Monday, August 10, 2015

Reflections on Teaching Reflection

“Not to sound cheesy, but I came to law school because I want to help create a more just society.”  Yes, a student actually made this statement, and the phrase that kept rattling around my head was “Houston, we have a problem.”  I acknowledge that becoming a lawyer is an arduous and academic endeavor and that we must teach analytical skills that our students will need to maneuver the complexities that exist within the law.  However, if students are taking away the message that pursuing justice is “cheesy,” I think our profession may be in some serious trouble.

I teach a reflective seminar at Gonzaga University School of Law that runs concurrently with students’ externship experiences.  The idea is to dissect the experiences that students are having in the field. Our discussions cover a wide-range of subjects, but typically, we discuss the issues that are most pressing for our students…the realities and imperfections of our system, the importance of effective communication, the importance of asking for help or clarifying an assignment, that collaboration often produces better results, how to face our mistakes....While most of my students humor me, I know that a significant portion of them fail to see the value of a class that is based solely on the opportunity for reflection.  Of course, how can I blame them?  Our curricula are heavily focused on the development of technical skills and proficiencies. Opportunities for reflection rarely exist and are usually not integrated into doctrinal and skills courses. Additionally, although supportive, many of my colleagues see the course as “touchy-feely” and lacking in academic rigor.  Reflection is often devalued in law school, and I think this can be the start of the devaluation of our profession ideals. 

My students are easily able to engage in a thorough, meaningful, objective discussion about the skills that excellent lawyers possess, such as empathy, diligence, self-awareness, and authenticity, but when I ask them to assess these qualities in themselves or to consider how they will emulate them in the future, the resistance (and occasionally the eye-rolling) starts mounting. 

I am privileged to have the space, forum and opportunity to muse about these issues and pose questions to my fellow clinicians.  So, I’m curious.  How do you get your students and colleagues to value the process of reflection?  How do we use opportunities to reflect as a catalyst for remembering that the pursuit of justice is not “cheesy" but a beautiful, worthwhile and, at times, even an attainable aspiration?

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Thanks for your post, Inga. To answer your questions on how I address these issues: structure, serendipity, transparency. 1. Structure - I and several of my colleagues require written reflection on our clinic mission and law school mission at mid-term and end of term as part of the regular self-evaluation process. Social justice literally is written into our missions, so there’s no avoiding it.; 2. Serendipity. I try to seize the moments right after events – e.g. meeting in the court cafeteria after a hearing or chatting on the drive back from a jail visit. When a judge made a crass comment in open court about a recent civil rights demonstration that had been in the news, a student and I shot each other one of those “Did you just hear that?” looks. On the drive back to the clinic, we not only reflected on judicial responsibility but also came up with a plan - I was assigned the task of raising the issue the next time I saw judge and reporting back (which I did). 3. Transparency. I don’t bare my soul every day, but I do openly discuss how the day-to-day practice of law can be a psychological grind. Reflection becomes a practical tool in how to survive and thrive rather than some touchy-feely nonsense.

Posted by: Virgil Wiebe | Aug 11, 2015 2:18:37 PM

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