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Session Summary: Using Dispute Resolution Skills to Teach Current Events

Submitted by Rishi Batra

On Monday, July 29th, several law professors from around the country who teach alternative dispute resolution met at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) conference in Boca Raton, FL for a wide ranging discussion entitled “Using Dispute Resolution Skills to Teach Current Events.” Among those present were Cynthia Alkon (Texas A&M), Andrea Schneider (Marquette), Kelly Browe Olsen (Arkansas Little Rock), Sarah Cole (Ohio State), Debra Berman (South Texas), Nancy Welsh (Texas A&M), Debra Eisenberg (Baltimore), Noam Ebner (Creighton), Rishi Batra (US Air Force Academy), Lynn Cohn (Northwestern), and Richard Reuben (Missouri).

The discussion was inspired by a class exercise (and subsequent blog post) by Andrea Schneider during the Kavanaugh hearings. Professor Schneider described an exercise where she used the Kavanaugh hearings, which students were already very interested in, to model discussing how people can come to different conclusions based on the same data. Using the lens of the Ladder of Inference, she had the students watch the hearings (not just the commentary), and then meet in small groups to discuss, for example, Justice Kavanaugh’s expressed anger during the hearings and how students may use that one piece of data to concluding that he had been “wrongfully accused” or “hiding something”. Interestingly, the discussion in class was reported to be non-political, and Professor Schneider suggested she would do it again, as it made her more open in class, and helped in discussing other issues that came up, such as shooting in the city later that semester.

Several other professors then described some of their own exercises and experiences using current events in both ADR classes and podium classes. These ranged from class discussions of hot topics such as guns or corporal punishment, facilitation sessions, the use of legal cases involving political issues such as immigration or sensitive issues such as rape and sexual assault, using simulations based on current events, workshops on hosting public policy conversations, listening skills exercises, and fishbowl debates. People often reported making mistakes with these discussions and exercises, which were learning points in and of themselves. Several common themes emerged from these discussions, including a discussion of best practices, being sensitive to student needs, and the role of politics in the classroom.

In terms of best practices, there seemed to be general agreement that small groups seemed to be better than whole class discussions, as students felt more comfortable having these conversations in the small group environment. It was also better for the students to bring in their own data and views, rather than the professors bringing in data or expressing their own views. Having ground rules for the exercises (no judgement, summarize before responding, must use active listening, etc.) seemed to help these discussions. Often, if students were assigned roles or “sides”, rather than having to pick, that helped make the exercises less personal and focused on skills that were being taught. It was important that the exercises focused on the skills and processes, such as listening, rather than the substance, so that students could get used to, say, asking open ended questions. Even with these best practices, some speakers expressed reluctance to run these sorts of exercises in the classroom, and acknowledged it is best done later in the semester, and perhaps later in one’s career (post tenure) when it is safer.

The theme of being sensitive to student needs and concerns was also a prevalent one. Several speakers noted that our students were personally impacted by these current event topics, whether it be rape or sexual assault, immigration, or the political environment more generally. Teachers used a wide variety of techniques to address this concern, such as not having a policy discussion around these topics when they are raised in cases but solely focusing on the legal issues, giving notices that these types of exercises will be coming up, allowing students to opt out of exercises, allowing students to discuss how the exercises impacted them privately, using role reversal to make topics less personal, bringing in outside participants to model exercises rather than having students participate. Ground rules around speaking and listening were also brought up as helping to create a comfortable environment for dialogue.

Unsurprisingly, the role of politics in the classroom came up several times when discussing current events. Many speakers noted the political makeup of their student body, and how that either aligned with or contrasted with their own beliefs. Several participants noted that among conservative student bodies, more liberal students felt uncomfortable speaking up, and among more liberal student bodies, the reverse was true. On some faculties, that means that faculty members perceived as being more conservative heard from more conservative students expressing opinions they may not feel comfortable expressing in the classroom. While there was a general sense that professors had an obligation to seem politically neutral in the classroom, students were assumed to have a sense of their political beliefs regardless. There was some discussion of how to maintain a perception of neutrality in the classroom, whether it be through revealing connections to friends or relatives on the other side of the political spectrum, or by explicitly being open about your beliefs and giving permission for everyone to have their own. There was a general worry about offending students with certain topics, although some speakers noted that when they tried to avoid offending one group, students on the other side of the spectrum took offense. One participant noted that while most of the ADR community was on the liberal side of the spectrum, not all of us are, and our students are more diverse politically. They vowed to do better in combatting snide commentary they had heard in discussions among ADR teachers.

The conversation then moved to a question about should we be having these types of exercises and conversations in the classroom. There was a general consensus that this was an important part of the law school curriculum, since having conversations about difficult topics is an important life skill and for lawyers solving complex social issues. However, it was noted by many that these conversations should not just be in the ADR courses, but in the core courses as well, and that despite the limited time during the semester, it gives credibility to those especially who teach public law courses such as administrative law or election law. One way of moving these exercises in to the larger curriculum would be to recognize that having difficult discussions with clients, judges, and other attorneys is an important professional skill that will make our students better lawyers.

At the end of the discussion, participants thought about how we could continue this conversation to  improve the law school curriculum through more concrete practices. It may be the topic of a future conference soon, so look for an announcement on other ADR sources.

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