Criminology. Law. The Supreme Court. Bad Bunny. Harry Styles. Taylor Swift.

Any one of these topics could weave its way into a Brandon Golob lecture at the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology. At the surface level, his willingness to bring pop culture into the classroom is one reason why students have voted him professor of the year four years running in a school survey. He admits he scores bonus popularity points when he comes to campus with his rescue dog, Bruce, a 14-pound chihuahua-corgi mix.

Sure, students say Golob is well-liked because he can chat about the Grammys or the Oscars. On a deeper level, they say he’s a great professor because of the way he challenges them to think about democracy and the law and to analyze the way they perceive the world around them.

“Professor Golob creates a safe and engaging learning environment and also teaches critical thinking skills, especially with contemporary analysis of current events,” one student wrote in their nomination of Golob for professor of the year in 2024.

“His teaching style is innovative and interactive, incorporating real-world examples and current media to make complex concepts accessible and engaging,” another student wrote.

“His method of teaching is probably the most effective way I’ve ever seen anyone in all my years of school actually teach,” wrote a third.

Golob, who does not shy away from bringing identity and politics into the classroom, would tell you that to understand his effectiveness as an instructor you would have to understand his background and UCI’s.

UCI has a diverse student body. More than 25% of its student body identifies as Latino. At least half of all students receive financial aid. And, nearly 50% of this year’s graduates are first-generation college students.

A first-generation college graduate himself, Golob can relate to how daunting — and rewarding — it can be to navigate the UC system. He received his dual B.A. in rhetoric and interdisciplinary studies from UC Berkeley and his J.D. from the UCLA School of Law before receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. in communication from USC. Realizing that he preferred the mission of public education, he landed a job at UCI straight out of his graduate program in 2018. Now a tenured professor, he teaches legal communication, criminology, constitutional law and leadership classes. He also serves as an associate dean of UCI’s campuswide honors collegium, an undergraduate honors program.

“Students see me as someone on the other side of what they would like to do,” he said. “So I try to be really human about all the mistakes I made and show them it still worked out. It alleviates some of that anxiety they have when they act like, ‘I failed a final, I’m never going to make it.’”

Even after starting college, Golob did not envision himself in academia, he said. He figured he’d strike a career in law, but was privately ambivalent about that, too.

“I was the first in my family to go to law school,” he said. “I didn’t really know what it was like.”

It’s a struggle he sees reflected in many of his students — their projection that law is the right path for them, but their inability to meaningfully articulate why. “So many of our students say they want to be a lawyer or want to work in law enforcement, but when you really get down to it, they’re like, ‘I love ‘Suits’ or I want to study criminal law because of ‘How to Get Away with Murder.’”

After completing his doctorate, Golob wanted to stay in Southern California and he wanted to teach law to undergraduates. UCI’s School of Social Ecology would allow him to do both.

“Most law students know exactly what they want to do, and as a professor, I’d just be there as a means to an end. Versus undergrads, the experience can change their whole life perspective,” he said.

Rather than lecture on black letter law like a professor might in a law degree program, Golob said he prefers to teach law in “broad brushstrokes” in ways that he hopes students will find useful in life.

His courses aren’t limited by the Socratic method or other rote forms of instruction, he said. Rather, he encourages students to engage in all sorts of activities and assessments from small group discussions to podcasting to essay writing. He even modeled one online leadership course around a “Survivor”-esque island theme.

In class, he said he aims to “humanize” the law. Rather than having students memorize their Miranda rights, for example, he encourages them to explore the life of Ernesto Miranda and what his case means today in the larger context of policing in America.

In class, the millennial professor breaks up heavy conversations with lighthearted activities such as “New Music Fridays.”

Traditional legal scholars might bristle at the way his lectures on legal doctrine take detours into chats on Coachella headliners. They might not like that he wears polos and sneakers to work. But for Golob, popular music and culture are a means of expression and a route to student engagement.

“We build music into every one of my classes,” he said. “In my hate crimes class, we’ll listen to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off.’ Haters gonna hate, you know. Or, in my constitutional law class, we’ll listen to ‘Hamilton,’ things along those lines.”

It might sound teenybop, but Golob’s pedagogy has multigenerational appeal. He’s won separate professor of the year honors from graduate students, including those in his leadership seminar for mid-career law enforcement professionals.

In their reviews, students write the underlying reason for Golob’s appeal is not so much the music or even his dog, Bruce, but the way he builds trust in the classroom.

Whether he’s teaching 40 students or 250, 18-year-old freshmen or 18-year veterans of the district attorney’s office, Golob gives his students agency in their own instruction. Instead of handing out a typical syllabus, he works with his students to draft a “compassion contract” for each of his courses. It’s a set of ground rules the class as a whole agrees to before engaging in challenging legal conversations around sensitive political topics that could range from policing to abortion.

“At the outset of each class, we’ll lay out here’s how we’ll dialogue with each other. Here’s how we’ll treat one another when we come up against difficult, complicated topics that have different emotional responses,” he said.

Each class contract, he said, enables students to take risks in discussions and escape their “echo chambers” by sharing thoughtful perspectives on what can be polarizing topics.

“We’re not all here to be comfortable. We’re not here to have an echo chamber,” Golob said. “We use our classroom to be a microcosm for the real world. Class is not going to be your group of TikTok friends reinforcing your beliefs. We always ask ourselves how people beyond the classroom may be thinking about these issues, reminding ourselves even with the diversity of perspectives that we have within our classrooms that it’s not representative of reality in the world. We remind ourselves that there’s always more at stake than what’s happening in the classroom.”

When analyzing Supreme Court decisions, for instance, he asks students to consider how each judge might use their unique lived experiences to approach a decision. That could mean bringing race, gender and socioeconomics into the classroom. “I’m not saying identity is ever completely determinative of their perspective, but we’ll investigate and ask, ‘How could this potentially impact their decision-making?’” Golob said.

This naturally leads to challenging conversations about privilege and identity, and Golob recognizes these topics can quickly become touchy subjects in academia and politics. But, in his experience, addressing them head-on has been the best way to bring his students together.

“My students are an unparalleled bright spot during dark, divisive times in higher education,” Golob said in a statement accepting his award. “They motivate me to teach from a place of authenticity and receptivity. I’m honored that they find value in my courses, but what I learn from them is far richer; it could never be distilled into a lesson plan.”

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