Teaching disturbing law

A friend of mine who is a relatively new professor is teaching some material that includes cases relating to sexual harrassment law. She is mulling over how best to present the material, and she asked me:

I was just reading again over some of the cases assigned to the students. One of the cases in particular reports graphic and disturbing acts (gang rapes, etc.) and language (repeated use of the word “fuck”) as part of the factual summary and the discussion of the issues. It occurred to me that I might warn the students about the potentially offensive language and graphic description of sexual acts. What do you think? Should I say anything?

My own reaction is mixed. On the one hand, part of me says that it’s fine to just assign the material as is. I can see various reasons for a hard-line approach. Law students are grownups, and I’m not sure that professors should treat them in an overly paternalistic manner. Also, it is hard to teach a class on a subject like sexual harrassment (or criminal law, perhaps) without discussing some disturbing things. Finally, I don’t think that a law graduate is prepared to act as an attorney in the field unless she can deal with disturbing fact patterns. This assignment is not gratuitous; these are the reported facts in reported cases.

On the other hand, there are also very good reasons not to be a hard-liner, and I think it’s necessary to be sensitive to potential concerns. Some of the students in any class may be victims of rape or abuse; they may have loved ones who have suffered through these ordeals; or they may simply be sensitive to the topic. I think the professor has to be sensitive to those concerns, and handle the material with care. (I’ve seen professors who did not handle such material with care, and the result was often disastrous).

As far as whether of not she should highlight the issue (my friend’s specific concern), I am again of two minds. On the one hand, perhaps the sensitive students would appreciate a warning. On the other hand, for many students, highlighting the issue could have the opposite effect, drawing more attention to lurid details than they deserve. I told her that in my opinion, I would lean towards a short warning myself (given the potential concerns of the more sensitive students), but that I thought she would also be fine if she didn’t warn, as long as she treated the material carefully.

However, I have absolutely zero experience in this area — there are not too many lurid details in Wills and Securities Regulation — and I feel a bit worried that my response to my friend left out important considerations. I’d like to hear what our readers think, if any wish to weigh in in the comments.

UPDATE: Paul Secunda posted on the same question, and has received a number of great suggestions and comments from his readers. Anyone interested in the topic should check out the thread over at Workplace Prof Blog.

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5 Responses

  1. Keith Blair says:

    I, likewise, don’t have experience with this situation. I think, though, that I might put a short notice in the syllabus stating that the readings for the class will necessarily include disturbing events, etc. That puts students on notice without overemphasizing (assuming that the events could be overemphasized) the issue in a class discussion.

  2. Max says:

    Must be a problem only for law professors. I don’t know too many lawyers who didn’t end up deep in the personal affairs of at least one stranger, and probably multiple neighbors and friends, during their career.

    Just this summer, at a purely transactional & real estate firm, I ended up researching a sex club, since one of our clients was trying to get a TRO.

    One tip: don’t conduct class in a patently offensive manner, as one famous professor who I won’t name did when he/she “wanted to hear the other side” on a rape class, calling exclusively (for three days of class) on males who disagreed rape had occured in the case at bar.

    Some professors I know have introduced controversial/explicit cases with a disclaimer, a method I always felt insulted the students. My favorite method is for the professor to go directly into it and try to pull political/social/etc commentary back to the legal issues. It tends to raise the level of debate without making people feel silenced on their beliefs.

  3. Kaimi says:

    UPDATE (also added to original post): Paul Secunda posted on the same question, and has received a number of great suggestions and comments from his readers. Anyone interested in the topic should check out the thread over at Workplace Prof Blog.

  4. CaliforniaOperator says:

    My Comment:

    You are a Professor of Law I assume; and you are teaching adults. College is about learning about real life. Teach those examples as they are. If a student in pre-law has a problem with your examples, the language or assignment then they need to reconsider their career choice. College is the ground work for career success.

    Life is not sterile. We don’t get to pick and choose life as if it was a theatrical production. Teach from fact, not fantasy.

  5. Mark says:

    A friend applied for a teaching position at Boalt a few years back, and reports that he was told by a senior faculty member that “we don’t teach cases here involving rape.”

    The mind reels.