Bridging the Political Gap (or yawning chasm) in the Classroom

by Beau Steenken

At the beginning of the semester last fall, I wrote about the increased difficulty of teaching in politically turbulent times. This may be somewhat of an understatement, but the level of division in our society has not improved since then. And, unless you teach at a school with an identified political ideology that attracts students from one end of the political spectrum or the other,  chances are that the divisions writ large in our society are also present in your classroom. So, how do you teach a class that touches on legal or political issues (and pretty much all legal issues have been thoroughly politicized at this point) without alienating one half of your class or the other (or both)?

It’s a question that all teachers recognize as vitally important but for which effective answers are hard to come by. Earlier this week, I attended a “coffee talk” brain-storming session hosted by my university’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning & Teaching (CELT). One of the suggestions (offered by a professor of international relations) that came out of the discussion was to focus on outcomes and/or impacts of policies. I  like the suggestion for a couple of reasons. First, with the political divide as wide as it is, it can be difficult to separate issues in controversy from a knee-jerk, emotional response. By examining individual policies for their likely effects on their own without referencing the opposing policy, you may be able to conduct fruitful lessons without breaking into partisan groups.

For instance, in a few weeks I will begin teaching the 1Ls how to conduct administrative research. I introduce the major administrative publications, briefly describe the rule-making process, and explain how important it is for attorneys to be able to effectively research administrative materials, given the amount of delegation that currently occurs. I feel like I should probably tell them about the pending REINS Act that may greatly affect regulatory practice moving forward. Rather than compare deregulation to regulation as policies, I think I will have the students walk through the potential outcomes of the REINS Act. How would less regulation affect their legal research? On the one hand, there potentially will be fewer administrative materials for them to find. On the other hand, legislation may require much more interpretation with fewer concrete details provided by regulation. Thus, by focusing on practical impacts, I hope to remove some of the potential for partisanship from the conversation.

The second reason I like the outcomes-focused approach, is that it encourages students not only to think things through (a useful skill that may also be useful for other problems) but to think in terms of impact. It allows me to emphasize that attorneys should always be thinking of how legal decisions will impact their clients, which I think cannot be emphasized enough to law students.

However, even though I think this outcomes/impact based approach may help conduct classes without alienating students and also serve as a useful teaching tool, I’m not sure that I want to limit my goals to getting through class with both sides engaged. What I would really like is to end class with both sides engaged with each other. 

I coach my son’s YMCA-league basketball team. Last week, the YMCA held the pre-season coaches’ meeting, and the Y folks had put a quote from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on a board in the meeting room:

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

While Dr. King issued that statement during an earlier time of tumult, I was struck by how applicable it is to our current state of affairs. I think those of us engaged in legal academia who are training the future policy-makers of our country have a responsibility to try to foster communication among students of different backgrounds and political persuasions, so that maybe in the future the two sides will talk to each other instead of at each other. Of course, this is easier said than done. I admit that I do not really have a plan on how to accomplish this, though I have the beginnings of an idea about mandatory group work projects of large scale with assigned groups. (Of course, this is would require knowing how people self-align before assigning the groups… as I said, I’m still working on the idea.).

If anyone else has ideas or suggestions for bridging the political gap in the classroom, please share them!

This entry was posted in Administrative Law, Current Events, Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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