(The above image correlates, in the logic of a Google search, at least, with the concept of questioning authority. I leave it to you to draw your own connections.)
The focus of today’s post is not “questioning authority” in the sense of confronting government officials or performing acts of civil disobedience. Rather, I continue to question the role of authority in teaching, and, in particular, in law school teaching.
The other day I had the chance to sit down with my colleague, Roberto Corrada. Prof. Corrada is well-known as a guru of legal education, and I knew I had plenty to learn from him.
We were talking about how he conducts his classes—in particular, his belief that it is useful to cultivate moments where he as the professor does not know the answer to a particular question, allowing his students to observe what it is like for an experienced attorney to work his way through a problem.
“And you don’t worry that this would undermine your authority?” I asked.
“I hope it undermines my authority!” he said cheerfully, through his famous, dimpled grin.
Prof. Corrada went on to share with me a set of simple but telling diagrams describing two different models for the relationship between professors, students, and knowledge.
(These diagrams were originally authored by Parker Palmer in “The Courage To Teach“; Prof. Corrada reproduces them in the teaching manual to his textbook, “Labor Law in the Contemporary Workplace.” The diagrams are offered in connection with Prof. Corrada’s explanation of his teaching method in which his Labor Law classroom is run as a simulation of a labor union organizing.)
The first diagram represents a traditional model of legal pedagogy, which situates students beneath the professor, and the professor beneath the object of knowledge.
See Palmer at 100.
There are multiple implications of this positioning. First, in this model students are characterized as “amateurs” who lack not only knowledge, but also the power to access knowledge. Thus the elevated position of the professor, who both possesses greater knowledge than her students and a greater understanding of how to access it.
Signficantly, both the students and the professor are situated beneath the object of knowledge itself. As Palmer describes it, in this scenario, objective knowledge exists “out there,” in the world, its essence unaffected by the existence or efforts of knowers. The zig-zag lines represent “baffles” that further define and restrict the relationship between the amateurs, the experts, and the object of knowledge:
Baffles at every point of transmission—between objects and experts, between experts and amateurs—that allow objective knowledge to flow downstream while preventing subjectivity from flowing back up.
Palmer at 101.
Sound familiar? It should. This mirrors to a great extent the empirical observations and one of the resulting conclusions drawn by Elizabeth Mertz: that law school consistently offers a
core legal vision of the world and of human conflict [that] tends to focus on form, authority, and legal-linguistic contexts rather than on content, morality, and social contexts.
Mertz at 4. See a related post here.
In accordance with this vision, the object of knowledge (the rule of law) and its source (the case, statute or constitution) are authoritative and objective, as is their chief knower (the professor). The role of students is to receive this knowledge more or less uncritically. It is assumed that the students, as amateurs, have nothing to offer from their own background, experiences or insights. In Mertz’s terminology, law students are actively discouraged from challenging the content of the knowledge being transmitted, questioning the morality of the rules, or otherwise informing their studies based on the social context from which they emerged prior to coming to law school.
Under this model, law students are perpetual “amateurs” for the duration of law school.
Under this model, knowledge in law school moves in one direction only: from top to bottom.
The second model, by contrast, situates all knowers—including the professor—on a more or less equal level with respect to knowledge—here referred to as the “subject” rather than the “object” of knowledge.
See Palmer at 102.
At the outset, Palmer emphasizes that knowledge here is represented as a subject rather than an object because “a subject is available for relationship; an object is not.” Palmer at 102. In other words, as an object, knowledge is hard, impenetrable, and static. As a subject, knowledge transforms us and we transform knowledge.
This concept can be tied into rather complicated post-structuralist theories about the lack of objective truth, or of a concrete “self.”
But there is another way of looking at it that is much more simple: when we seek to know and understand, we change the shape and content of knowledge. And the more we bring our own knowledges and understandings to what we study, the greater the effect. In other words, our outrage at the unfairness of a particular rule or the treatment of a particular community under the law matters. This is, in essence, a radically more democratic structure of knowledge.
Notice as well that, in the second scenario, the focus of attention is the subject of knowledge—not the professor as transmittor of knowledge. This points back to a recurring interest of mine: namely, our own psychological investments in authority as law professors.
Finally, under this model, students are constantly growing in direct relationship to knowledge and—more importantly—in their competence to acquire, understand, and use knowledge.
If we can agree that empowering students with respect to present and future knowledge—in essence, training them to be practitioners rather than perpetual students—is a desirable goal for legal pedagogy, what teaching practices accomplish this goal?
(Faculty profile of Roberto Corrada)