Respecting Student Experience

Posted on Categories Family Law, Legal Education

wallsOne of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was a copy of Jeannette Walls’ amazing memoir, The Glass Castle. In it, she describes growing up with her three siblings in a household characterized by chaos and poverty on the one hand, and love and a sense of wonderment on the other.

Jeannette and her siblings live in a series of cars, tents, or leaky-roofed houses without heat. They forage for food in farmers’ fields and trash cans, wear cast-off clothing, and bathe so infrequently as to attract the scorn of schoolmates. Their unstructured life and economic deprivation are partly a product of their father Rex’s alcoholism, and partly a result of their mother’s free-spiritedness, which often bordered on mental illness. The parents held jobs for periods of time, but usually quit or were fired because they did not like the infringement of a work schedule on their freedom or did not see eye-to-eye with their bosses on some point. Despite these physical hardships, the Walls family is full of love and mutual affection, and Jeannette’s account of her family is surprisingly gentle and forgiving.

As a Family Law teacher who addresses issues such as child maltreatment, parental rights and child protection, I am fascinated by first person accounts of family life, and Walls’ account is full of nuance and insight. There is one scene however, that haunts me as a teacher. 

Walls recounts how, after leaving her West Virginia home, she enrolls in Barnard College in New York City, supporting herself with grants, loans, and minimum wage jobs. By this time, her siblings had also escaped to New York, and her parents followed – living first in their car and, when they lost that, living on the street or squatting in abandoned buildings. Both parents had job skills, but neither held jobs for any long period of time.  Instead, they foraged in dumpsters or played poker for influxes of cash. Whenever the Walls children confronted their parents about the situation, the parents assured the children that they were content with their “freedom.”

One day, a political science professor who was a particular favorite of Walls asked the class whether homelessness was due to drug abuse and aid programs (as the conservatives claimed) or cuts in aid programs and no economic opportunities for the poor (as liberals claimed). She called on Walls, who answered “Neither” and then went on to say (thinking of – but not mentioning – her parents and the choices they had made), “I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want.” The professor was incensed, asking incredulously if Walls was claiming that homeless people don’t want roofs over their heads or warm beds. Here, I quote from Walls’ account:

“Not exactly,” I said. I was fumbling for words. “They do. But if some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet.”

Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. “What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?” she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. “What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?”

The other students were staring at me.

“You have a point,” I said.

( The Glass Castle, pp. 256-257.)

So why do I find this passage so haunting? We law professors spend a lot of time becoming expert in our specialty areas, and we work hard to instill in our students not only knowledge of objective facts, but also reasoning ability and a sense of justice. That’s all good for the most part, but we need to remember that our students also have experiences and knowledge that can educate us and their fellow classmates. It is tempting for us professors to believe we have figured out the best solutions to certain legal or social problems, and the more time, energy, and ego we invest in our approaches, the harder it becomes to see that we may have overlooked something. It is good to push students to develop passion for law and social policy, but we must not become arrogant about imposing our opinions to the point that students feel judged or alienated. Part of the learning experience has to be, in my opinion, the student connecting concepts learned in class with real-life experiences. To the extent that the student can verbalize this to the teacher or other students, everyone will be enriched.

I am particularly aware of this dilemma in my own field of Family Law, where lawyer understanding and empathy for a client can go a long way in assuring a just solution to a case. In my years as a professor, I have had students who have faced all sorts of difficult family situations. I have had students who were divorced or cohabiting, students whose parents had divorced, students who had been abused as children, and students who struggled with addictions, either their own or those of family members. I have had students who adopted children, students who were adopted themselves, students who had adopted siblings, and students who gave children up for adoption. I’ve had students who have had to make hard choices to withhold medical care from terminally ill relatives, including their own children. The list goes on and on and these are only the ones I know about. Each time a student has shared insights gained from these hard realities, the other students and I have gained valuable knowledge and perspective. Even when a student is reticent to share the experience with the class as a whole, experiences shared with me help me to present the material with more sensitivity and a broader range of information and insight than I would have had otherwise.

The challenge for us teachers is to create an intellectually open environment where students can admit who they are; the challenge for students is to trust that sharing their experiences will help them and others to gain insight and knowledge. When students feel free to share their experiences, other students and we professors learn, too. Think about the insight Jeannette Walls’ professor could have gained into the plight of the poor and the homeless if she had somehow been able to elicit some of Walls’ experience!

2 thoughts on “Respecting Student Experience”

  1. Judi,

    Thank you for this insightful and inspiring post.

    My book club read The Glass Castle a couple of years ago. I’ve never read anything quite like it before. It contained so many haunting (to use your apt phrasing) images, images that I’ve never been able to get out of my mind.

    One of them was, if I remember the details correctly, of Walls taking a limo home to her posh Manhattan apartment. On the way home, she by chance saw her mother on the street foraging through a trash bin. I believe her mother was by then homeless.

  2. I was one of your students who had some experience with the family law system (both with my own divorce and my now-husband’s custody issue), albeit without major trauma.

    Christine Hurt’s “No Harm Intended” (Chron. Higher Ed., May 25, 2005 at C3) has some good things to say on this issue, too — she talks about how, in torts class, professors tend to talk about great human tragedies in cold terms, forgetting that (a) the people in the case book were real people, who suffered or died and whose families suffered, too, and (b) some students in the class have been through incidents just like the ones in the case book.

    As a student and a practitioner (and as one with a Vulcan-like temperment), I found and find myself doing the same thing Hurt warned against — thinking about things in cold legal terms and forgetting there’s a person behind there. I admit I’m not good with the emotional side of law practice; I have to consciously remind myself of everyone’s humanity, including those on the other side.

    Thank you for this post.

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