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Friday, June 01, 2018

Professors and political correctness

Neil Buchanan has an excellent post at Dorf on Law on how changing expectations around matters of race, sex, etc., affect how we teach, drawing connection to comedians on campus and on Roseanne's self-immolation. I will add a few points.

As professors, our focus is not on what we discuss in class but how we discuss it. While changing expectations require us to alter the tone we adopt on some subjects, addressing a touchy subject is unavoidable, either because students must learn the touchy material or because students must be able to see the material within sensitive or disturbing contexts. Neil's example is (I believe) a 1991 tax case from the Seventh Circuit, involving tax-evasion charges against twin sisters who accepted gifts from a wealthy older man. (I used the case as my Evidence final several years ago). The opinion delights in the salaciousness of the underlying facts and gets punny at times ("the relative scantiness of the record"). And Neil says that over the years he has pulled back from the sniggering tone the case allows, giving our better understanding of the possibly exploitative nature of the relationship involved in the case.

Importantly and appropriately, Neil does not argue that it is improper to teach the case (for the distinction between gift and income). Nor would I agree that it is improper to use the facts for an exam (for hearsay and the distinction between statements of intent of not-hearsay statements inferring consent).  This is the what, as opposed to the how. It is a good teaching case  and a good set of facts, even if dealt with in a sophomoric tone. It remains important for students to learn to deal with general issues and principles in troubling factual contexts.

To use another example. Several years ago, one assigned essay in Civ Pro involved an employment-discrimination case in which the plaintiff sought to compel the defendant to submit to having his genitals photographed to compare with the sext he allegedly sent the plaintiff. One students, who wanted to go into employment work, said she appreciated how the question pushed her out of her comfort zone. I did criticize one student for using the phrase "dick pic" in what was supposed to be a judicial opinion, which I thought reflected a lack of seriousness.

Even if we as professors change our presentation, the question remains whether the presentation in the assigned case becomes problematic over time and thus no loner usable. Is the relationship described in that Seventh Circuit case so toxic or presented in such a sniggering way that it should not be used, if some other vehicle is available to teach the gift/income distinction? This can be about a court's tone or language. Plyler v. Doe uses the phrase "illegal alien," which has drawn complaints in Con Law.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 1, 2018 at 05:59 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

As I read it, Buchanan's take is that the customer is always right: The audience gets to set the parameters of what is acceptable language to use, so a professor can't complain about pressure to conform to "politically correct" student views. But I wonder if a professor's willingness to embrace that view depends in part on whether the student feedback echoes the professor's own politics.

Flip the politics. Imagine conservative students complain that Professor Buchanan speaks too critically of Trump -- or better yet, that Buchanan speaks without the reverence about Trump that Trump's incredible victory in 2016 demands. Would Buchanan change how he speaks of Trump, and only speak of Trump with great reverence, because that is that is the new audience expectation and therefore Buchanan should conform to it?

Posted by: Anon | Jun 3, 2018 10:36:27 PM

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