By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Remote learning is a tough way to do law school, let alone start it. But while this fall’s Berkeley Law 1Ls face an unprecedented challenge, they’re also getting something extra from the faculty: A special slate of small, one-credit courses.
“With our first-year classes being online in the fall semester, I want to create other ways to build community and provide our 1Ls a wonderful educational experience,” says Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.
He proposed these courses so participating students — about 10 in each class — can get to know one another and the professor. Berkeley Law’s faculty immediately stepped up to the challenge.
“I was thrilled at the enthusiastic response from our faculty, and I’m delighted at the rich array of topics and classes for the 1Ls to choose from,” Chemerinsky says.
Casey Jang ’23, who is taking Beyond Law and Order: Criminal Justice in Film and Television with Professors Andrea Roth and Ty Alper, says the course has been a lifeline for getting to know her classmates outside of her larger doctrinal classes (Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, and Contracts).
“This is definitely helping me transition into Berkeley Law,” says Jang, who is Zooming into class from Santa Rosa, California. “Trying to make connections through Zoom has been difficult, especially in large classes, but this course has made it possible to talk to real people like real people. I get to see the energy that Berkeley Law students have and get to know them more personally.
“This course also made professors seem less intimidating and gave me a chance to experience them in a more natural setting.”
Meet, greet, and learn
The three dozen courses, which meet weekly for 50 minutes or bi-weekly for 110 minutes, cover myriad subjects. Students are digging into originalism with Professor Orin Kerr and discovering how Roman law influenced our own system (no Latin required) with Professor David Singh Grewal. Professors Laurel E. Fletcher and Roxanna Altholz ’99 — co-directors of the law school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic — are teaching Human Rights Advocacy Through Stories and Film, using case studies and other narratives to expose students to the nature and dynamics of this work.
Other courses aim to help 1Ls better navigate their black-letter courses via Zoom. Professor Seth Davis is breaking down how to read a case; Professor Abbye Atkinson has students reading scholarly works by faculty who are teaching first-year students; and Experiential Education Director Kristen Holmquist is offering strategies for being happy in law school including themes important to fulfillment at work and in school: authenticity, autonomy, balance, purpose, competence, relationships, and self-esteem.
Many professors chose topics that reflect the times, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the movement toward racial and social justice, and climate change. Chemerinsky himself is teaching Civil Liberties in a Pandemic, and other topics include environmental justice, dismantling the carceral state, and an insider’s look at social movement lawyering.
Professor Khiara M. Bridges, whose work often focuses on the intersection of race, class, and reproductive rights, chose to teach Reproductive Justice and Environmental Justice because she’s working on an article about the connection between the two concerns.
“I thought the class would be an amazing opportunity to think through the issues that I raise in the paper with a smart group of motivated students,” she says.
During a recent session, the conversation was almost eerily timely: In the wake of revelations that a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement doctor had forced sterilizations on detained undocumented women, Bridges steered the conversation to historic U.S. Supreme Court cases that dealt with eugenics, including Buck v. Bell and Box v. Planned Parenthood.
Leading the students through the discussion, Bridges posed questions that echoed her own scholarship, including a recent Harvard Law Review paper. Did Carrie Buck, a white woman who was the plaintiff in the 1927 decision upholding a Virginia law that allowed the sterilization of “mental defectives” without their consent, benefit from white privilege? What role did her whiteness play in the Court’s decision and in her ultimate forced sterilization, and was her class a factor as well?
The questions were challenging, especially for students in their first few weeks of law school. But the conversation flowed freely, the small size of the course allowing for an intimate feel.
“The class has been truly amazing. I feel like we have built a little community — a little family,” Bridges says. “I know that I feel less isolated — less disconnected — than I did before we started our classes together. I hope that my students feel the same way.”
Finding lifelong friendships
For Alper and Roth, who first met as rising 3L students when they interned at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., and have been friends ever since, the course was a chance to teach together for the first time. As they wrote in their (often lighthearted) course syllabus, they also wanted to give 1Ls an opportunity to make a lifelong friend in their first semester of law school.
“If there’s one word that nobody thinks of when they think of 2020, it is ‘fun’,” Alper says. “Andrea and I wanted to create a fun course for incoming 1Ls that exposed them to some of the criminal law issues and themes they will soon encounter in their legal studies, and that they are already grappling with in their real lives.”
For each session, students are assigned a movie or TV show to watch, and must write a one-page paper reflecting on what they’ve seen. Since the course is during dinner time, Alper and Roth have encouraged students to eat and drink during the discussion.
“All of 2020 has been full of struggles, obviously, but also opportunities for bipartisan criminal justice reform,” Roth says. “Because of that, it’s a fascinating year to revisit with young people just entering the profession how popular culture shapes and is shaped by criminal law, from the old classics — for example, 12 Angry Men — to more recent stories of the fight for racial justice and the slowly increasing diversity of the profession, such as Just Mercy.”
Jang was attracted to the class for the chance to discuss and reflect, since the rest of her course load is more lecture-based. She was also advised by a second-year student to get to know Alper and Roth if she was interested in criminal law.
Their course, she says, has hit all those goals on the head.
“Everyone fits on one screen, so it feels like we’re in one room together. Gauging the virtual room doesn’t take as much energy with a small class, and it’s easier to speak up without having to worry about drowning out someone else,” Jang says. “With fewer people, everyone can and is encouraged to participate. I’ve gotten to hear my peers talk about things they actually care about, which doesn’t happen in the doctrinal classes I’m taking.”