Clinical Law Prof Blog

Editor: Jeffrey R. Baker
Pepperdine University
School of Law

Friday, November 17, 2017

An Open Book? Self-disclosure in Clinical Teaching

As a clinical teacher, how much of your self do you share with the students you are supervising? What effect does that sharing, or lack of sharing, have?

Thanks to a thought-provoking session at the Northwest Clinical Conference earlier this month, led by the University of Montana’s Eduardo Capulong, and Kim Ambrose and Lisa Kelly from the University of Washington, I have been mulling over these questions for the last few weeks.

In their session, titled Teaching Professional Identity and Values through Narrative and Our Own Stories, Professors Ambrose, Capulong, and Kelly, asked participants, including myself, to think about how law professors are perceived by our students. Then they asked us to look inward with a partner, sharing how we saw ourselves first and then how our students saw us.

The question is, when do you self-disclose with students, and what are the risks and benefits? In many ways, in a clinical setting we are asking students to become reflective lawyers. We ask that they constantly assess their goals, their progress, and what they bring to the lawyering experience. In a way, with self-disclosure, we are modeling for students what we ask them to do in terms of being introspective and self-aware attorneys.

One faculty member at my institution recently recounted an experience with a student years ago. The student was having panic attacks in class and requested to sit by the door. Rather than simply saying “yes” and moving on, this Professor shared that she too had the same anxiety challenges. She gave the students two options – “sit by the door, or, sit in the front row so that when I am struggling, you can help me out and we can support each other.” This message communicated to the student that she was not alone—that she and her Professor are on a learning journey together. The Professor humanized herself and made clear to the student that someone who struggled with anxiety can be a lawyer, and, eventually even a law professor.

With students struggling with statutory interpretation, do you share that in law school you in fact bombed the exam for course you are now in fact teaching because you neglected to closely read the statute? Do you share experiences of professional failure or struggle? How much do you share with students regarding your own career? Would you ever share the anxiety or stresses associated with promotion, tenure, renewal of your contract, or funding?

On an even more personal level, in many of our clinics, we introduce students to the concept of secondary or vicarious trauma or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies show that raising awareness of the issue can actually lower the chances of manifesting secondary trauma symptoms. In teaching this topic, do you share your own experiences with trauma? Does this empower students to do the same, or, can it pressure them to reveal experiences they would rather not share? In the moments where I have decided to share my own past trauma with students, I have felt that it has empowered them to think about how their own trauma experiences influence their lawyering and approach to working with their clients.

Do you share personal losses, such as the loss of a family member or a pregnancy? In the past year, I have been open with my students about the fact that I am grieving the loss of my beloved father, who passed away after battling with pancreatic cancer nine months ago, just two days after his 60th birthday. That openness has actually enabled me to be there for my students, one of whom lost her father not long before. Because she knew I faced the same new reality, she shared with me when her mid-semester evaluation was scheduled the same day as her father’s birthday. This semester, another student tragically lost a sibling. She was initially reluctant to even share the fact of the death, for fear of being given less meaningful clinic work, but after she did disclose, the fact that she knows about my own loss means I am able to connect with and support her in these difficult times in a more genuine way.

When, how, and with whom to share is definitely a question and a question that will be resolved differently at different times. This summer, when teaching a five week refugee law course, I did not disclose to my students, in standing up to teach the day after a miscarriage, what I had endured. One week I was pregnant and looking forward to growing my family, one week later, standing behind the same lectern, I was not. They had no idea. At that time, of course, the loss was too raw and I hadn’t done any processing myself. But, several months later, in discussing the topic of pregnancy with students during a long car ride to a detention center, it felt inauthentic to refrain from sharing with my students that I too had lost a pregnancy a few months earlier. What feels right and enables connection in one moment will not always in another. 

In the personal arena, as a parent, do you share the joys (and challenges!) of parenting? Does this present as unnecessary bragging (or whining?) or is it helpful insight and modeling being a working professional parent? On this line of sharing, I have erred on the side of sharing when a student asks or seems interested. I was pregnant and then delivered my first child as a clinical teaching fellow at Georgetown. Students obviously knew that I was pregnant and then that I had a small infant. A couple of female students wrote in my evaluations how much they appreciated our discussions of work-life balance and parenting and how it gave them hope for figuring out how career and family could work together.

Obviously, self-disclosure is context and situation dependent, but I appreciated the way in which Professors Kelly, Ambrose, and Capulong opened up this conversation.  Does sharing some of our personal journeys make us vulnerable to our students? Will they judge us and think less of us as “Professors?” Or, are we normalizing conversation around difficult topics and reducing stigma associated with so many experiences we have in life. Are we making ourselves more approachable and relatable? In sharing, are students more likely to share what is happening in their own lives with you? Is this a positive development, or are you crossing the line into quasi-therapist/friend? Is that so dangerous in the end – hierarchy and grading aside, are we not just human beings interacting inside and outside of the classroom in all the messy and confusing ways that human present?

In practicing self-disclosure, are you actually working to humanize a profession that is so often disconnected from emotion? Given that lawyers are prone to self doubt, drug and alcohol abuse, stress and over work, could self-disclosure by leaders in the profession, including law professors, work to undo some of those complicated and negative dynamics? Can self-disclosure help to humanize professors to help to undo some of the ways in which law school is an environment rife with the challenges posed by implicit bias and stereotype threat?

I think I tend to self-disclose more than average, and increasingly wonder whether this may introduce an unhelpful dose of casualness into the professor-student relationship. It’s possible that bringing our more authentic and complete selves to the table could potentially undermine students’ respect for us. This may be of particular concern for young professors of color and women who face documented biases in the classroom due to gender, race, sexual orientation, class, age, or other differences.  As a female law professor in my mid-thirties, I know students find me more accessible and less intimidating than my male and older colleagues. In disclosing tidbits of my personal or professional struggles here and there, am I encouraging a lack of respect? Am I crossing lines in a way that undermines my students’ ability to hold me in the same category of “professor” as some of my colleagues? Or, am I actually humanizing myself and enabling students to relate to me more easily human to human?

In conclusion, I have reached none, except that it is worth us asking ourselves, as clinicians, where we draw our lines and when, and what effect that may have. It is also worth opening up conversations with one another to understand how self-disclosure has played out, particularly across race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and other differences.

For myself, I am often a fairly open book. But, that book will be opened to various pages as and when I feel appropriate. There may sometimes be pages I wish I had not shared in that moment, but I am willing to experiment with self-disclosure because I believe that the potential gains in truly connecting with students outweigh the risks.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/clinic_prof/2017/11/an-open-book-self-disclosure-in-clinical-teaching.html

Domestic Violence, New Clinical Faculty, Teaching and Pedagogy | Permalink

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