Teaching Law During a Pandemic/Election/End of the World

Next week is Dayton Law School’s last week of the semester, which was compressed to twelve weeks due to the pandemic so that students can travel home for Thanksgiving without having to return shortly after.  This semester was relentless, with no breaks or holidays.  I taught each live lecture (2/3 of my material) four times, to four sections of students.  About half of my students opted to take classes remotely, and the other half were permitted, a few weeks into the semester, to start attending classes in person.  We taught through a global pandemic and social discord and now an election.  I have learned so much from this experience about teaching, about law, and mostly about humanity.

I have emerged (quite tired but) so pleasantly surprised at the resilience and empathy of my students.  I thought the pandemic would make what I teach — liability for civil wrongs and the attendant trial process and technicalities of motions —  irrelevant to them.  I was wrong.  What has impressed me most is the students’ desire to continue engaging with Torts, a conceptually sophisticated subject that often requires reading dense, difficult judicial opinions (often by Justice Cardozo, whom a student noted today I have “a thing for”).  Through all of the adjustments, through the election, through it all, the students kept learning hard material.  What choice did they have?  The major difference between this year and last is that these students were also explicitly more empathetic as well.  They asked me how I am and how classes are going for me.  They tell me when I am doing things well.  We check in on each other.  I check in more too.   I do not think this increased familiarity has impeded learning; I think it has perhaps aided it.

The beginning of the semester was inauspicious.  Learning educational technology was a decidedly unwelcome task to add to my overloaded teaching and committee responsibilities.  I had to begin filming pre-planned lectures for 1/3 of my classes (the other 2/3 classes each week would be synchronous, or live), arranging Zoom classes, figuring out how to design online tests that precluded cheating, and responding to countless emails, at all hours of the day and through the weekend, from confused and anxious first-year law students.  I had to draw some boundaries about what are appropriate subjects for emailing me versus finding things out on their own, and I had some “this generation” moments….but I was often inaccurate and overgeneralizing.

I ached for the students.  I loved law school so much, and they would be deprived of my wonderful experience, roughing it the fun way in the dorm (a dorm that has since been demolished, where the late Chief Justice Rehnquist lived as a law student and where mosquitos bit me throughout the night in the summers due to screenless windows).  My law school experience involved easy bonding with classmates over law puns and professor comments and being surrounded by people going through the same intellectual challenges and growth as me.  That is difficult to achieve remotely.  Not everyone is well suited to online education, or perhaps not all of the students (as is usual) wanted to manage the difficulties of law school, and some students left or took absences.    Other students actually thrived and even enjoyed the pre-recorded lectures, because they could play them at their own pace.  After Zoom classes, students and I would stay and chat, addressing questions and gossiping for significant periods of time because, as one student remarked, this was the most social interaction he had in a while.  I made students unmute themselves to say hello to me – needing that voice across the screen but also wanting them to feel what it was like to be heard. 

When the law school opened back up again for in-person classes, the adjustment was difficult at first.  We were all habituated to Zoom classes, and half of the students were now in front of me, more subjected to my Socratic method than ever and unable to hide behind computers.  Wearing masks in the classroom meant I couldn’t see whether my students were smiling or frowning.  The classroom energy, at first, was lower than the Zoom classes.  This changed within a couple of weeks.  Now my in-person classes have almost the same spontaneity, rowdiness, and cooperation as classes prior to coronavirus.  I wear a transparent mask, so they can at least see me laughing at their jokes and witty remarks and smiling at their cleverness (and puzzling over comments that are not entirely on point).

When the election came, I thought that might finally render my students apathetic to Torts.  We were learning proximate causation, a doctrine that determines whether the harm defendant caused was within the scope of the risk of defendant’s negligent behavior.  Defendants are not civilly responsible for damages they cause if the type of injury that occurred is unforeseeable based on their negligent behavior.  But after a swift, nonpartisan talk about the election, they wanted to get back to business, and were generally prepared and inquisitive.

What I said to the students, and what they continue to teach me, is something I first read in a fortune cookie.  I told them something that most closely encapsulates the one thing I truly believe.  The fortune cookie said, “the only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance.”  I am so grateful to be in the classroom, learning from my students not only how many different styles of teaching can be effective and how many diverse learning styles there are, but also that showing empathy and requiring fortitude are not always in tension.  My students appear to be performing as well as any other semester, and I hope I am as well.