First-year Law: Justice in the Classroom & Beyond

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In the city of Saint Louis, where I teach criminal law, segregation still grips chunks of the metro.  Half the population at-large is African American, so I was surprised when I showed up to my first class as a law professor and looked out at my students—twenty-five 1Ls in their first semester of study—but not one African American, no Latinos either; these two groupings are most affected by criminal law, yet had no representation in my inaugural class.  Although I had spent the summer exploring the city, my first-year course was perhaps the most segregated space I’d experienced so far, save the law school itself, where the janitorial staff is almost all African American and the tenured faculty is hardly.

My cultural miscalculations were quickly put to the back burner since I also had miscalculated how much time it takes to prepare for a single class.  Previously, when I taught undergraduates, I could walk into class with three words on a piece of paper and wing a 50-minute lecture, but this was not the case now.  Instead it was like I was back in law school, my 1L year all over again, only now I was ringleader.

Solace in teaching came with the support of a cadre of great professors at Saint Louis University School of Law.  My colleagues, the doors to my left and right, were like a trellis that supported my growth in teaching; they sent syllabi, notes, practice exams, and were always responsive whenever I had to mend a misunderstanding in class or make a time-triage decision.  My first course went smoothly in large part because of the generous support, guidance, and resources of my colleagues.

That isn’t to say that smooth is easy, as I found a couple of months into the semester.  As we were approaching the crime of rape, I got an email from a student.  It was from a young woman who said she had been the victim of a sexual assault the previous summer.  She asked to be exempt from participating in discussions when we covered the topic.  I replied that it would not be a problem, and added, “I am willing to allow you an excused absence…but you will be responsible for obtaining class notes from your peers.  I hope this helps.”

Unlike previous teaching experiences, most of my office hours were spent talking to students who were not enrolled in my class.  Student groups reached out that first semester, and I gave presentations in conjunction with the Hispanic Law Students Association, the Muslim Law Students Association, and twice to the Black Law Students Association.  These students were eager to get to know me, and I was eager to help with ideas and possibilities for collaboration.

As I got to know the groups, it became evident that just a handful of students do the bulk of work in order for the law school to maintain a diverse presence; this was pretty much the way it was at Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, were I attended law school.  In both instances, the same few BLSA students do practically everything: plan events, pick up speakers, and even make introductions at the events.  I’ve gotten to know these students, and know that some might have a better GPA were they not sharing so much work with so few others.

Back in the classroom, getting to know my criminal law students was an experience that rekindled my memory of how alienating first year law can be.  From these interactions and from class discussions, I began to sense that many of the students were genuinely interested in not just criminal justice, but justice period.  I tried to remind them that in addition to the major data dump that law school represents, it is also a process of acculturation, the installing of a set of codes and values of the lawyering profession.  Although they weren’t sure which direction they were heading, many seem determined to make the world better through the law, a sentiment I stoked despite impulses to forecast a change to jade.

The highlights of my first semester experience came crashing down the next with a student who plagiarized a paper for my course.  Although the student missed half of the class meetings and had previously turned in a problematic outline, the real trouble started when I began reading his submission, which started with a fiercely academic tone.  I later figured out that the paper was indeed academic, a mash-up of headline swipes and copy-and-paste jobs from law review articles.  In the end, I elected to fail the student, which derailed immediate graduation plans, bar exam, and a lined-up job.  All these will now have to wait until he makes up these units.

Having to fail a student is no easy task.  My syllabus gives a grading rubric that states “Plagiarism will be prosecuted fully,” bold italics from which I had to retreat after a quick lesson in faculty policy and the Honor Council.  When I met with the honor code investigator, I learned that I had discretion to deal with the issue by myself, including whether to pass or fail the student; further, I could submit the case to the Honor Council.  Getting the Council involved could lead to all sorts of devastating consequences like whether the student can graduate or even sit for the bar.  Although I elected not to subject him to the Council, the student still sought to appeal the failure.  He showed up at my office, crying, asking how to redeem himself, but I remained firm.  It seemed unjust to strip everything from the student, four years of law school, a 100K-plus debt load, and hours of study, for a first offense, but at the same time, it seemed equally unjust to allow him to pass, particularly to other students who researched and wrote their own papers.

Although I had started the year as a rookie professor, before it was all done, I was forced to play judge and jury, deciding the fate of a transgressor and weighing the value of class attendance against a particular history.  My experience taught that justice in law school does not begin with a thick casebook, but with the class itself, the ecology of learning, classroom policies, and the methods of evaluating students.  Classroom justice can be involving students in determining how participation will work or whether 100% of a grade rides on a solitary exam; it is weariness of how logistical decisions can aggregate into a Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where students suffer from lack of agency and imbalances in power.

Whether the law school classroom can become more level largely depends on the aspirations of professors.  Many seem intent on creating a chasm between themselves and students, insisting on the title “professor” and “suiting up” on teaching days.  For some, doing so may be necessary to assert boundaries for the type of student who assumes a first-name basis or other privilege.  Such tactics may combat these and other student bias, but sometimes they express the raw will to power.  However, I learned that getting closer to students was effective, as demonstrated by the student whose absence I offered to excuse; rather than miss class she showed up, and moreover, voiced criticism of the “resistance” requirement in traditional rape law, an essential element that requires utmost physical resistance.  Making a woman fight back was unfair, she explained, fighting back tears of her own, since, not only was it based on male psychology, it also overlooked how resistance might provoke further violence, and in worst case scenarios, murder.

Although a justice-oriented pedagogy may be the antithesis of what some might expect in the law school setting, for me, the quest for classroom justice led to transcendent moments in teaching—instances where instructor must fight back tears too.  In these moments of triumph and failure, lives were changed for the better, testimony to which came later that day in an email from the student:

Thank you for your continued support, Professor.  It meant a lot to me.  I realized that I am just as biased towards the victim as people are biased against, and I tried very hard to remain fact-oriented.  I thought the classes were handled (on your part at least) very sensitively.  Thanks again.