Center for Institutional and Social Change
Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
In 1992 had been teaching for four years at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I taught voting rights and criminal procedure, subjects related to what I had done as a litigator. Preparing for class meant reading many of the same cases I had read preparing for trial. Some were even cases I had tried. Teaching offered me a fresh chance to read those cases with new interest. I could see the subtle linkages between cases that I had not previously noticed. From the distance of the academy, I observed the evolution of the doctrine without feeling overcome by the lawyer's instrumental urge to plumb each case for useful language or helpful analysis of an issue. I found teaching a relatively simple yet interesting task. My goal was to communicate what I knew about the case law to students eager to learn a new doctrinal area, as well as to students getting ready to take the bar exam.
A decade later I find teaching more challenging. It is difficult to be clear, I now realize, when cases are informed by an individual judge's intuition rather than any canons of "law." The doctrine, which I formerly felt dexterous in manipulating, now seems crabbed. The legal rules often look like opaque alibis rather than guiding lights. Missing, for me, is a theory of fundamental fairness or a commitment to democracy or even an understanding of justice that is not simply an ordered society. This search for an overarching jurisprudential vision – one that links ideas of justice with ideas of democracy – animates my scholarship and inspires my research interests. This is what I now value.
But student concerns have not changed at the same speed as my own. Many students still simply want to do well and pass the bar exam. Competing with their peers, they treat learning as a process of conveying and retaining information. Equally salient is the unquestioned notion that passive forms of information exchange can enable retention of that information over time. They think that what they learn in a classroom matters because it will be remembered three years later when confronted on the bar exam, with a series of multiple-choice questions designed to test their ability to memorize substantive legal doctrines. Or thevjust want good grades. What they learn is less important than what they need to get a job. Not just any job. A well-paying job. Some need to make enough money to pay back their law school loans. Others are greatly tempted by the prospect of making a lot of money for themselves and their clients.
About five years ago I became so disillusioned I thought perhaps I was the one who needed to find a new job. I wanted to be part of an environment in which students felt an intellectual excitement about learning. I wanted to teach students who were committed to social justice, not just social advancement. I decided to try teaching graduate students.
Susan Sturm & Lani Guinier,
Learning from Conflict: Reflections on Teaching About Race and Gender,
J. Legal Educ.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1002