In this week’s New Yorker, Jeannie Suk laments what she perceives as the increasing difficulty in teaching rape to today’s law students. I was a bit surprised in reading Suk’s article because her descriptive account of today’s law school classroom environment regarding rape is at completely at odds with my own. A few years ago, I attended SEALS where there was a panel discussing teaching rape in the classroom. I asked the panelists whether the reluctance to teach rape, most famously described in James Tomkovicz‘s 1992 Yale Law Journal article on the subject, was simply outdated. Almost everyone else was teaching rape and students were reacting positively to that choice. And that is why Suk’s article struck me as particularly strange – teaching rape has become the majority rule in 1L Criminal Law.
Of course, the reluctance to teach rape articulated by Tomkovicz was somewhat different than the one now described by Suk. Tomkovicz was primarily focused on classroom controversy, potential professional consequences, and students being marginalized because of classroom discussions. In contrast, Suk focuses on trauma of rape victims in the classroom. She is concerned that students seem to want trigger warnings or no discussion of rape in the classroom.
I don’t want to entirely discount Suk’s assessment of modern criminal law teaching, but my experience has been radically different. Since I started teaching in the Fall of 2007, I have taught twelve sections of Criminal Law and seven semesters of a Sex Crimes elective I have designed. I have probably taught 750 1L students in Criminal Law and about 150 in Sex Crimes. In Criminal Law, I have never had a single complaint from a rape victim or person otherwise affected by sexual violence. In fact, I have received numerous anonymous reviews, emails, and comments in person from students thanking me for teaching about rape. This has been true at Kansas, in Chicago at John Marshall, and during my semester visiting at Iowa. After class discussions, students have often come to my office to share their personal experiences with sexual violence. Sometimes, they tell me stories that have just happened in the past couple of months. I am certain that if I didn’t teach rape in the classroom, those students wouldn’t feel comfortable coming to talk to me in private. A major theme of my classroom discussions of rape is that the dysfunction of America’s sex crime laws is due our failure to discuss the subject. And while I do my best to create a healthy learning environment, we do not shy away from the tough legal and social dimensions of sexual violence.
In my experience, it has been a net positive learning and personal experience for victims I have spoken with to have rape as part of the 1L Criminal Law curriculum. It has been beneficial much like when I had a student in a class who had experienced unfathomable trauma with a family murder. A few years previous to being in my 1L Criminal Law class, this student’s mother had killed his father. She was found guilty and sentenced to lengthy period of incarceration. He came and talked to me about it after we started our section on homicide, became my best RA, and I still keep in touch with him. I can’t speak with certainty as to Harvard students, but my experience has been that 1L Criminal Law has helped traumatized students deal with the violence and difficulty in their past. And, in doing so, many have found greater purpose and direction in their law studies. Some have harnessed that purpose to dedicate their legal careers to addressing the social ill that had previously plagued their lives. If Suk’s concern is with the victims of sexual violence, I hope she doesn’t give up teaching about it.
Of course, my experience might be atypical or I might be overstating the positives that have come from my classes. So, I welcome comments from other professors and will forward this post to some KU students to see if they want to chime in anonymously.