Self-Made: Introducing Avatars in the Online Law Classroom

By: Joy Kanwar (Brooklyn Law School) and Kim D. Ricardo, (UIC Law) (JMLS Chicago)

This article is the first in a three-part series.

Photo Credit: Lunalavandula

Law school in Fall 2020 will be different.  Many law teachers will meet their students for the first time through an online platform because of COVID-19.  And following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain and the reinvigorated social movement led by Black Lives Matter, our society is also reckoning with systemic racism more profoundly than ever in the past.

This historic moment presents challenges for both law teachers and their students.  How can you genuinely get to know your students at a distance?  Are there ways to facilitate student interactions to replicate the social networks of support that otherwise would have happened organically in the physical law school?  What is the best way to create a classroom culture online?  In what ways do the norms established in the online classroom either reify or help dismantle oppressive power structures?

Drawing on Joy Kanwar’s 2018 article, and in this series of three blog posts on Teach Law Better, we use the avatar framework to address these questions about online course development.  The avatar framework offers research-backed and field-tested strategies to foster law student socialization and community building in the online classroom.

In Part I, we define “avatar” and describe how Joy has used avatars as scaffolding for professional identity development in her classroom.  We then propose extending the use of avatars to frame all community-building efforts in an online class.

In Part II, we will contextualize our proposal to introduce law school avatars early in the year by diving into the relevant literature on distance education.  We specifically consider how the local social norms that faculty establish in the online classroom can help address inequities in the legal system and in law school.  In Part III, we will provide model avatar design guidelines with step-by-step instructions. 

Part One

What is an Avatar?

Joy’s Avatar

Avatar (pronounced “Ah-vuh-Thar”) originates from the Sanskrit language and Hindu Mythology and is defined as “the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form or some manifest shape; the incarnation of a god.”  In the non-Hindu context, an avatar is “an embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life.”  A third definition, and the one that may resonate the most for our students, is that of an avatar in the digital space: “a graphical image that represents a person, as on the Internet.”  In this last context, the avatar is a character that “stands in” for the real person and may or may not resemble the actual physical person.

One Way to Use Avatars in the Classroom

It may be useful to illustrate a real-life example.  Brooklyn Law School cancelled all classes and closed campus on the Wednesday before Spring Break.  Thursday’s class would have been an introduction to avatars, in preparation for a special oral argument training session scheduled after Spring Break.  Joy had planned to have her friend, English actor Cush Jumbo return as a surprise guest to speak to her students about how she transforms herself into Lucca Quinn, a lawyer on the popular CBS show “The Good Fight.”

Still hopeful that classes would resume after Spring Break, Joy sent the following message to her students, explaining the idea of an avatar who embodies qualities that the students wanted to see in themselves as advocates:

Over the break, I would like you to write me an essay of one page, or less.  Please tell me about someone who inspires you as an advocate, and tell me why and what qualities you admire.  Think of someone from real life or fiction that you think you can emulate to help you feel brave when you have to stand up and present your arguments.  The person does not have to be a lawyer, actually, although you might find it useful to look in the fictional legal world as well.

For example, here is someone many lawyers find inspiring.

Along with Vinny, Atticus, Perry Mason, and Michael Clayton from television and literature, and as mentioned in the article, do not forget Patty Hewes, Ally McBeal, Alicia Florrick, or a personal favorite, Lucca Quinn.

But it really can be anyone.  And, at the end, it will be you.

The essays were due at 11:59 p.m. on the last Sunday of Spring Break.  Joy stayed up through the night reading submissions as they came in, making notes on the qualities that the students wanted to emulate as advocates (and spoke about her students’ choices on a legal scholarship podcast the next day).  She was struck by the wide variety of her students’ choices, from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (three times!) to superheroes (Black Panther in particular) to a fair number of “TV lawyers” to legal academics (once) and relatives or supervisors from real life who had inspired them as advocates.  But what did not surprise her was that the students chose similar attributes—a sense of fairness, calm, poise, competence, loyalty, grace, and quiet confidence.  No one specified “power” characteristics, like a booming speaking voice or the ability to spin an enthralling narrative.  They seemed to understand, instinctively, that good lawyering was based in an ability to be authentic, and—ironically—an other-self was giving them a platform to feel that out.

But no one would be going back to the classroom—at least in a physical sense—that week after Spring Break, nor for the rest of the semester.  New York City went on lockdown the same day the essays came in.

At this point, Joy started thinking about how to use avatars to help her students transition to something no one had anticipated: an online oral argument.  There were practical considerations.  How would they build podiums from home?  Would they feel connected to the argument and be ready to field questions in an unfamiliar setting?  Would the students feel it unfair to ask them to do the argument at all, particularly under the changed conditions?  How would she account for differential circumstances, like reliable wifi access or having to close a door to block wandering children, partners, or housemates from entering?   She scanned the avatar essays again and thought on her nearly eight months with each of her 38 students.  She decided to move forward with oral arguments, allowing students to either opt out entirely (none chose this option) or to be a judge instead (one student chose this option, and was quite good in the role).

To assist the students, Joy drew up an Oral Argument Preparation Document that linked six short asynchronous videos she created at home.  This document provided step-by-step instructions for how to build a podium; how to outline an argument; and how to anticipate questions from the judges (her 8-year-old twins played the appellate judge, quite convincingly, in the videos).  A key feature of this document was the first page, which asked each student to place a photo of their chosen avatar and one or two words that encapsulated that avatar’s characteristics next to a “lawyerly” photo of themselves.  That page was to be a reminder of the qualities that resonated with them and that they wanted to emulate.  She asked the students to practice their openings a few times without avatars, and then again with their avatars in place to see if they felt a difference while preparing.

Kim’s Avatar

The students reported that using the avatars had made them feel different, and this made Joy think about whether to introduce the notion of avatars much earlier, so that the students could start thinking about their current and developing selves right from the start of the school year.  With the pandemic in full swing, she suspected that her classes might be fully online in the fall, and she wanted to consider ways to    enhance student self-identity and connection to others in the classroom.

And as for the oral arguments this spring?  Her students rose to meet the challenge, locked in on their best selves, and performed better than Joy could have anticipated.

If you’d like to chat more about using avatars, feel free to contact us at [email protected]; @KanwarJoy  and [email protected]; @LaProfeRicardo.

 

Do you have other innovative ideas for the virtual classroom? Share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just post them.

 

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