Sunday, December 6, 2020
One of the books that I have read with my children (and without them because it is that good) is Wonder by R. J. Palacio. It is the story of a child with significant facial abnormalities and how he navigates attending school for the first time as a fifth grader. It is not a great book to read on the subway if public crying is not your thing. One of the things I loved about Wonder was that it was full of warm-hearted quotes, but the ones that really resonate with me in these pandemic times are about kindness, "When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind," (Dr. Wayne Dyer) and a variation of this quote from J.M. Barrie, “[b]e kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
I have about seventy-five students I am responsible for this semester: sixty are undergraduate law majors and the rest are law students. Throughout this entirely remote semester, and especially as we move into exam season, I am trying to live by the words quoted above. What does it mean to be kind in these unprecedented days of legal education? Sadly, the answers are becoming clearer as we get closer to not needing to know anymore.
I wonder how to balance teaching important material, assessing learning of that material and yet not causing any additional stress to students who are already in uncharted waters. I do students no favors by not teaching the subject because, after all, this pandemic will end someday and not knowing what they should know after taking my class is not ideal. I also do students no favors by being rigid for what seems to be no reason other than to maintain the usual power dynamic in a “classroom.” Nothing usual is going on right now, and yet the normalcy of learning may be comforting. How can I make what I teach relevant in a topsy-turvy world?
I will preface my argument for extra kindness with the recognition that I am a bit of a mush even in the best of times: I will accept late work (if students ask for the extension prior to the due date), I will find ways to add extra credit for students who really need more points to pass and I will meet with students really early and fairly late in the day. I am not a doormat though: if you lie or cheat, the well of good will runs dry.
Here’s the thing though, the battles that students have been fighting since March are both obvious and hidden. There is the elephant in the room (wearing his mask and six feet away from the other battles in the room): Covid-19, but there are also so many other occupants of this space. There are students who don’t have the equipment, wi-fi, personal bandwidth or private space to be productive in remote classes. There are students who are ashamed of their living space, or who are sharing that space with siblings, parents, and roommates. There are students who are learning while parenting students who are also trying to learn remotely. There are students with executive function issues who are really struggling to stay organized and focused when the class content is coming from so many different sources. And then there is the student who attends class from inside his car because he needs to drive his grandmother to chemotherapy (public transportation and taxis are not safe at the moment) and our class is during her regularly scheduled appointment. There is the student who lost a close family friend to suicide the week before a scheduled oral argument about a case involving bullying another person to commit suicide; a student who had to fly home to Ghana due to a family emergency; a student whose wife is immune-compromised who was exposed to the virus at work and they live with her older parents, and so on.
I would argue that kindness is the only answer to balancing all the competing interests in teaching in these times. Asking for and accepting help teaches students maturity. For pre-law and law students, learning to advocate, even if for themselves, is a skill that is absolutely necessary but hard to assess. Understanding that most people will do the right thing given the necessary information is also an imperative, and yet ephemeral, lesson. This is where modeling kindness can be an unexpected but powerful aid to teaching.
So, I am doing my best to teach and model kindness as part of the hidden curriculum in these classes. I am accepting all work until the last minute. If you ask me to turn it in late, the answer is yes and there is no penalty. I may even track you down to make sure you ask. If you need to do your oral argument about a different case because the assigned one is too hard to read about, then so be it. I’ve stopped using a virtual background because I want students to know that I am sitting at my kitchen table in my messy and chaotic house. My students have seen (and mainly heard) all my pets and children. I am not pretending that anything we are doing is normal, but I am teaching within this paradigm and not despite it. I want my students to learn that there are some things that are more important than classroom hierarchy, and yet I also want them to learn that being an attorney means that, for the most part, you will be working with and for humans-who all have battles. When our class could be an immersive escape from the world, I hope it was; but where it could be an oasis acknowledging the reality of this time, I hope it was that too. When we get to a point in this pandemic where we can safely be caught crying on public transportation, I will have to find a new balance and I hope my students will have acquired the resilience to find one as well.
(Guest Post - Elizabeth Stillman)