Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What's Too Much Information for Students? Guest Post by Lisa McElroy


Last week, reading Mike and Neil’s posts about their memories of 9/11, I thought a lot about whether I should blog about my own. At first, I decided not to, because the official story, the one my students know about how I experienced that day, is likely quite similar to the stories of many other law professors – and frankly not all that interesting.

I had to tell my students that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had occurred.  I was in my car when I heard, driving the eighty miles from my home north of Boston to my job at Roger Williams Law School in southern Rhode Island, listening to NPR and drinking my coffee.  I was about half an hour from school when the news of the first plane hit the airwaves; I was just pulling into the parking lot when the anchor announced that America was under attack, as evidenced by the impact of the second plane.  I walked into school through the basement cafeteria and stopped to watch the television footage on the large flat screen on the wall.  It was crowded.  People were crying.

But then I had to get to my 10:00 class.  And, as is the way for so many young adults, several of my students showed up a few minutes before I was scheduled to begin going over IRAC, having just rolled out of bed.  They hadn’t turned on the news, and many of them still didn’t have cell phones at the beginning of 2001.  It was my job to tell them what had happened.  We never got to IRAC. 

But that night, I went home to my family.  And that was when my real 9/11 story began.

I missed several days of work nine weeks later, in mid-November, just before my students’ memos were due and I was scheduled to be conferencing with them.  I told my students that I was ill, that I had been in the emergency room and was now on doctor-ordered bed rest, but I didn’t tell them what had happened.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got emails from several of them asking whether there was any chance we could have our conference anyway, telling me that they were too anxious about the memo to reschedule.  And also unsurprisingly, I was pretty upset when I got these emails – I viewed these students as insensitive and self-centered.  But, looking back, I wonder if my feelings were justified; after all, I hadn’t told them the full story. 

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, I wrote about my “real” 9/11 story in Parenting magazine (a mainstream print publication aimed at mothers of young children), but I had several reasons for choosing not to share the difficulties I experienced that day and that fall with my students.  

The biggest reason?  I didn’t tell my students what was going on with me during that fall of 2001 because I thought I shouldn’t, because I thought that professionalism required me to maintain some kind of boundaries, because I thought that my personal life wasn’t relevant to my students’ legal education.  It wasn’t that I felt I needed privacy; it was that I felt that it would be inappropriate to burden my students with my problems. 

As the years have passed, I’ve reflected a lot on the events that occurred in my family’s life around 9/11, but I’ve also had a lot of opportunity to reflect on my teaching style, as well as on commonly held views about what makes for good teaching.  And so this post isn’t really about what happened to me in the weeks following 9/11, but about how I should have processed and communicated my feelings about those events.

At least one legal scholar has offered her own thoughts, at least in considering the relationship between clinical professors and students.  Kathleen Sullivan (the late Yale Law School clinician, not the former Dean of Stanford Law School of the same name) commented in an article almost twenty years ago, “Perhaps it is because of the simultaneous need for distance in teacher-student interaction, that defining the parameters of [non-sexual] intimacy clinical teacher[s] and students may share is such a complicated task.  For example, self-disclosure can be an important pedagogical tool for the clinical teacher, but so is withholding disclosure.  There are times when the teacher should not share her experience, but listen for that of the student.”[1] 

For the professor making the decision about what to disclose, law school hierarchy matters.  Part of my confusion about what to disclose to students about my own life stems from the fact that they are adults, not children.  While psychologists have studied undergraduates’ opinions about professors who self-disclose (as the literature calls it), few, if any, have looked at how adult learners like law students perceive the issue.  On the one hand, our students are not kids; they know that bad things happen to everyone, including their teachers.  On the other hand, as Sullivan notes in her article, we professors are still steering the ship, even if we do not endorse the “sage on the stage” approach to teaching.  Does that power dynamic dictate some sort of professional distance?

Context matters, too.  Psychologists have looked at (and Sullivan commented on) how and when disclosures take place.  As Sullivan noted, sharing baby pictures with her clinical students over coffee is probably different from passing them around a large lecture class.  One-on-one meetings with students might be more “intimate” (as Sullivan uses the word) than class settings. 

And, of course, content matters.  Among the professor friends I’ve asked, those who share about their personal lives don’t tell students about the big personal stuff, or at least not the big stuff that’s happening now.  But one professor I know tells her 1L  class each October or November that she hopes they have good support systems and encourages them to seek professional help if they need it, as so many law students find they do – she should know, she explains, because she was diagnosed with depression in law school.  Another professor frequently uses photos of her kids in PowerPoints to illustrate legal concepts.  Still another draws on her interest in fitness and adventure racing to inspire her students to “work out” their minds.  And these three professors are some of the most dynamic (and most respected by students) I know.

Me?  I tend to straddle the line.  As a young woman who’s balancing career and family, I choose to be pretty transparent about the I Don’t Know How She Does It nature of my life (and that of any law professor who’s trying to parent and publish).  If I have to reschedule a class so I can take a kid with the chicken pox into the pediatrician, I tell my students.  Last year, when three colleagues and I went to a Lady Gaga concert, I shared.  When I lost 30 pounds one summer on Weight Watchers, I let that information drop (in the context of “Boy, do I know what it’s like to do something really hard.”).  I have no issue telling students that I cheer for the Red Sox and follow the Supreme Court religiously.

But I’ve never told my students when I’ve had a fight with my husband or when my daughters have experienced conflict relating to the joys of entering adolescence.  I didn’t mention the unbecoming-to-a-law-professor miniskirt and sequined top I wore to the Lady Gaga concert.  And, no, I didn’t tell the students that the reason I had postponed their conferences was because I had a miscarriage and needed emergency surgery.  Should I have?  According to Sullivan, no.  At least in 1993, she thought, “[A]ssuming the value of self-disclosure as a pedagogical tool, there are limits on the kinds of information that one shares with one’s students.  One does not, for example, tell one’s students about one’s miscarriages . . .”[2]

What’s the right level of self-revelation for law professors?  Where do we draw the line?  When do we help students bond – and therefore learn – when we share information about ourselves?  And when do we hamper learning and become – let’s just say it – annoying and unprofessional?  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. 


[1] Kathleen A. Sullivan, Self-Disclosure, Separation, and Students:  Intimacy in the Clinical Relationship, 27 Ind. L. Rev. 115, 127 (1993) (emphasis added).
[2] Id.

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