Friday, January 25, 2019

Revisiting Critical Pedagogy in the Era of Diversity

Changing economic and social dynamics have tilted the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of law students nationwide to greater diversity. While law faculties are inching toward more racial and gender diversity, they still are not at rates representative of the law student population and disappointingly far from the diversity of the communities in which law schools are situated. In 2009, AALS estimated that 32% of law professors are women and 28% are racial and ethnic minorities. 

Earlier this month at the AALS Annual Meeting in NOLA, Sahar Aziz (Rutgers) and SpearIt (Thurgood Marshall) organized a panel on Critical Pedagogy in the Era of Diversity in which I joined co-panelists Meera Deo (Thomas Jefferson), Teri McMurtry-Chubb (Mercer), and Mae Quinn (Florida). The panel looked at ways to respond to demographic shifts and re-configurations of classroom norms. We discussed ways to incorporate more inclusive teaching strategies, improve student engagement, address identity issues within the curriculum and classroom, prepare students to practice in a diverse society, and the role of experiential learning and academic support. As the spring semester is back in swing, it would be helpful to revisit the approaches we deployed in the classroom.

Image result for law faculty diversity

Meera Deo shared findings from her recent book, Unequal Profession: Race and Gender in Legal Academia (Stanford University Press) on "how the race and gender of individual legal academics affects not only their individual and collective experience, but also legal education as a whole." Deo conducted the first comprehensive study of the law faculty experience as to "how race and gender intersect to create profound implications for women of color law faculty members, presenting unique challenges as well as opportunities to improve educational and professional outcomes in legal education." The book provides the viewpoints of woman of color in the legal academy and offers suggestions to better achieve diversity through the process of hiring, teaching, colleague interaction, and tenure and promotion.

Georgetown's Madhavi Sunder notes of Deo's book:

Women make up the majority of law students in the U.S., but comprise less than 40 percent of law faculties; women of color are a mere 7 percent of law teachers. In short, women of color legal scholars are pioneers, paving an uncharted path. Unequal Profession, based on nearly 100 personal interviews with these pioneers, offers an intimate portrait of the struggle of highly accomplished and educated women to find equal respect and opportunity in the hallowed halls of American law schools. In a profession built on the ideals of equal opportunity for all, these women's truths must be confronted: the barriers to equality in the legal academy are legion.

Next, Teri McMurtry-Chubb shared a portion of the findings from her empirical research project that considers the link between the unexamined assumptions students bring with them to law school about race, class, gender, and sexuality/sexual identity, and the flawed legal arguments students make based on these assumptions.  Through an empirical study of student motion and appellate briefs on social justice topics submitted in a required legal writing course, Teri’s work reveals how legal education both prepares and fails to prepare students to represent diverse client groups in a manner that helps rather than harms. 

During her presentation, Teri walked us through one of the fictional legal universes she created in which students drafted their motion and appellate briefs. Her research findings showed that a student’s ability to make effective, persuasive arguments for the parties to the fictional cause of action was directly related to their assumptions about the race, class, gender, and sexuality/sexual identity of the parties. In the last part of her presentation, Teri provided key critical pedagogies, many from her text Legal Writing in the Disciplines: A Guide to Legal Writing Mastery (Carolina Academic Press 2012) to disrupt student assumptions and help them to course correct in the final drafts of their writing assignments. Teri’s research will appear in the  Washburn Law Journal in 2019. 

Then Mae Quinn examined the topic of "Andragogy of 'Silence is Violence (or Hell You Talmbout?...)," using Janelle Monae's #BlackLivesMatter anthem as a point of departure to demonstrate the dire need to shift focus and priorities of legal education.  She shared examples of "What the Hell," "How the Hell," and "Where the Hell" she talks about racial (in)justice as a criminal law professor. She further noted that disruptive teaching can/should extend beyond the classroom to every part of our work and world - from the spaces we create in our offices, to the ways we can affirmatively serve the community with teaching projects, to how we approach our scholarship - including by co-authoring with and citing students (particularly of color). She also explored issues surrounding privilege/positionality, relating to her whiteness, womanhood, and non-elite background -- and the ways those identities and experiences may provide some protection, platform, and/or challenges while challenging the status quo through teaching.

Finally, I discussed the importance of community-based learning in the context of courses I teach on environmental law and business law. I have organized a field visit to the Sanford City Center in Florida to demonstrate the origins of the BLM movement following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. We participated in a walking tour of the historic district from the Sanford Civic Center, which held town hall meetings, to City Hall and the Marina. We met with the local planning director and planning engineer to discuss changes to the city and growth management problems in light of environmental justice concerns based on civil rights issues and environmental law matters. My students also orchestrated a series of webinars and programs on the topic of environmental justice and hurricanes, sponsored by the ABA's Section on Civil Rights and Environmental Justice. For a policy angle, we examined the companion bills introduced by Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Raul Ruiz regarding the Environmental Justice Act of 2017. The legislation would be the first major piece of environmental law since the flurry of laws in the 1970s and the amendments in 1990s. Due to corporate interests, no major environmental laws have been passed in almost 50 years. Minority, low-income, and indigenous communities bear the brunt of environmental harm and pollution based on the siting of energy projects, hazardous waste sites, industrial and commercial activity. 

An aerial view of Roseau, capital of the Caribbean island Dominica, shows destruction on Thursday, three days after passage of Hurricane Maria.

* Image of destruction from Hurricane Maria (Getty).

We welcome you to share your experiences and insights in critical pedagogy in the comments below. 

Additional reading:





January 25, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Recent Scholarship on Law Student Learning

A Rutgers Law School colleague, Professor Eugene Mazo, recently gave an informative presentation about the latest scholarship on law student learning as part of a faculty pedagogy workshop.  The handout he distributed was both illuminating and validating for many of us who teach students that recently completed their undergraduate degrees. 

Some key takeaways from Professor Mazo's presentation are below.  His literature review can be downloaded at Teaching Workshop Literature Review.

Jennifer Cooper, Smarter Law Learning: Using Cognitive Science to Maximize Law Learning, 44 Cap. U. L. Rev. 551 (2016).

Asserts that law schools are inheriting academically adrift students with weak critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills because these students were not challenged by sufficiently rigorous reading and writing requirements in their undergraduate studies. The article reviews cognitive science research to recommend strategies to improve law student learning.


  • Many students entering law school lack strong critical thinking skills for legal educators to build on. Compared to previous populations, these students often have poor and ineffective study habits, weak critical thinking and writing skills, and are less academically prepared for law study.
  • “Academically adrift with illusions of competence.” These students have “illusions of competence” in their reading, writing, and study habits, leading them to rely on improvised and ineffective study strategies.
  • Law schools have been slow to adapt—expecting to educate modern students with same strategies of the past even though undergraduate studies are not adequately preparing them.
  • Students enter universities not only poorly prepared for the academic tasks but also with attitudes, norms, and behaviors that are counterproductive to academic commitments. Despite their lack of preparation, students arrive at colleges and universities with strong convictions about their abilities and with illusions of competence. These students have high academic expectations and professional ambitions but fail to realistically appreciate the necessary steps to achieve their goals.
  • Ineffective study strategies commonly used by students are passive: re-reading, highlighting, memorizing. Problem is that repetition and re-reading (as with memorizing a course outline) create an illusion of fluency: the belief that if information is familiar and easy to recall, then it is well-learned.
  • Re-reading/memorizing also creates the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas. Fluency lulls learners into believing they learned and understood the material. “Information that is easy to process is judged to have been learned well.” This also leads students to prematurely terminate studying.
  • Retrieval and self-testing destroy the illusions of fluency, competency, and mastery.
  • Because students are unaware of the ineffectiveness of their selected study behaviors, they remain committed to poor study habits—they cannot gauge their own learning.
  • Students therefore need direct, explicit instruction on effective learning strategies.
  • Targeted instruction on learning methods leads to substantial improvement in academic performance.


Rebecca Flanagan, The Kids Aren’t Alright: Rethinking The Law Student Skills Deficit, 2015 BYU Educ. & L.J. 135 (2015).

Research suggests that incoming law students are less prepared than previous generations of law students. Undergraduate education has changed over the last forty years. Many of today’s college graduates do not have the fundamental thinking and reasoning skills necessary to master the law school curriculum. Law schools can no longer assume all students enter post-graduate legal training with the academic preparation, proficiency in critical thinking, or time management skills necessary to master “thinking like a lawyer.”


  • College students spend less time studying during their undergraduate years. College students expect higher grades with considerably less effort than previous generations. However, there is little institutional evidence law schools have been aware of the empirical research on the decline in skills acquisition at the undergraduate level.
  • Success in law school requires at least two hours of reading for each hour of class time. Full-time law students need to spend at least thirty hours a week preparing for class. Students who are used to studying less than five hours a week during their undergraduate years are going to be have a rougher adjustment to the thirty hours of reading time required to keep up with law school classwork, and will have an even more difficult adjustment to the outlining, practice exams, and study group work that requires an additional five to seven hours week.
  • Students have a “customer orientation.” The change from student-as-learner to student-as-customer has strong negative implications for motivation and personal investment in the learning process. The consumer orientation, and corresponding extrinsic motivations, “radically alters” the fundamental nature of education. Students no longer see themselves as partners in a relationship designed to further growth; consumer orientation frames the relationship between student and teacher as customer and service provider, with the customer expecting satisfaction.
  • Students who view education as an economic transaction become preoccupied with their GPA, sacrificing “deeper, critical analytic learning” in pursuit of a credential they can exchange on the market. Students expect “to be given high grades in return for paying tuition and showing up.”
  • Because an essential element of legal education is the ability to “grapple with uncertainty in order to develop professional judgment,” college student’s consumer orientation leaves them unprepared for the pedagogical challenges they must face as law students.
  • Grade inflation at the undergraduate level has a role in the decline of study time, reduced learning, and student under-preparedness, because students no longer need to study long hours to earn respectable grades. Students, accustomed to very high grades in return for little work during their undergraduate careers, are unprepared for the amount of work required to receive a passing grade in a law school class. Adding to students’ frustration, they have not gained the fundamental thinking skills necessary to master the more complex reasoning and analysis law school requires to earn the grades they are accustomed to receiving.
  • The lack of rigor in the undergraduate curriculum lulls students into a false sense of competency. Students who have only received A’s and B’s, through little effort, are unprepared for the challenge of law school academics. Students are less likely to understand that being admitted to law school is not enough to succeed in law school.

A literature review can be downloaded at Teaching Workshop Literature Review.

January 2, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (2)