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College of Law

Florida State University


Featured Profile: Q&A with Professor Erin Ryan

Erin Ryan

 What made you decide to become a law professor?

Well, it wasn’t something that I ever planned to do, and it followed a series of great adventures in fields other than law — but it all came together in the end!

After college, I worked briefly in the fields of race relations and family homelessness before returning to academia to study ethnomusicology and world music. I finished my masters and was starting the Ph.D. when I had a crisis of conscience: I loved studying music all day, but at times, it felt self-indulgent. I believe that intercultural understanding betters the world, but I also felt the weight of pressing societal problems – like race relations and family homelessness – that I wanted to be doing more to help solve. (Also, there is really only one job for someone with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology – professor – and back then, that just seemed ridiculous!)

So I deferred the Ph.D. program to think things through, and moved to New York to perform professionally. It was fun for a few years, but the pollution and concrete jungle of Hell’s Kitchen made me sad. On a whim, I took a short-term gig in the Sierra Nevada, just east of Yosemite National Park. I fell so in love with the area that I took a job as a ranger at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. I happily traded playing in smoky Manhattan clubs for playing around smoky mountain campfires.

My forest service work was cathartic, but also fascinating. Luck had landed me at a site of significant environmental and water law precedent — the seminal Mono Lake public trust doctrine case — and part of my job was to interpret the case for the public. I became so interested in the issues that I eventually applied to law school to study water law and natural resource management. My experiences at Mono Lake, especially involving the complexities of interjurisdictional environmental governance, would deeply inform my later research. Later, while clerking on the Ninth Circuit, I was put on an important environmental federalism case about the constitutionality of Clean Water Act regulations, further seeding my research agenda. 

At the time, I wasn’t planning on going into academia; I just wanted to help solve the environmental governance problems that I saw from the ground up as a ranger. And I wanted to bring ground-level experience to the policy-making realm, where it wasn’t always represented. But while practicing environmental and land use law in San Francisco, I was invited to teach Negotiation at U.C. Hastings—the last step of my unlikely path toward an academic legal career. 

And I can’t imagine a better professional destination! Now I teach Natural Resources Law, Water Law, Property Law, and Negotiation, and my scholarship bridges these areas and others in constitutional and international law. I draw from almost every element of my previous adventures in my work today. Without them, I think I’d be a very different — and much less interesting — academic.

Why did you want to join the law faculty at Florida State?

I love FSU! Florida State is such a dynamic, scholarly environment. The faculty is a scholarly powerhouse, and they are all such nice and interesting people. It’s exciting to be at a large research university with so much going on in all disciplines. Under Don’s leadership, FSU has emerged as an exceptional academic environment, and I wanted to be part of that.

Your expertise in the area of negotiation began while you were a law student in the Harvard Program on Negotiation. Can you tell readers about the Negotiation course you teach at the College of Law? 

It’s an intensive workshop about both the theory and practice of interest-based bargaining. We study the different stages of negotiation, the skill-sets demanded by different moments in a negotiation, and how to navigate cross-currents of leverage, power, emotion, and ethics. The course also builds useful skills for managing the relationships lawyers create with their clients and partners, and in other professional and personal settings. Lawyers draw on negotiation skills not only to craft settlement agreements, but in the overall craft of productively managing conflict (and hopefully, helping clients avoid them in the first place). I’ve taught the course for thirteen years now, and students routinely describe it as a life changing experience.

Describe your current scholarship.

I work in a number of independent fields, and in some places they overlap in interesting ways. My primary areas of expertise involve constitutional federalism, negotiated governance and intergovernmental bargaining, and multilevel environmental governance. I also do broader work in environmental and natural resources law, property law, and land use law. And lately, I am also doing interesting work in Chinese environmental law, inspired by my undergraduate degree in Chinese and the year I spent in China as a Fulbright Scholar in 2011-2012. 

Tell me more about teaching in China as a Fulbright Scholar.

It was an incredible experience, and in my role as a cultural ambassador, a deeply moving one. Thanks to my undergraduate work in Chinese language and culture and my graduate work in ethnomusicology, I already understood law as a cultural text — but my year in China immeasurably deepened that perspective. Experiencing the different roles of law, expectations of governance, and how law actually works in the U.S. and China was enormously powerful.

I taught at Ocean University in Qingdao and guest lectured at two dozen others around Asia. But as much as I learned in the classroom, the experience of daily life in China was just as educational, especially because I was there with my family. I brought my husband, our 3-year-old son, and my 73-year-old mother with me, so we lived a lot like an ordinary Chinese family — with three generations and an only child! Western academics often have glamorous experiences visiting China, and we had some as well, but most of our year there was about ordinary, real life. 

We had to contend with education, healthcare, transportation, grocery shopping, dental care, and all of the other things that normal families do. We struggled with air pollution, learned to boil our water, got to know the fruit vendors, and played with neighborhood children. We befriended local families and celebrated local holidays. To this day, this experience of daily family life in China informs my academic perspective more profoundly than any book research. 

Can you tell readers more about your family? 

We are all settling nicely into Tallahassee. My husband, Ed Zilavy, is transitioning from directing IT at the Oregon Education Association to whatever opportunities await here in Florida. Our son, Dylan, now in second grade, is loving math and science at Hawks Rise — and every second I am not at work is one I am trying to spend with him. This is part of what drew us to FSU: to be part of a community where I could be both an excellent scholar and also an excellent parent. We are enjoying family culture in Tallahassee, and hiking every possible trail in the area, our favorite hobby. We like to explore as much as we can — and to sing whenever possible!

Can you tell readers more about your musical pursuits?

I played professionally from my teenage years all the way until I became an academic. I played piano, recorder, clarinet, and oboe as a child, and then all else faded after I picked up a guitar at age 14. In college, I started singing professionally in a multicultural women’s gospel septet. In graduate school, I started playing Afro-Caribbean percussion and taught voice lessons. I played steel drums with a large Carnival steel band in Trinidad and with a small “panside” in the U.S., playing at venues ranging from weddings to Lincoln Center, and even opening for Queen Latifah. All the while, I was a singer-songwriter with my own band, which toured the East Coast and recorded several albums of material. While performing music in New York, I also worked as a commercial actor, including extra work in Law & Order. (Which is especially funny now, as it seemed like a job that required tremendous acting skill at the time.)

Is there anything else you would like readers to know? 

I’m delighted to be part of the FSU community, and so appreciative of how warmly we’ve been welcomed. I have loved my students and colleagues, and I’m especially enjoying the environmental program. I want FSU to have a strong environmental program that attracts terrific students, because Florida — with its clean air and water, bountiful coastlines and forests, and vibrant developing communities — will always need smart environmental leadership. 

As printed in the spring 2016 issue of Florida State Law magazine