November 25, 2008
Pop Culture, Teachable Moments, and Using "There Will Be Blood" to Illuminate Title Statutes
I am a fan of judicious use of pop culture to give context and depth to law. However, this comes with a caveat; one must be careful not to obfuscate the purpose of the teachable moment by overuse of film clips, TV snippits, and news articles. Too many times pop culture becomes a substitute for deep thinking about hard areas of the law, which doesn't help students to learn what they need to know.
The key to using pop culture references is to use them judiciously. Here are two guideposts: use a pop-culture reference as a part of the fabric of your class, or use a pop culture reference to illuminate a concept as students are struggling with it. These guideposts present a paradox; teachable moments tend to be of-the-moment, and often happen spontaneously. However, if the references are not in the context of what the students are learning, the reference becomes opaque and without purpose or focus. Students don't learn from teachable moments if they don't completely understand why it is a teachable moment, as well as why the reference is relevant to what is going on in class. Specifically with pop culture references, it is sometimes best to hold back and weave the reference into the fabric of the course the following semester. This also gives students who may not be "tuned in" to pop culture the opportunity to know what you are talking about. It can alienate students who may not focus on what is on gossip sites and in the movies if the reference is too "of-the-moment."
All this leads up to a suggestion to help illuminate a tough area of Property law. In the movie "There Will Be Blood", Daniel Plainview, the main character, goes to a family ranch with his young son to scout for oil. Daniel lies to the landowners about why he is on the land when he tells them he is hunting for quail. Daniel finds oil on the land, but does not tell the family, and tries to buy the ranch without disclosing his discovery. The next scene follows Daniel to what is presumably the town clerk's office. He goes to the town clerk to look at a plat of the land he would like to buy throughout the area. These scenes screamed to me because so many students struggle with title and recording statutes, and these scenes provide fantastic context for why recording statutes are important in land sales or transfers. Additionally, the set-up gives great material for hypotheticals on trespass and disclosure laws. But without an understanding of the fundamentals of recording and deeds, students could get lost in the emotions and moral ramifications of an oil baron failing to disclose his unique knowledge to poor farmers at the turn of the century, and would miss the importance of his stop at the town clerk's office. While the moral challenges may make for a great, dramatic film, it is not going to help students learn Property law.
This is going to be my only post for the week, as I am off to North Carolina to visit family for the holidays (family without an internet connection.) I wish everyone a very merry Thanksgiving and a restful break.
See you in December,
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