Even with professors who try to be nice, open, inclusive and “definitely not scary,” fear exists. I don’t consider myself a scary teacher. I teach soft-Socratic with plenty of humor, banter, and encouragement. I view myself as a “coach” not a drill sergeant (or appellate judge). But, there is still fear. The role of standing up in front of dozens of students and commanding attention, respect, and precision with the subject matter generates a healthy fear.
And, that is my question — is fear healthy?
Ah, the good old days of Professor Kingsfield. While John Houseman only played a law professor in the movies, this was very much the law school norm back in the old days, before students decided they were consumers and demanded a tummy rub with every valued thought.
Ferguson expresses his law school experience as a product of fear.
I could be wrong, or a product of another generation, but fear of not doing well, of failing to meet expectations, or of literally failing law school was ever present. Fear motivated me (and I believe others) which is why it was intentionally or unintentionally fostered by law professors trying to motivate mastery of the law.
Interestingly, Ferguson’s experience before teaching wasn’t as a dilettante, but in the trenches as a D.C. public defender, such that he certainly understood the pressures that would be put on lawyers once they left the womb of law school.
Prior to joining the law faculty, Professor Ferguson worked as a supervising attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. As a public defender for seven years, he represented adults and juveniles in serious felony cases ranging from homicide to misdemeanor offenses.
With this experience in hand, he nonetheless questions the value of fear as a pedagogical tool.
Yet, fear is not a part of other educational environments. You don’t think of high school English class as frightening. You don’t necessarily think of college seminar courses motivated in any way by fear. While there are certain professors who emulate John Houseman in their lectures (a style that pre-dates The Paper Chase), much of the undergraduate experience is decidedly not Socratic. It is still stressful, but not full of fear. One reason why students have a difficult time adjusting to “learning the law” involves a greater sense of fear.
There is much buried in this assertion, and its inherent analogy, that raises questions. It’s inapt to compare law school to “high school English class,” as that doesn’t lead directly to being responsible for another person’s life. Misquote Keats and the world will not end, though some may sneer at you. Blow an objection and some poor schmuck goes to prison for life. There’s a difference.
But is it fear? Fear is what someone feels. We tend to characterize the pressure applied by being put on the spot, called out in class to come up with the right answer, as fear, but it’s not. Some will, obviously, feel fear, but that’s on them. No one can control what another person feels as a result of their actions.
What Ferguson mistakes as a pedagogy of fear is the lesson of reacting under pressure. Sure, there is the normal law student desire to not look like the class idiot who can’t figure out the holding of a case, and this provides an incentive to study, to read the hornbooks, to brief the cases properly, to be prepared for class so should you be called on, you won’t be the fool who stands up and admits you failed to do the work.
But there is a virtue beyond mere preparation. And this virtue isn’t learned in a class, in a clinic, in the third year, when your tummy has been adequately rubbed raw by your doting prawfs who want you to feel respected and valued. Lawyers, at least competent if not zealous ones, learn to work under pressure. We learn to face an overwhelming adversary without fear.
Having been in the trenches, one would think that Ferguson would appreciate this. After all, judges don’t give you time and a sweet word as you fumble through your thought processes and argue why your completely idiotic analysis might have some tiny bit of thought hidden between the gibberish.
So of all the possible motivational emotions, should law schools encourage fear? Should we make a conscious effort to reduce fear in the classroom? Should we be more consumer friendly and kind? Should we replace fear with inspiration? Or collaboration? Or self-reflection? Or self-reliance?
Or, is the fear that motivates being 100% prepared a life skill we want to cultivate in lawyers? Should we turn up the pressure and demand more work and stress from our students to be prepared for the always demanding practice of law? Should every class be like an appellate argument?
It never ceases to amaze how academics manage to conflate their purpose and wrap it up in an emotional pink bow. Even the ones who should know better. Far better.
You’re teaching survival skills, not just for the students, your “consumers,” but for the poor unfortunates whose lives and futures will depend on their ability to withstand the unrelenting pressure of an attack far, far worse than anything Prof. Kingsfield can mount. While “inspiration” sounds so warm and fuzzy, the ability to take a beating by a judge while keeping your wits about you on cross so you can still make that agent cry is what counts in the trenches.
Nobody wants a lawyer who runs from the courtroom crying when the judge fails to show their opinion the respect they feel they deserve. Much as their end-of-semester reviews may win you the Ginchiest-Professor Award, the defendant just wants his lawyer to be capable of doing his job. Who will teach this to the law student?
You’re not just teaching them law. You’re teaching them to be lawyers. If that’s not a good enough reason to teach them how to survive the pressure, then here’s a dime. Call your mother, Ferguson, and tell her there’s serious doubt about your becoming a good teacher.