Hearing their own voice: Consistent student participation while discussing polarizing topics

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Hearing their own voice: Consistent student participation while discussing polarizing topics

Elizabeth Papp Kamali, Assistant Professor of Law, wants to ensure that students contribute consistently throughout the semester: “A student can get into a rut if they don’t participate in those first few classes, and it can be very difficult to break that cycle.” She uses different models to encourage participation—for example, the Socratic method in larger introductory courses and student-led discussion in smaller seminars—often asking students to adopt non-mainstream arguments.

The benefits: Compelling student participation brings diverse perspectives—intellectual, demographic, and experiential—to the classroom, and deepens understanding of polarizing topics. “There is a disembodied way of studying the law through statute books and court records to trace the development of any given doctrine. Another way is to think about law as the product of a social environment, understanding its history and how it is situated in culture and society, which can in turn lead to legal reform.”

The challenges: When teaching a particularly sensitive topic in her section of Criminal Law (for example, sexual assault and what constitutes consent) Kamali asks students to articulate non-mainstream arguments during discussion. “Students often preface their contribution with, ‘This is not what believe.'” She encourages them to act as though they were the defense attorney for a client, and make the argument regardless of their own position.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Systematically track and promote participation. In her larger course, Kamali tracks participation using index cards for each student. Before each class, she flags students on whom she plans to call on a seating chart. “It’s a small time investment that pays off.” In the first session of her small seminar she has students, one by one, parse a line or two from the required reading: “It’s rote, but there’s value in that. Everyone hears their own voice that first day of class.”
  • Recognize the value of different discussion formats. At first, Kamali avoided conversations about students’ personal experiences related to topics in the historically-rooted seminar, Mind and Criminal Responsibility in the Anglo-American Tradition. However, by her second year, she explains, “I decided to loosen up a little bit, have students lead discussion, and indulge, with some limits, their tendency toward presentism.” Students think about the historical development of the law from the perspective of individuals who will go out into the world of practice tomorrow.
  • Empathize and be mindful of personal circumstances. First-year law students sometimes dread the cold-call nature of the Socratic method: “I let them know that it is an aspect of my 1L experience that I did not enjoy that much and acknowledge that not everyone finds it easy to speak up in the moment.” Recognizing that some topics may be personally distressing, Kamali permits students to email her to be on the “do not call” list for any given class session.

Bottom line: Student participation adds context and nuance to their understanding of the law, but it may take some experimentation to find the most valuable model in any given course format.