Aníbal Rosario Lebrón (Howard), If These Blackboards Could Talk: The Crit Classroom, a Battlefield, 9 Charleston L. Rev. 305 (2015):
“You hear it said that fathers want their sons to be what they feel they themselves cannot be, but I tell you it also works the other way.”
With those simple words in one of the most heartfelt self-discovery stories in “American” literature, Sherwood Anderson subtly unmasked how yearnings and aspirations are a two-way street. As parents project their aspirations upon their children, so do their children upon them. The same holds true for teachers and students, especially in legal academia. As law professors, we have a specific idea of what type of learners and legal professionals law students should be; but just as daughters and sons, law students also have in their minds an ideal law professor.
However, when these aspirations and ideals do not correspond with each other, conflict usually ensues, as it did for the young man in Sherwood Anderson's Discovery of a Father. This conflict puts a strain on any relationship and creates a tense atmosphere that can dampen communication. In the case of parents and their children, this might be resolved with time or a serendipitous event that reopens the communication channels and sheds light on the reasonableness of their yearnings--as a young Sherwood discovered himself. Yet, in the classroom, time is always pressing and those types of serendipitous events are scarce.
Nonetheless, most of us who have been in a classroom feel that students and professors must find a way to deal with their mismatched ideals. We believe that otherwise the classroom would become a minefield in which tensions and conflict fly and explode, leaving learning eroded In some instances, as it happened during Greg Mankiw's 2011 Introductory Economics class at Harvard, such explosions take very tangible forms such as a staged walkout to demonstrate the disconnect between the professor's vision of the class and the profession vis-à-vis the students'. In most instances, however, both sides subtly express their discomfort daily, in ways that could be thought to discourage the parties from engaging in the learning process or distract them from the pedagogic endeavor.
These inevitable subtle confrontations and understated discomforts, however, are seldom memorialized except for students' evaluations, which are archived and used strategically to grant tenure or not. Most of the time, we experience them as derisory remarks such as, “You don't do things like most professors or like X professor (the epitome of the ideal law professor),” or, “You should take this matter seriously even if it won't be tested on the bar; it will be important in your lives as attorneys,” that are said and disregarded as they do not seem to pertain to the teaching or learning experience. Rarely, we read accounts in the legal pedagogy scholarship about the customary confrontations between students and professors predicated on their divergent visions of the Law, the profession, and pedagogic practices. Most of the scholarship in this area is dedicated to apolitical/neutral issues such as teaching effectiveness, practice-ready attorneys, bar passage rate, job placement, and student satisfaction. Seldom do legal scholars problematize these accounts of confrontation and delve into what they mean in terms of our didactic practices. Instead, students' voices are buried in the bureaucratic exercise of collecting complaints and accolades to measure effectiveness, and professors' accounts are left for side faculty meeting conversations and building camaraderie by sharing war stories.
This is why the Economics 101 walkout was so pivotal in triggering this article's reflection about what the Law-Crit classroom is and what it should be. In a rare turn of events, we were witnesses to both the professor's and the students' versions of on-going class conflicts that were prompted by their mismatched philosophical and pedagogical views. The students alleged that they were discontent with the inherent bias in their introductory economics course that did not include a critical perspective that would allow them to assess the flaws and benefits of prevailing economic models and alternative ones. As a way to express their discontent in a more tangible manner, they staged a walkout.
When I read the news about their walkout, I was envious of Professor Mankiw. As a teacher that self-identifies as a Crit scholar and professor, I had wished many times for students like Mankiw's discontented pupils. I constantly long for students who would appreciate the value of a critical education instead of discarding it as a futile exercise or describing it as a political agenda that has no room in the classroom, and who would go the extra mile to defend it. However, as a teacher I felt for Mankiw and wondered how I would react if I have to face such a confrontation.
Many times I have faced the students' rejection of the discussion of critical scholarship, the inclusion of non-canonical narratives, or the use of critical pedagogical strategies. Those moments of confrontation have been definitely unpleasant, disruptive, and, in some cases, hard to manage. Therefore, I empathized with Mankiw and for a moment felt that the way in which his discontented students transformed the classroom into a battlefield was not necessarily the best approach. However, his response to his students' actions left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
First, Mankiw dismissed his students' walkout by explaining how it made him feel nostalgic about when he was in college and student activism was more common. Then, he told the New York Times' readership that he was sad because the students who orchestrated the walkout were poorly informed (ignorant), as their complaints were “a grab bag of anti-establishment platitudes without much hard-headed analysis or clear policy prescriptions.” And finally, he defended the way he decided to structure his course, as he “do[es not] view the study of economics as laden with ideology.” In simple words, his defense was that he does not believe himself to have any political agenda, that his job as a professor is not to engage in any type of social change, that his studies provide him with the legitimacy to impose a particular curriculum, and that in no way are such didactic practices ideological but merely part of his expertise. Thus, it seems natural for Mankiw to reject the idea of the classroom as a battlefield and see the walkout as disruptive to the learning process. He does not ascribe any political value to teaching and learning.
Yet for me, as a Crit-teacher who is constantly thinking about how the content of the classes I teach can better reflect the tenets of critical theory and how my pedagogic practices could be more effective at teaching the law and advancing my social change project, Mankiw's response stands on the complete opposite side of the spectrum of what higher education should be. I try every day to demystify the assumption that traditional and canonical professors do not have a political agenda, as opposed to Crit-professors like me. I firmly believe that part of my job as a law professor is to advance an agenda of social change. I try not to present myself to the students as an infallible expert who is there to teach what they ignore. I am well aware that teaching and learning are political. Nonetheless, like Mankiw, I have always tried to keep conflict to a minimum in the classroom, supposedly as a way to enhance learning.
Then it hit me that a strategy that fits so well for attaining the opposite objectives obviously cannot and should not be a pedagogical tool in the repertoire of a Crit-professor. As years have passed after Mankiw's reaction to his class walkout, I have continued to reflect on my teaching and my pedagogical philosophy. Informed by my own teaching experiences and those of my colleagues, I have wondered more and more whether the strategy of minimizing conflict is an incorrect approach to advancing my pedagogical project. As a corollary, I ponder about the best formulation of the classroom that would allow me to effectively teach the law and at the same time serve my transformative agenda. Is it that of a laboratory? That of the classical agora? Or, for a Crit-professor, should the classroom indeed be a battlefield?
The following is my modest attempt at answering these inquiries by looking at the challenges that critical educators face each day in the classroom and their particular needs. More importantly, it is an invitation to ponder as a community of teachers our didactic practices and whether they are in sync with our political, pedagogical, and social stances.