“Thinking hard about first generation and low-income students and their particular needs may highlight a set of pedagogical practices that are beneficial to the learning environment more broadly.”
That was the message delivered by Rory Van Loo ’07, a law professor at Boston University, at a “Teaching First-Generation Law Students” event at Harvard Law School on March 10. Van Loo and Etienne Toussaint ’12, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, shared invaluable insights and recommendations for making law teaching more inclusive and making “the invisible curriculum” both explicit and navigable for all law students.
The event, moderated by Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Law School, was part of a virtual series designed to bring faculty at law schools around the country together for discussions on how to evolve legal pedagogy.
In his introductory remarks, John F. Manning ’85, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, recalling how he felt when he started law school as a first-gen student, said that feeling “a little bit nervous” when starting a new experience is natural, and that it’s important for faculty to convey to students that they are not alone in those feelings. He added that it is important for students to realize that they are not in law school because of the things they know already but because of the things they will learn together.
To better prepare incoming law students for the first weeks of law school, Manning noted Harvard Law several years ago launched Zero-L, a self-paced pre-matriculation course designed to provide them with a baseline of knowledge about the American legal system, and what it means to study law.
Toussaint, whose scholarship sits at the intersection of law, history, political economy, and critical theory, said there are several reasons why first-generation law students can feel excluded in the classroom. Many, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, have limited exposure to lawyers, and often their experiences and assumptions about how the legal system works are shaped by interactions with law enforcement in their communities.
Growing up as a child of immigrants in the South Bronx, Toussaint said he vividly recalls coming home from middle school and seeing a mass of protesters at the site where Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old Guinean student, had been killed by plainclothes officers.
During his first year of law school, he read a criminal law case about four Black teenage boys from the Bronx who were shot by a white man in Manhattan who professed he feared for his life when the boys approached him asking for money.
The professor teaching his class, Toussaint said, coordinated a conversation about what the opinion had described as an issue of self-defense, but which he felt didn’t account for the lived experience of low-income people of color “interacting with a legal system that routinely positions them as a threat.” Failing to interrogate some of the nuances of the case, including issues of race and class, he said, was a lost opportunity.
“It’s incumbent upon faculty, upon law school administrators, to think about creating spaces where students feel comfortable sharing those unique experiences, being vulnerable and talking about how they view the law and what the law means to them,” he said.
“It’s incumbent upon faculty, upon law school administrators, to think about creating spaces where students feel comfortable sharing those unique experiences, being vulnerable and talking about how they view the law and what the law means to them.”Etienne Toussaint ’12, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law
Van Loo, whose research focuses on institutional improvements to corporate compliance, said first generation or low-income family experiences come in many different forms. Students of single or absent parents, for instance, may encounter difficulties in the classroom if they’re not used to engaging in intellectual dinnertime conversations.
Many first-generation students have higher levels of self-doubt or experience imposter syndrome, Van Loo said. While some nervousness can provide motivation, he said, too much can be detrimental to absorbing class material.
In addition to providing a psychological space that is conducive to learning, Van Loo encouraged faculty to alleviate anxiety by introducing light moments into the classroom.
“My understanding of the research, and my own personal experience, is that some, if not many, first generation students feel more uncomfortable in a formal classroom setting and do better when professors can introduce elements of informality,” he said. He said he’s added cute animal pictures to PowerPoint presentations and played contract law themed music. He’s gotten feedback that it helps students to relax, which he says opens up the space for learning.
He also encouraged faculty to normalize feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, by sharing personal experiences and anecdotes, or research findings. Many professors may be reluctant to mention their backgrounds for worry of being judged or they may be uncertain that the classroom is the right place to do so, but experiencing anxiety or failure are common human experiences, said Van Loo. Sharing those experiences with students is okay, “indeed desirable,” he said, and can go a long way in helping students feel less isolated.
“This commonality that a lot of students have is worth keeping in sight because in some ways one of the main goals is a sense of inclusion and connectedness,” he said.
Van Loo said first generation and low-income students also face informational challenges, often described as the “invisible curriculum.” They frequently don’t have the same knowledge as their more affluent peers about exam prep, law review, the value of office hours, or how to secure clerkships or summer jobs. The more things that a professor can make explicit — even things that may seem obvious to them and half or two-thirds of students — are worth mentioning, Van Loo said.
“This commonality that a lot of students have is worth keeping in sight because in some ways one of the main goals is a sense of inclusion and connectedness.”Rory Van Loo ’07, a law professor at Boston University
Tushnet, the moderator, said it can sometimes be easier to make big changes when you’ve accepted that something is part of your mission.
“I think it’s a myth to believe that everyone makes it through law school purely on merit,” said Toussaint. “It’s just broader meritocracy ideal that drives how we govern ourselves in society.”
And, he said, people may be coddled in different ways.
He recalled struggling with a difficult research and writing project during his first year and asking a law school classmate how they were able to figure out how to write the memo. The student replied that he showed the memo to his mother, who was a judge. “That’s a kind of coddling that’s invisible,” said Toussaint.
Van Loo said that while the impulse to not want to coddle usually comes from “a noble or a well-intentioned place” of wanting students to succeed and be prepared for the work world, they may have outdated expectations about what that looks like.
Both professors agreed that it’s important to bring unique experiences and ideas into the classroom to think about the law in different ways from different perspectives.
Faculty should be mindful that there are many opportunities to present different group’s identities and they should be cognizant of the group that they may be inadvertently capturing, said Van Loo.
“I struggle even with Williams v. Walker Thomas Furniture Company,” said Van Loo. “It’s a tough balancing act to use a case with a single mother on welfare with seven kids and how to talk about that in the right way.” Trying to be cognizant as a professor that you don’t want to encourage stereotypes, he said, you might then counteract those kinds of examples with ones that would make students from those backgrounds feel good about and be reminded that there are positive versions of this identity as well.
Toussaint said he works identities into his exams in surprising ways to remind students of the people represented in the law.
“Most of the opinions that we read, they abstract away those differences in race, gender, class, and I try to put them back into fact patterns so students realize these are real people and I can’t assume that this person is from one class or one group. I might use a very obviously Asian name or very obviously Hispanic name or an obviously African name and sprinkle it throughout in interesting ways. It’s a very subtle technique, but I think it reminds the students that these issues impact everyone in different ways and we’re not talking about something abstract we’re talking about something very real.”
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