The Twinkie Teacher

Much as we can boil down what lawyers do to the core obligation to represent their clients, we can similarly boil down what lawprofs do to teach their students. This, of course, is simplistic and naïve, to ask most lawprofs, who will explain at very great length (and in language that makes people not want to talk to them at cocktail parties) their duty to engage in scholarship and promote the development of liberal arts and theoretical jurisprudence, but that’s just because they prefer doing such loftier things to teaching. Who wouldn’t?

The duty of a lawyer doesn’t change based upon the lawyer’s characteristics, though it can well be argued that societal bias affects any individual lawyer’s effectiveness. Race and gender, for example, are often hurdles to be overcome. How many female lawyers have experienced the pleasure of having a judge call them “little lady” when explaining why they’re wrong?

While we can complain about the treatment, and grieve a judge who lets such factors influence his judgment, an effective lawyer finds a way to overcome the prejudice. After all, clients take little satisfaction from a lawyer’s “winning” a gender battle while losing the client’s case.

But then, what of the lawprof who stands before a class, gender and race open for all to see?  As explained by University of Georgia lawprof, Mehrsa Baradaran at PrawfsBlawg, law professors face similar hurdles.

I was fairly naïve my first few semesters teaching and thought that I would just be myself in the classroom and I would earn the class’s respect (or “R-S-P-E-C-T”). I’m naturally averse to hierarchy and formality and wanted to run a democratic classroom. I didn’t want to impose draconian rules or shame my students into submission—I worked hard to know the materials and offer it in a way that they would learn it—without having to force them to pay attention by forbidding laptops or cold-calling. The result: my first few semesters were disasters.  It turns out that they didn’t automatically see me as an authority and a few loud talkers began to dominate my “democratic” classroom. There was also rampant disrespect and eye rolling.

Reading this, I was appalled. Who are these entitled little shits, paying a small fortune for law school, to be so arrogant as to think they know more than the lawprof and, even worse, behave disrespectfully?  Sure, we’re living in an age where ignorance and inexperience are no longer a bar to having a big mouth, but within the classroom, the teacher wins.  Take back the classroom.

Baradaran learned from her mistaken belief that if she thinks happy, democratic thoughts, students will see rainbows and unicorns.  She offers insights in how to conduct her classroom, so that her authority as the professor will not be challenged while promoting her pedagogical ideals to the extent possible.

She took back her classroom, alpha dog all the way. Gender be damned. She might be a woman teacher, but she was first a law professor. She fulfilled her duty to her students, whether they liked it or not.

The comments to her post, however, are most illuminating.  There was Male Privilege. There was White Privilege. There was White Male Privilege. There was Straight Privilege, and then Straight White Mail Privilege. It was a self-indulgent whinefest. And then there was debate over whether privilege truly existed, with males complaining that they too were treated badly by students, because students are raised as entitled little shits no matter what the immutable characteristics of prawfs may be.  Oy.

Do all these things really exist in academia? Of course, just as they exist everywhere else in society. So what? We either wallow in the hurdles life puts before us, or we surmount them. It’s fine to work toward a world without prejudice, but when you have a class to teach today, get over it.  You can demand the class sing Kumbaya, but you can’t make them sing it in tune.

Finally, a commenter who called herself Veteran Teacher went off:

I’m shaking my head, the head that’s attached to a woman’s body. I’m gobsmacked that anyone, no matter their gender or ethnic or cultural background or sexual persuasion or body weight and shape or personal style or manicuring preference, would have ever imagined that being a subject matter expert was all it took to become an effective teacher.

As human beings (and especially as teachers) every communication we deliver and every persuasion we attempt is received by others through the vessels that are our bodies, styles, genders, body shapes, accents, voice pitch and modulation, personalities and, if you’re of that persuasion, ineffable things that make us US.  Through life, each of us is an actor delivering our lines, hoping that our lines will be heard, understood and accepted in ways close to what we intended.

You come to class however you are, but who you are doesn’t change the job you’re there to do.

In seeing the awed interest in this subject, I also wonder:  Do women who grow up to become law school professors — or fifth grade teachers, for that matter — typically not have siblings?  Did they not attend junior high school?  Did they never date or watch “Mean Girls” or play a team sport or, for that matter, watch how their favorite teachers in high school and in college taught?  How do they not know this most basic stuff about negotiating one’s personal power in groups?  Do they have zero street cred?  Did they JYA in Atlanta?

Asserting one’s authority in a classroom isn’t any different than in any realm of life.  Some treat you nicely, while others will give you nuggies because they’re stronger and you’re weaker. You dealt with it outside the classroom; deal with it inside.

Veteran teacher then runs down an excellent list of ways in which people, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference or shoe size, gain control of a classroom, assert dominance over people who lack the humility expected of students to shut up and listen,  And then speaks an unpleasant truth to those who demand the right to “be themselves” and suffer no consequences for it.

And here’s an extra one nobody seems to want to hear:  Yes, your clothes, hair style, and other elements of your personal style contribute significantly to your personal brand.  There are uniforms in some industries, corporations, professions, jobs, cultures.  If your style is very different from the typical uniform of your situation, just know that you will be communicating, teaching and working THROUGH those differences.  Your choice, of course.  But your choice may have consequences you won’t like.

Damn right. You want purple hair and combat boots? Cool, but then don’t be surprised that students treat you like a punk. Your gender or race, age or sexual preference are your problems, and they are no less your problems if you’re in a classroom than a courtroom. Or a barroom, for that matter.

Students are not entitled to behave like difficult little snowflakes because they’ve been raised to believe they’re entitled to indulge their every little impulse and their opinions are invariably worthwhile.  Neither are professors. Nor lawyers. Maybe judges are somewhat entitled, but that’s a different issue.

Would it be wonderful if we lived in a world where privilege wasn’t based on immutable human characteristics? Sure it would, and we’re getting closer, even if it seems like we’re still a million miles away.  But in the meantime, you have a job to do, a duty to fulfill, and it’s time to put your personal hurt feelings and wistful dreams aside and do your job.  And if the student still won’t shut up, hand him a dime and be done with it.  He has no more right to be a jerk than you do.

4 comments on “The Twinkie Teacher

  1. Pingback: The Twinkie Teacher | Simple Justice - Angryteach

  2. Wheeze The People™

    Teacher: “Rectum, Johnny, Rectum”

    Little Johnny: “Wrecked him?? Damn near killed him! . . .”

  3. Konrad

    You wrote, “And if the student still won’t shut up, hand him a dime and be done with it. He has no more right to be a jerk than you do.”

    The student is not the one getting paid to be there, and is not free to leave if he doesn’t like it.

    1. SHG Post author

      Law students are big boys and girls. Not only do they get a choice of whether to be there or not, but they are not guaranteed the right to pursue a law degree if they lack the capacity to do so, intellectually or otherwise.

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