One of the toughest parts of law school, for me, was the talking part. Hey, hey—settle down. I can hear all the scoffing out there by people who have talked with me; it is true that most people do not experience talking with me as a situation where I am a reluctant participant. But when I began at Michigan Law in 1989, I had to go through a certain evolution. I recalled that evolutionary process today after reading an interesting blog post by one of our rising 2Ls, describing her own progression.
My undergraduate experience was at a small women’s college: the women-ness and the small-ness there both contributed to a cultural norm in which students were inculcated with a sense of obligation about finding our voices in the classroom. We all had a commitment to participate vocally in our educational development and to put ourselves “out there” intellectually—both because unless everyone participated in the typically tiny classes, there just wouldn’t be enough talking going on, and because, as women at a women’s college, we were supposed to be learning to eschew the mores that kept women from speaking in those settings. It was a very effective inculcation, and I happily perfected the mouthy-broad skills of which so many of my friends and colleagues are today so very fond.
But at law schools, the cultural norms are a bit different. On the one hand, there is still the obligation to speak—at the heart of the Socratic method, after all, is learning from fellow students. On the other hand, in the big classroom that is typical of first-year classes in virtually every law school, even a few overly enthusiastic speaking volunteers can completely derail a discussion. Thus, there is the tension between “willing participant” and, to use the law school parlance, “gunner.” Compounding this challenge for me was the fact that my class at Michigan Law was roughly one-third women—quite a switch from the near-100% I had been accustomed to. The company of one-third of the class was a far cry from being all by myself, of course, and I wasn’t even the only women’s college grad or diehard feminist in the group (and the at-the-time-recent hire of Catharine MacKinnon certainly should have been emboldening)—but sometimes, living up to my undergraduate alma mater’s dictate of making my voice heard just felt exhausting. It is possible that I was a name in a square in gunner bingo during my first semester. It is possible that I let the knowledge of this fact discourage me from opening my mouth during my second semester.
I thought back to that dynamic when I read the 2L’s post about her sense of alienation at the beginning of her 1L year. As a minority woman from a working-class background, she felt very much one-of-a-kind in her classes. While she wouldn’t have actually been unique in the class—I am very proud of the fact, for example, that more than 30% of our student body come from families in which at least one parent has no degree past high school, and more than 10% have both parents in that category—the intersection of three minority statuses is unquestionably quite rare. And given the degree to which I felt like I stuck out as a woman when one-third of my colleagues were women, I can easily comprehend her sense of uncomfortably standing alone.
Her post describes very compellingly how fraught certain law school classroom discussions can be for the student whose point-of-view is informed so deeply by personal experience, particularly when that experience is one unlikely to be held by others. The Bernhard Goetz case is a perennial and paradigmatic example of a difficult discussion about race, and she recounts how some of her classmates made comments that struck her as insensitive and alienating, but to which she did not respond with a raised hand and her own counter-contribution.
That made me think of the discussion of statutory rape in criminal law during my 1L year; in my perhaps very skewed recollection, the only people who participated were men who questioned the fairness of a system where they could be held criminally liable for having sex with a 14-year-old who had claimed to be 18. It was a very one-sided, and off-putting, colloquy. In retrospect, though, I wonder about the extent to which the men who were participating felt uncomfortable themselves. I assumed at the time that they were full of confidence and even privileged entitlement, but from the perspective of 20-plus years later, I am much more aware of the extent to which virtually all law students feel discomfort offering any viewpoint that reveals something personal about themselves. And I should explicitly recognize that the viewpoint my male classmates were expressing is certainly a valid one, worthy of inclusion in a discussion about statutory rape. Frankly, thinking about it now, the only problem with the discussion was that it contained only that viewpoint. If countervailing opinions or new perspectives had been introduced, the colloquy would not have been so uncomfortable, and we all would have learned more. I was thinking of different viewpoints during the discussion, but I didn’t offer them. I regret that.
So what I loved most about our 2L’s post was her discussion of the day she did speak out, this time on the subject of the Grutter case. When she waded in, others with previously unexpressed viewpoints followed, with the result that the conversation was much richer—exactly what we hope for when we seek a diverse class, as described very eloquently in Professor Niehoff’s recent essay on the subject. And not inconsequentially, this step outside her comfort zone made our 2L feel much more positive about her overall law school experience, increasing her confidence in her considerable skills as an advocate. The resulting advice to future law students is excellent: Make “every discussion and every interaction count. . . . [Be] brave about sharing . . . personal experiences with others and tying those ideas to what [you are] learning in classes. . . . [L]ook beyond the differences between [you and your] classmates . . . to learn from them and allow them to learn from [you.]” (Read her whole post here.)
Being bold about speaking out is very likely to inspire others—typically with the result that you’ll realize you’re far less on-your-own than you may have previously perceived. Lending your voice to the discussion doesn’t mean you’re a gunner. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a gunner. . . .
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning