March 25, 2004

Conservative students at Wisconsin. At the UW Law School we have a coffee & doughnuts session about once a week with students. This week the subject was what it's like to be a conservative student at the Law School, and the session was led by my colleague Gordon Smith, who blogged about it beforehand here. Actually, the topic originally proposed was what it's like to be a conservative student here, and at one point there was a proposal to have a panel of some sort with every political perspective represented, and in the end the topic got narrowed to conservative students and Green Party students, which struck me as pretty weird. Do we see conservative and Green Party types as opposites? If so, that suggests that the middle is occupied by Democratic Party liberals.

Gordon began by passing around papers with large letters--either L or C--on them and everyone was supposed to take one. No Ms? I wouldn't take one. He asked one of the Ls to say what position Cs take on a long list of issues, as a way to demonstrate how un-nuanced we are about the other side. The L's view of the C was of a social conservative, opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage, which I didn't think expressed the position of many of the young people who are attracted to conservatism. He had a C do the same for the Ls and on every issue the position was the opposite (e.g., war on terror? opposed!).

So how did the students say they felt? They had almost no criticism of the way faculty teaches the material. There was a bit of criticism about side comments in class: the targets of little jokes seem to be the targets liberals enjoy seeing attacked (e.g., President Bush, Justice Scalia). The worst criticism of faculty seemed to be some sense of disrespect for some of the judges, which seemed to me to be only a problem if the disrespect isn't spread around or if the disrespect doesn't have an educative point. One student gave the impression that humor ought to be avoided, but I tend to think he didn't really mean that in such an extreme way. I dislike stock humor, especially when it's a shallow assertion that a judge is stupid or biased, but naturally one sees humor in all sorts of things when studying and talking about cases, and some of this humor is going involve showing some disrespect for the way something is written, for the bad choices litigants may have made, for the flimsiness of an argument. No reason not to have some fun along the way. But it shouldn't be at the expense of one side.

The real problem students confessed to seemed to be a self-imposed one. They had quite elaborately developed ideas about what the professors and other students must be thinking and how much they would need to constrain themselves in order not to meet with disapproval or even outright punishment (in the form of grading--even though we have blind grading). I understand this feeling. I remember some similar things as a student. Faculty didn't need to do much of anything at all to cause students to think they need to believe or appear to believe a particular ideology and that the teachers and the other students would think ill of them if they didn't say the right thing. Where do these self-imposed restrictions come from? I suppose it is human nature, and that it is also the mechanism that keeps us from doing all sorts of destructive things. But there is also the human capacity to get past this kind of "overthinking" and to begin to just enjoy taking part in debate, trying out different ideas, practicing advocacy, and listening to the things other people will say once the debate opens up. I hope the session had some effect in helping students see that the faculty overwhelmingly wants vigorous debate and a lively classroom experience--whatever our political views may be and whether or not we ever say what those views are.

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