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.