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Law tutors reveal why they pick on students for answers

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Cold-calling phenomenon is terrifying but well-intentioned

Revelations by academics at both UCL and Harvard have shed light on why tutors push students for answers, rather than relying on contributions from volunteers.

Law students probably all know the feeling: you stumbled your way through your equity preparation this weekend and have everything crossed you won’t get asked to explain the facts of Vandervell. Then, your tutor looks through the rows of raised hands and picks on you for the case summary. Why not ask the students who are keen to give their own answers?

UCL senior lecturer Steven Vaughan has provided some much-needed information on what’s known as this ‘Socratic method’ of teaching.

Writing for The Limits of Lawyers, Freshfields solicitor turned academic Vaughan thinks it’s vital he fosters healthy debate in his classes, stressing: “I tell my students that I don’t care what they think as long as: (a) they think something (i.e. they can come to an opinion); and (b) as long as their views are respectful, civil and sensitive”.

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But this debate would cease to be healthy if he did not cold-call his students because, he says:

“A decade worth of teaching suggests that (in my classes at least) when I ask open rather than direct questions (‘Can anyone tell me about X?’) women and minority students pipe up less frequently. And this upsets and worries me.”

Vaughan’s experiences are not unique; they align closely with a recent paper written by a professor of law at Harvard University, Jeannie Suk Gersen.

Gersen, who teaches crime and family law at the world class university, admits she tries to call on 30 to 40 students every class, even though she realises some students see this as an “assault” or a “traumatic experience”. Regardless, she doesn’t rely on volunteers because:

“[W]hen I have done so, that has produced an uneven distribution of participation, skewed male and white, and away from women and minorities, sometimes without my even realizing it.”

This observation has been made by a number of other academics, including in a text by Harvard lawyer Duncan Kennedy described by Gersen as “an acid critique of legal education written while he was a Yale Law School student”.

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Why is this? Vaughan’s keen to find out, though he thinks he might already know why. Speaking to Legal Cheek, he says: “I think men can dominate in class sometimes because that’s the way society is. They’ve grown up in environments where white male voices are privileged. These are not ‘bad’/’mean’/’unkind’ students. They may not even be aware they are monopolising the conversations.”

Gersen knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of these “assaults”. An ethnic minority woman, she admits she was “terrified” of speaking in class when she was a student, but that a light switched after she forced herself to face her fears. She continues:

“Soon, I was even volunteering to engage in this dialogue, and I was thinking more intensely, independently, and enjoyably than I ever had before. Eventually, learning through speaking, reasoning, questioning, and revising in conversation with others became a way of life that I treasure and try to cultivate in students.”

So while this cold-calling method may be resented by some students, Gersen thinks that, overall, “the Socratic professor is better positioned to ensure that all students have opportunities to practice participation than a professor who relies on volunteers already most inclined to offer up their thoughts”. Remember that next time your tutor asks you for a summary of the Unfair Contract Terms Act.

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34 Comments

Anonymous

I think this is a good idea on the whole – I went to a grammar school and was always encouraged to speak up in class. I went to uni and did just that (as a white male), despite most of what I was actually saying being total bluster through lack of revision. I am sure there were many people better prepared than me who had to sit through my ‘contrary’ ideas (much like this comment).

Anonymous

As someone from the privileged white male background I was quite outspoken in seminars. Some were very reluctant to contribute. A few of us together after decided that we should resist the urge to say anything for a few seminars, so that we stopped dominating. What followed were the most painful seminars, full of prolonged silence. People still seemed reluctant to contribute or participate, and ultimately it simply slowed down the progress of every class. What’s the solution?

Anonymous

Solution?

This isn’t about finding solutions. This is about making you ashamed, not because of the content of your character but because of the colour of your skin.

In short:

You are a white man. You are responsible for everything wrong in the world.

Now apologise.

Anonymous

Typical browbeating by yapping privilege.

Substituting what a reasonable person says with a silly horses’ laugh argument.

This is an example of why minorities don’t speak up – when there is a lot of brash, strident, ignorant, babbling, self-important privilege drowning everybody else out.

Trumpenkrieg

‘privilege’… that ubiquitous, unfalsifiable Joker card that instantly shuts down dissent.

It pairs well with the racism of low expectations: “this is why minorities don’t speak up”.

Have you ever considered that minorities are harmed as much by your pandering and hand wringing as they are by the “privileged” contributions from people who don’t pretend to be friends of minorities for a quick self righteous dopamine fix?

Anonymous

I don’t think anyone has, because it’s stupid.

Anonymous

I don’t pretend to be a friend of minorities, I am a in a minority. That’s where my understanding comes from.

Anonymous

My God, such privilege – pointing out that the content of one’s character is more important than the colour of one’s skin.

Martin Luther King was such a privileged bigot!

Anonymous

It’s because minority students have been groomed by society to ‘know their place.’

That grooming makes minority students feel like they are not allowed to make mistakes, or else the mistake will be linked to the minority characteristic.

Trumpenkrieg

If you’re feeble-minded enough to be “groomed” by society as to what your “place” is, perhaps academic study and the professions are not for you?

Anonymous

Yeah, that’s what the poor persecuted minority of posh white males squeak when they think their ‘safe space’ of the privilege-only profession is being threatened by pesky minorities.

Libeturd Leftie

I never thought the day would come when i agree with Trumpenkreig, but today is that day. I too agree, as a future member of the bar or solicitor that speaks for the client, you have to find your voice and find it quickly.

Court and this adversarial system is not for the meek. Speak up or be ignored (in court or negotiation) and eventually fired for incompetence or otherwise. Harsh but true, such is our legal landscape.

Libeturd Leftie

Speaking as an unabashed person of colour, who finds the moniker “minority” on its face to be demeaning I completely reject your argument. I repeatedly spoke up and so did other people of colour in seminar. I suspect it more has to do with people being shy and unsure of themselves for a multitude of reasons.

@nighthawkprof

at last count there were 1.3 billion people of one minority and another 1.3 billion of another minority in asia

how exactly is being a white male — out of 700 m odd whites — membership of a minority?

@nighthawkprof

correction (on my 4″ phone) —

how exactly is being a white male — out of 700 m odd whites — membership of a *majority?

Trumpenkrieg

They have a problem with whites continuing to be a majority in their ancestral homelands.

To be clear, diversity is only an objective in majority white countries, nobody is agitating and pushing laws on Nigeria to be more accepting of the Chinese or India to be more accepting of Kenyans.

The diversity agenda is just colourful window dressing for the concealed intention of a hostile elite to wage war by way of population change on the indigenous people of Europe.

Anonymous

I was always very shy at school and university. In my 20s in my career I was very confident in contrast, and full of energy and enthusiasm. Now I have the confidence still, but zero energy and I have lost the ability to care.

Anonymous

U OK, hun?

Anonymous

No!

My pull-up needs changing!

Anonymous

Lecturers don’t pick on students for answers, they select students for answers, the two things are not the same.

Just Anonymous

This article epitomises the soft bigotry of low expectations.

It proposes a world where women and ethnic minority students are so inherently weak, feeble and useless that they need special assistance in order to compete with white males on equal terms.

I find this world view extraordinarily patronising, racist and sexist in itself.

I can only speak anecdotally from my own personal experience. However, I have encountered many exceptionally talented and competent individuals, first at university and then at the Bar. Some are white men. Some are not. The suggestion that the latter needed special treatment to stand equal with me, I think they would find extraordinarily insulting.

Anonymous

Everything is spoiled. I am full of shame.

@nighthawkprof

there was a law graduate in sydney australia* who then later managed to be excused from an already empaneled jury – his reason was that he did not have sufficiently good English to be able to properly understand the proceedings

*he was a foreign student from a country with a vastly different non indo-european language – and yet he graduated with an llb or jd in english

@nighthawkprof

it’s important to care a little what they say

it is true that many students don’t want to speak up but there are avenues around that and ways to encourage them

as i tell my students “remember your training — and you will make it back alive”

Anonymous

Why is absolutely everything about race/gender/sexual orientation etc?

In a rural primary school filled with an entirely white class room the teacher will often call on pupil without their hand up. This can be because they are shy or simply aren’t paying attention. The method keeps the entire class on their toes and engaged. This isn’t some new highly sophisticated technique to address inequality in society, it’s basic teaching.

Anonymous

Correct!

Anonymous

Where is this school of which you speak?

We must ensure that extra minority students are bussed in from many miles hence to correct this abomination!

Anonymous

And trans ones too!

Barry from Essex

Not around my kids you won’t

Anonymous

These two academics are not really talking about the same thing.

The UCL professor is describing calling on students in a class or seminar. This isn’t something that is unique to law, and also not all law tutors do it. It comes down to personal teaching style.

The Harvard professor is describing calling on students in a lectures. This is unheard of in the UK (as far as I know), but is for some reason characteristic of US law schools. It’s standard for law lecturers in the States to do this, but isn’t a practice in any other subject.

Anonymous

We were called on to answer in criminal and constitutional law lectures at Newcastle. It was 20-odd years ago and the particular way this lecturer liked to teach.

Anonymous

Selecting students to answer questions is standard teaching practice. Asking open and closed questions is standard practice too. Asking hard and easy questions is normal. Suggesting this practice is ‘picking on’ and then equating it to a particular gender, race or religion, not only misses the educational point, it generates a totally unnecessary and contrived grievance.

Hermione Grainger

Well… it isn’t very good. Is it?

Anonymous

Yaaawn. Slow news day?

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