Loaded questions in the law school classroom

Prawfsblawg has a thoughtful post by Mehrsa Baradaran about “Teaching While Woman.” Professor Baradaran thoughtfully and honestly describes her struggles and ultimate success learning classroom management as a new law professor. She shares advice she received from other young women professors including women of color dealing with what seem like disproportionately frequent challenges to their classroom authority.

The post is excellent; I highly recommend it to anyone considering law teaching in any form, from tenure-track to adjuncting or even guest-teaching one class.

Professor Baradaran’s experience and some of the comments on her post (by law students) prove that privilege and prejudice are still very much at work in the dynamics of the law school classroom. This is how she describes her experience:

Within the first two weeks of each class, without exception so far, there will be one or two challengers to your authority. The challengers will say something like this (usually with an aggressive tone and stance): “You say ____, but doesn’t the case actually say ____?” “I don’t agree with that, isn’t ____a better explanation?” The class will go silent as they recognize this as a small insurgency. You must shut this down. You must do it quickly, painfully, and effectively. But here’s the catch: you have to do it with a smile on your face. You cannot appear threatened or defensive. You need not spare the feelings of the aggressor, but need to convince the class that you are the one who knocks.

The professor’s and students’ identities form the backdrop of the interaction. Wrapped up as well is the context of the law and legal culture, with the professor serving as gatekeeper and guide to law students. Some of these students would rank highly on an arrogance scale, and others have so much to offer but so little confidence.

Within this context, the professor listens to the question, seeks to manage nonverbal signals in handling the question, and makes a decision how to proceed. It’s not easy. I am grateful to Professor Baradaran for sharing her experience.

Thanks to Professor Dorothy Brown of Emory Law School for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

Thanks also to Professor Michael Higdon of the University of Tennessee College of Law for sharing Professor Baradaran’s post among legal writing professors.

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