The Art of Teaching
An interview with Lani Guinier, winner of the 2001-2002 Sacks-Freund Teaching Award.
How does it feel to have won the Sacks-Freund Teaching Award?
It was deeply satisfying. Teaching is something that I’m very committed to. One of the things that I do which often drives my teaching fellows and my faculty assistant crazy is mid-course corrections. I ask students in the class for feedback; the students give me their sense of what’s going well and what needs improvement. This was the best kind of feedback that I could have ever gotten.
When you spoke after receiving the award, you held up some clay figurines. Can you tell me about those?
Well, these are from my Responsibilities of Public Lawyers class and they were done on what was the last class [at HLS] for many of the third-year students. So there’s a celebratory atmosphere that contributed to the students’ willingness to be creative. The assignment was to use clay to shape the lawyer they want to be and the challenges they will face in order to be that lawyer. I kept a few figures that I thought were particularly memorable. [Holding up a clay figure] For instance, this is a headless individual wearing overalls. It was done by a student who when he first came to the class said his vision of the lawyer was really that of the gladiator, that of the horseman who was going to save the citadel. And over the course of the semester he realized that it was really important for the lawyer to not be completely ego driven or to think he or she alone could save anyone. So the idea was to create a figure that didn’t have a head to show that the challenge for him as a lawyer will be to deal with the relationship between his own ego and the work he will be doing for his clients.
Moving onto something also about last year, but certainly less happy. What are your thoughts were on last spring’s racial incidents?
One of the approaches that I use [in teaching] is to have the students write 8- to 10-page persuasive essays, which I ultimately grade. But before I actually read their essay they share a draft with another student who then has to write a critique of the essay. I grade not only the students essay but also the critique because I think that the editing function and the ability to give constructive criticism in a way people can receive it is a very important aspect of being a lawyer. I think there is a little bit of a connection in terms of what happened this spring.
To me it was not merely coincidence that some of the events took place throughout the month of March, right at the time when first-year students were getting their grades. For many students that is a moment of some trauma. These are people who have excelled as undergraduates and have, in many cases, never gotten a grade below an A.
Because of the strict curve in grading here, a large percentage of them have now gotten their first B. When students are feeling traumatized by their grades, they need to know that a grade, especially one based on a timed exam that tests the ability to do certain kinds of linear or analytic thinking under pressure, is not their only measure of “intelligence” or legal aptitude. Nor should it function as their primary source of self-esteem. We need to help them realize they can contribute as legal professionals in multiple ways and that they have much to learn from each other and not just from the professor.
I think that what happened in the spring in some ways says to me that we have to, as faculty, create more of a sense of valuing a diverse community not only in the classroom but outside of the classroom. And when I say diverse I mean diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, and other demographic indicators. But I also mean diversity of learning styles and intellectual capacity.
How do you think we could create that community?
Well, there is no magic bullet to creating community. But I do feel, especially as a result of the faculty workshops and some of the brainstorming that the faculty has done in reflection on what happened this spring, that wonderfully constructive ideas are now on the table. I just hope there is continued interest, institutional support, and momentum to pursue those ideas.
What is the significance of the title of your most recent book, The Miner’s Canary?
Well, the title is a metaphor. The miners brought a canary into the mines essentially as a diagnostic tool to alert them when the atmosphere in the mines was too toxic. The canary’s more fragile respiratory system signaled when the miners needed to exit the mines. And the argument that [co-author] Gerald Torres and I are making in the The Miner’s Canary is that the experience of race, the experience of exclusion, the experience of being underrepresented is often the experience of the canary.
Problems that converge around people of color can then help us track what is also happening to the miners and not just the canary. Certainly race is a source of stigma. It has been defined in terms of individual prejudice and the legal system trains us to identify individual bad actors or perpetrators. But Gerald Torres and I also feel that race has an untapped potential to function as an asset, as a diagnostic tool. Race can help us think more structurally about relationships of power in this society and not just to focus on the manifestations that appear to affect, at least initially, people of color. Rather than “pathologize” the canary, race can alert us to things that are also adversely affecting working class and poor whites, as well.
Can you give me an example?
In California in 1996 there was a referendum on the ballot to ban the consideration of race in admission to college, among other things. I think many working-class and poor whites supported that proposition because they felt that their children were not having the opportunity to go to the state universities and that it was not fair. In that sense they were pathologizing the canary. They assumed that affirmative action was giving access to Latino or black students, and that was not fair because these poor working-class whites should also have access. That is the conventional view of race: You see a problem that seems to converge around people of color; you identify it or locate it in the people of color. They must be less qualified, and affirmative action is therefore not an appropriate policy.
But it turns out if you step back you will see that for every one black male student who was at one of the four-year state institutions of higher learning, there were five in prison. For every one Latino male who was at a four-year state college, there were three in prison. And that the real reason that poor and working-class whites were not getting any access to California institutions of higher learning is that California had essentially shifted its resource allocation from higher education to prison. California went from spending two and a half times more on higher education than on prison in 1984 to spending more on prison than higher education starting in 1995. So they weren’t keeping up with the demand for access to higher education.
Simultaneously they were using a set of admissions criteria that not only had a disproportionate effect in terms of race but also class—within each race and ethnic group as your parental income went up so did your SAT scores. So the effect of relying exclusively on the SAT not only made the school less diverse in terms of race, but it was also responsible for making it less diverse in terms of class. And that’s what we are saying about the miner’s canary. Understanding the role that race is playing can enable us to see a phenomenon that otherwise remains invisible.
On an entirely different topic, what books are you reading for pleasure, outside of the work realm?
Well, I read Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park and I am taking a creative writing workshop—not because I want to write a mystery novel or a novel of any kind, but because I want to be a better storyteller. I think there is a narrative power in literature that as law professors or lawyers we actually could learn from. In my creative writing workshop I had to write a short story and I got feedback from my classmates and the teacher who said, “your characters are beautifully drawn and the detailed background description is marvelous but you are giving us too much detail.” And that certainly is the training of the lawyer and the law professor, to overwhelm with detail.
For me, part of the challenge is not only to be as good a teacher as I can for my students—and I am certainly committed to trying to do that well—but also to use the opportunity that this job gives me to do research, to write, to do public speaking, to communicate to a larger audience and to bring them into this conversation. And in order to do that I think it is very important to connect abstract, complicated ideas with stories that ground the ideas. But obviously it’s a dynamic because you don’t want to just tell a story to entertain. It’s about using the story to make your complex ideas concrete, to help people remember the ideas, not just the story. It’s also about understanding and mining the intellectual potential of the story to then encourage people to think for themselves. And one of the things that I invariably get as a reaction to The Miner’s Canary is that, "you really made me think." Or, "you made me think in ways that are unfamiliar yet exciting." To me that’s the ultimate goal—to stretch my students or my audience in ways that also push my own thinking.
What is it like to be on the other end, being the student now in this creative writing workshop, instead of being the teacher?
Oh, I love it. But then again I think of myself always as a student because what makes teaching fun is that you are always learning.