and religious freedom, and he spends his weekends on the pulpit as an ordained minister.
Vaughn James serves as the Judge Robert Bean Professor of Law in the Texas Tech University School of Law.
In 2011, James was named an Integrated Scholar by the Office of the Provost at Texas Tech.
21st Century Pirate
A large portion of James’ research and writing focuses on issues related to taxation.
“You mention tax and I do it,” he said. “That’s my field and I actually love it. People are stunned. ‘You love tax?’ Yes, tax is exciting! It’s a wonderful world out there. People don’t believe me, but it’s true. Tax is great. So that’s what I do, I write on tax topics.”
James said he is inspired by the belief that a better way of life must exist for mankind–“better, that is, than the disharmony, disunity and misery we see around us every day.”
He is especially drawn to international tax issues because of the impact they have on developing countries like those of his native home, the Commonwealth of Dominica, where he frequently presents tax-related lectures.
When asked to discuss his scholarship as it relates to international tax law, he references a 2002 law review article, “Twenty-first Century Pirates of the Caribbean: How the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Robbed Fourteen CARICOM Countries of Their Tax and Economic Policy Sovereignty,” which was well covered by the Caribbean press and has been translated to French for inclusion in the Economic Affairs collection at the United Nations Library in Geneva, Switzerland.
The article addresses certain economic decisions by the G7 and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that affect Third World countries.
“'Twenty-first Century Pirates of the Caribbean’ may be my favorite article,” he said. “That’s the one where I really went after the OECD and said, ‘You guys are just not being fair to the Third World countries, the countries like Antigua and Barbados and Dominica and St. Vincent.’”
“The Alzheimer’s Advisor, a Caregiver’s Guide to Dealing with the Tough Legal and Practical Issues” by Vaughn James was ranked as one of the Top 24 Consumer Healthcare Books of 2009.
The Next Big Pandemic
In addition to tax issues, James writes about Alzheimer’s disease, which he describes as the next big pandemic. His research positions readers to tackle legal challenges related to the disease and other forms of dementia.
The issue of Alzheimer’s is deeply personal for James, who was actually in the process of writing a casebook on the disease for law students when he got a call from a doctor in New York. The doctor was calling to inform him that his 44-year-old sister had been diagnosed with the disease.
James’ response: “She is 44, doc. People get Alzheimer’s when they are 67, 69, but she is 44.”
The doctor replied, “Yep. If it’s not Alzheimer’s, it’s vascular dementia, but it doesn’t matter; it’s the same thing, same prognosis, same treatment, same thing that happens.”
James forgot about the casebook. He didn’t want to write a casebook anymore. He wanted to write a book that would tell people about Alzheimer’s–that dreaded disease–and so that’s the book he wrote: “The Alzheimer’s Advisor, a Caregiver’s Guide to Dealing with the Tough Legal and Practical Issues.” Library Journal ranked his book as one of the Top 24 Consumer Healthcare Books of 2009.
Suddenly James was quoted on CNN and in USA Today. The calls were pouring in. Invitations to speak. He is still speaking about the issue. This year, he presented at venues including the University of Tennessee Faculty Forum and 100 Black Men of West Texas, Inc. He is also preparing a follow-up to “Alzheimer’s Advisor.”
Religious freedom also ranks as an important issue for James, a member of the Board of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association.
A graduate of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and an ordained minister who teaches at a public institution, his work focuses, not surprisingly, on conflicts faced by religious educators who teach in public institutions.
“I have phoned lots of people like myself, and I’ve interviewed them and have all this data, and we see what problems that we encounter as we teach,” he said. “It’s amazing. America is an amazing place. It’s a wonderful place, but an amazing place. I can walk into class and swear and people will smile, but if I walk into class and say, ‘Oh praise the Lord,’ then people will go to the dean and complain. It’s just an amazing place. So why am I allowed to swear with nobody complaining, but if I say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ that’s a problem?”
James is currently writing a casebook for law and religious courses titled “Current Conflicts in Law and Religion” (Vandeplas Publishing). He and a research assistant are working to complete the book by Dec. 31.
“I have won six calypso king titles, so people still call me king. They say once a king, always a king.”
James started playing music when he was 6 years old, attending music school in his native Commonwealth of Dominica, following the syllabus of Britain’s Royal School of Music.
“I was fortunate that I went to music school,” he said. “I was fortunate that my parents were able to send me to that school. So I learned music at a very young age and began performing at a very young age.”
In 1973, James made his jump into the public spotlight as King Shakey when Radio Dominica aired his song, “World Crisis.” James was 16 when, in 1977, he became the youngest person to ever win Dominica’s Road March Calypso King title. In 1979, he went on to become the youngest person to win the Carnival Calypso Monarch title.
“They crowned me the Calypso King,” he said. “They call me King Shakey. People still remember my kingly days. I have won six calypso king titles, so people still call me king. They say once a king, always a king.”
In addition to singing and performing his own songs, James served as composer and songwriter for a slate of influential musicians.
James still dons dreadlocks to promote social consciousness with King Shakey & The Banned, based out of Toronto, Canada, jamming calypso and reggae music in venues throughout New York and New Jersey.
“Yeah, we are Rasta men when we hit the stage,” he said.
In recognition of his contribution to Caribbean music, in May 2007, the University of the West Indies – Dominica Open Campus presented him with the Heritage Legend Award.
Managing the Caseload
James also manages as many as 60 cases at a time on a pro-bono basis for clients in West Texas, New Mexico and New York.
“I love seeing the poor get their day in court,” he said.
Whether it’s working as director of the tax clinic to represent taxpayers who are unable to afford counsel in IRS disputes, taking cases for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas or even on his own, James amasses so many pro-bono hours that he has been a member of the Pro Bono College of the State Bar of Texas for the past four years. His average day runs from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following day.
“If you do not love teaching, if you do not love students, if you do not love interacting with them, do not love influencing minds and opening minds to think, then you should be doing something else, whatever that something else may be. But don’t teach if you don’t love it.”
“To get all this done, you just have to work long hours,” he said. “No ‘if’ or ‘but’ or ‘maybe’ about it. You can’t work eight hours a day and do all these things.”
James also works weekends, but because he’s a Seventh-day Adventist, weekends get tricky. On Saturdays, James can’t work until the sun goes down. So after sunset, he goes to the office and works until the wee hours of Sunday morning, when he heads home in time for his wife, Marva, to leave for work, and he starts taking care of the kids–Etienne, aged 10, and Maëlys-Claire, aged 5–for the day.
“This has become our weekend routine,” he said before adding jokingly, “I know you are alarmed by this.”
James turned this pro-bono work into a learning opportunity for his students. When he came to Texas Tech Law in 2001, he sensed the need for a wills clinic.
“People usually do not have wills,” he said. “They think, ‘I do not have anything, why do I need a will?’ And then they die, and there is all this confusion. People are fighting over all sorts of stuff. So I sensed a need for that, but there was no wills clinic at Texas Tech.”
Working with then-professor Tim Floyd and Clinical Programs director Larry Spain, James helped launch the Wills Clinic and required all students taking his wills and trusts class to participate in the clinic.
James no longer teaches Wills and Trusts at Texas Tech–he teaches it at University of Tennessee College of Law–and the Wills Clinic no longer operates, but James still focuses his energy on finding new and novel ways to present information to his students and ensure that he is a facilitator for their success.
“Teaching is fun,” he said. “Teaching is great. I look forward to it. I approach it like I approach a sermon. I approach it like I approach a concert.”
In fact, while he was teaching at Syracuse University College of Law, James said he was walking down the corridor one day and overheard two students. One of them said, “Are you going to class today?” The other one responded, “Yes, I cannot miss the Vaughn James Show.”
James chuckles about that one. “It’s a performance,” he said. “It really is. So you go out there, and you perform like a performer would, like it’s a concert or preaching a sermon. And your students will love it, and you will love it, too. And the moment you stop loving teaching, quit. If you do not love teaching, if you do not love students, if you do not love interacting with them, do not love influencing minds and opening minds to think, then you should be doing something else, whatever that something else may be. But don’t teach if you don’t love it.”
The School of Law
The Texas Tech University School of Law is an American Bar Association-accredited law school. Known nationally for their continual success in trial advocacy competitions, the school focuses on forming practical lawyers who are ready to practice law upon graduation.
In 2013, Texas Tech University School of Law ranked best of Texas public schools on the bar exam with a 95.45 percent first-time pass rate on the February 2013 Texas Bar Examination. Read More.
Texas Tech Law also placed ninth in overall quality and second for student satisfaction in a new National Jurist magazine law school ranking focused on what students find most important.
Cory Chandler is the former communications coordinator for the Texas Tech University School of Law. Photos courtesy of Vaughn James and Neal Hinkle. Video by Scott Irlbeck.