And the Oscar Goes to . . . Language

By: Abigail Perdue (Wake Forest Law)

an image of an award that looks like an OscarLanguage gave a powerful performance at the 92nd Academy Awards. From fashion to foreign films, words took center stage. Actress Natalie Portman gave new meaning to the phrase “fashion statement” when she donned a cape bearing the names of female directors whom she felt had been snubbed at prior Oscars. Words woven into her garment became her silent but powerful protest.

Parasite made history by becoming the first film, not in English, to win Best Picture. At a pivotal time when language barriers and cultural differences threaten to divide people of different national origins and backgrounds, Parasite broke down those walls, provoking a collective sense of awe at the satire’s disturbing depiction of what some have described as “brutal . . . class warfare” and the social chaos it produces.

Parasite also won the Academy Award for Best International Feature, an award formerly known as Best Foreign Film. Although the category is still limited to films predominantly in a language other than English, the Academy determined that the term “foreign” was antiquated and possibly offensive, opting for what it felt would be a more inclusive, evolved title.

Language continued to take center stage when Parasite’s director, Bong Joon-ho, employed an interpreter, Sharon Choi, to translate his numerous Oscar speeches into English throughout the night. Although he delivered his remarks in Korean, like his film, Joon-ho still spoke a language that everyone could understand and appreciate: the language of gratitude, earnestness, and humility. Through his sincerity, humor, and emotion, I quickly forgot that we were two very different people from very different countries and backgrounds who spoke very different languages. Instead, he felt familiar, like an old friend. His moving speech fostered togetherness and understanding.

Rather than touting his own accomplishments, Joon-ho spent most of his allotted time openly praising and honoring his fellow nominees. In a memorable and heartwarming Oscar moment, Joon-ho extolled Martin Scorsese for inspiring him to become a filmmaker. He spoke Scorsese’s words back to him in Korean: “The most personal is the most creative.” In so doing, Joon-ho demonstrated how Scorsese’s words had once reached a stranger in a distant land and altered the course of his life. Members of the audience were so moved that in response, they gave Scorsese an unforgettable standing ovation.

Joon-ho’s humility and graciousness again shone through when he expressed his desire to cut his Oscar into five equal parts to share with the other deserving nominees. Joon-ho had won, and they had lost. Yet his words powered through that divide to uplift his fellow nominees, making them equals rather than placing himself above them.

Subsequent winners followed suit with some of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches in recent history. Best Actor Joaquin Phoenix eloquently opined: “at times we feel . . . that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. . . [W]hether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.” With disturbing detail, he described the anguish of a baby calf forcefully removed from her mother, so that humans can instead steal the milk intended for her calf to use in their morning coffee. His words were convicting, risky, brave, and provocative. Teary-eyed, he ended his impassioned speech by quoting beautiful song lyrics from his deceased brother: “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow” – words so meaningful that they had outlived their creator and made him immortal, first to his brother and now to us all. Similarly, Best Actress Renee Zellweger called for greater inclusion and civility, observing that “our heroes unite us.”

Unfortunately, at a time when polarization and prejudice threaten America, the powerful use of language at this year’s Oscars to underscore our common humanity and encourage us to unite have been largely overlooked or worse yet, derided by some media outlets. But the words were not lost on me. As a lover of language and teacher of communication, I, more than most, appreciate the profound power of Language to unite, to inspire, and to save. And this year, Language was the Leading Lady who truly stole the show!

What did the Oscars teach you? How might you incorporate major pop culture moments like the Oscars into your teaching? Share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just post them.

Share our content!

Politics and Prose: How Encouraging Thoughtful Political Discourse May Preempt Political Discrimination

By: Abigail Perdue (Wake Forest School of Law)

The United States has become or (perhaps more cynically) has always been a hotbed of discrimination on the basis of political ideology and affiliation. Increasingly, those discriminatory attitudes permeate every facet of society from romantic relationships to hiring. In recent years, one cannot turn on the television or read the newspaper without being bombarded with politically charged persuasive rhetoric masked as objective news reporting. Yet too rarely do discussions regarding inclusion and diversity address the value of having distinct political perspectives in the classroom.

Nor is it uncommon for online dating profiles to advise Republicans or Democrats to “swipe left,” presumably based on deeply rooted stereotypes regarding the kind of mate a person of that political affiliation will be. And there’s good reason to believe that at least some employers snoop on social media to learn about applicants’ political ideology and activity. It is not hard to imagine a Democrat moving an applicant’s resumé to the bottom of the pile if it lists membership in the Young Republicans or the Federalist Society, or alternatively, a Republican declining to interview an applicant whose public Instagram page showcases the applicant fundraising for a Democratic candidate. As we enter yet another election cycle, which promises to be as contentious as the last, it is important to consider these questions and their implications for our students, both now and in the future.

Indeed, the realities of political discrimination in legal education hit home for me when a student emailed to say that she would be unable to attend our Thursday afternoon class because she was attending a once-in-a-lifetime political event with a close friend who had scored incredibly hard-to-get tickets to attend it. The student was naturally excited, but during the exchange that ensued, it seemed clear that the student would not be sharing the specific reason for her absence with some of her classmates or professors in part because she felt that it would not be well received. Put differently, she feared falling victim to political discrimination.

Not long after, two different students met with me to discuss judicial clerkships. The first expressed sincere concern that anything in her resumé that signaled political ideology, even the topic of her writing sample, might bar her from getting the position. The second flatly stated that he would only apply to Democratic judges who had been appointed by Democratic Presidents.

Whether you characterize these behaviors as thoughtful decisions, benign political preferences, or downright discrimination, they’re concerning for the future of our country (at least to me). After all, if citizens cannot cross the boardroom or Bumble site to meaningfully engage with people whose political ideology is different from their own, then how can we expect that bipartisan, mature, collaborative behavior from the political leaders we elect. And if Americans can’t work together, America will fall apart.

With these troublesome concerns percolating in my mind, I began to consider my role and perhaps, responsibility, as a law professor to help address this pressing issue. I teach effective oral and written communication to diverse audiences. Doesn’t fostering thoughtful exchanges between people with competing ideology fall squarely into that domain? Thus, I (reluctantly) dug into this issue, which is arguably mired in controversy and definitely out of my comfort zone. Drawing on my past experience as an employment litigator, I investigated this curious question more deeply, and what I found might surprise you.

In most states and localities, political discrimination, benign or otherwise, is perfectly legal in the private sector. Indeed, federal anti-discrimination statutes like Title VII, the ADA, and ADEA do not explicitly preserve a person’s right to be free of employment discrimination on the basis of political beliefs, affiliation, or ideology. Yet states and localities may enact anti-discrimination legislation that is more, but not less, protective than their federal counterparts, and New York has done just that.  New York Labor Law 201-d prohibits covered employers from discriminating against covered employees and applicants for: “an individual’s political activities outside of working hours, off of the employer’s premises and without use of the employer’s equipment or other property, if such activities are legal . . .”

With this background in mind, I created an exercise about political discrimination that would simultaneously serve as a vehicle to instill strong research, writing, editing, and analytical skills (among other things). With complete awareness that I was treading in dangerous waters, I aimed to strike a delicate balance. Pointing a finger at one party or another would be polarizing, not unifying.

Accordingly, I set the problem in New York where the owner of the Red Dragon Inn (Daenerys Targaryen), a staunch “Republocrat,” had recently learned that a waitress, Sansa, at the Inn was fundraising for a “Demopublican” candidate in her free time on the weekends. Although Sansa had not previously had any performance issues, Daenerys now felt that Sansa was not a good “fit” for the Inn given her political leanings, which might “put off” the Inn’s “mostly Republocrat” clientele. As a result, Daenerys wanted to terminate Sansa’s employment and replace her with a Republocrat. However, out of an abundance of caution, Daenerys had reached out to our law firm to determine if she could lawfully do so in New York.

Given that this was a first-time pedagogical experiment, I didn’t want my students to be wading through this issue for weeks on end, given that it could be a huge fail. So I limited the issue to a timed exercise on which they would spend a single ninety-minute session. During the next class, we reflected on what they had learned during the exercise, and some shared their thoughts regarding why political discrimination should be permitted or not. Several were surprised that Sansa’s political activity was not already federally protected. It was a productive, fruitful discussion celebrating diverse voices. Although the students had different backgrounds and political affiliations, they seemed unified in the collective sentiment that they should be free to possess and express their beliefs without fear of political discrimination.

Given the success of the exercise, the next year, I expanded the problem into a full-length memo on which we spent several weeks. Again, it fueled rich and illuminating discussions about political discrimination, a topic that many students had not previously considered. This pedagogical experiment was only the first step in my “curiosity voyage”[1] regarding political discrimination, which I will more deeply explore in a forthcoming law review article.

Have you ever tried to address a controversial problem of our time in your classes? How did you handle it? Was your pedagogical experiment worth the risk? Share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just publish them.

 

 

[1] A delicious phrase borrowed from Mr. Clarke on Stranger Things (Netflix).

Share our content!

Drafting MBE Items: A Truly Collaborative Process

By: Professor Tim Davis (Wake Forest)

In 2003, I was invited to attend a meeting of NCBE’s Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) Contracts Drafting Committee, one of the seven drafting committees for the seven subjects covered on the MBE. As I observed the deliberations, the collaborative nature of the process in which committee members were engaged became readily apparent. Over time, I would come to learn more about this collaborative process that culminates in professionally crafted questions that appear on the MBE—and experience how that process has facilitated my developing expertise, affording me the opportunity to be of greater service to law students and professors. Continue reading “Drafting MBE Items: A Truly Collaborative Process”

Share our content!

Becoming a Lawyer Should Not be a Product of “Instagramification”

By: Prof. Gregory Bordelon (U-Baltimore)

In light of the pervasive and growing influence of social media platforms like Instagram, should legal educators and members of the profession be concerned with how the process of becoming a lawyer is being portrayed in modern-day social media?

The concern is not any single person’s decision to become an attorney; that is a noble calling.  The concern is the impact of social media has on that decision.  Do social media followers understand this commitment?  Is it incumbent on the influencer to warn of this?  The life decisions that drive people to decide to become lawyers are varied and often powerful.[1] What should not drive people to become lawyers is simply what they see posted on social media.  I don’t say this to pass judgment on an individual’s decision but for reasons of informed perceptions about the rigor of law school, the bar exam and the practice itself – rigors that, in my opinion, could never be fully realized in a tweet or comparable social media communiqué.

Can law schools “unteach” a snapchat on how to write a law school essay?  Can a contracts professor challenge a student who believes that offer and acceptance in a UCC Art. 2 sale is as easy as two tweets?  The desire to “learn” anything from social media is antithetical to the goal of legal education – to present the numerous ways that a particular factual problem can be resolved based on the equally numerous ways that laws interact with one another.

While social media meets many contemporary students where they are, hashtagging IRAC exercises or pictures of thick casebooks doesn’t fully bring to bear the scope and import of a rigorous legal education.  It may be bragging rights to show what one is learning – that’s fine (to an extent), but it shouldn’t be taken as an example that legal education is light, airy and easy, subject to intermittent focus and random engagement.  The study of law is to be like the practice – careful, thorough, dutiful and professional.  It is a good thing, yes, if likes, shares and streaks on social media platforms are the things that cue people in to currency in legal education, but it’s another thing to have those interests be fully formed and owned in a responsible, realized process of legal education leading up to a bar exam.

I’m not a Luddite when it comes to legal pedagogy, not by far.  I am fortunate to work at a law school that understands and in fact celebrates the changing landscape of the practice of law.  However, the bar exam is ensconced in administrative status quo – calling examinees to a defined place, to be assessed by a very defined instrument, with component parts carefully pieced together to measure the minimum competencies required to practice law – critical thinking, analytical ability, succinct and direct writing with the proper persuasive tone to the proper audience.

I’ve been fortunate to work in many spaces along the legal education continuum, in the undergraduate arena, in the law school time frame and at the immediate bar exam point.  One consistent thing I’ve noticed from students who are committed to the process is that they understand the gravity of the profession and the critical role that lawyers play in our society.  It is the slow, deliberate researching of a case through discovery or the laborious piecing together of an appellate brief that mark the profession, not the immediacy of a snap or post that shows a highlighted casebook.

There can be many proposed solutions to this concern.  It starts, first, with lawyers realizing a duty to mentor those interested in becoming attorneys.  Local and state bar associations are the best avenue for initiatives of specific mentoring.  It is “general mentoring” that should be explored – the idea of having lawyers, judges and the academy expose the public to what lawyers do and to the rigor and nuance of how to carefully develop the skills of legal analysis and reasoning.  This could be done by “taking the fight” to the same arena – through social media – but such efforts would have to be carefully crafted to justify the reason – with sufficient follow-up, links, deeper dives and videos woven together to show the web of interconnectedness that is gestalt of lawyering.  This could provide aspiring lawyers with real-world opportunities to see the dynamic practice of law.  Social media is but the speaker that amplifies the message; the message should be that becoming a lawyer is not something determinable by a “like” or “tweet.”

[1]  In early 2019, the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) released a comprehensive study of the reasons undergraduate students decide to go to law school.  44% of all respondents see the law degree as a pathway to public service, government or politics.  32% see a legal education as a way to advocate for social change.  Source: Association of American Law Schools and GALLUP, “Highlights from Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School.”  https://www.aals.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/BJDReportsHghlights.pdf.  Date visited: 19 August 2019.

 

Share our content!