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A Learning Experience

Texas law schools respond and adjust to the coronavirus pandemic.

Written by Joan R.M. Bullock

Bullock Law Schools


Law schools are not an exception when it comes to being affected by the pandemic. Like any institution of higher education, law schools are challenged with the task of providing an engaging and effective learning experience either remotely or in created spaces designated for safety.

The Texas Bar Journal asked the deans of the Texas law schools1 how their respective schools responded to and are adjusting to COVID-19. While not uniform in approach or tactic, a common theme emerged from the responses received. This theme can be broken into three components: responsive leadership, communication despite uncertainty, and empathy.

 

Responsive Leadership
While all the law schools enacted safety protocols that were recommended nationally and locally, they varied on the degree in which they offered courses completely online. A paramount concern was that students, especially those of the first year, got as much exposure to the traditional law school experience as possible. The requirement of social distancing limited the number of students who could be physically present in the classroom at any one time. Courses in these circumstances were offered hybrid, meaning that students would attend class on a staggered rotation and attend remotely on the other class days. Similarly, density occupancy was a consideration with some law schools requiring students leave the building immediately after classes. Social distancing and density occupancy were also considerations in staff placement and rotation. Further, many support services were placed online, limiting foot traffic in the building.

With safety protocols in place, fostering community has become a priority. With the goal of helping students form meaningful relationships, law schools learned to be intentional in finding ways to alleviate the isolating nature of remote, online education. One school sought to maintain normalcy and provide support to faculty, students, and staff. A high point in this regard was the school’s ability to provide a traditional graduation ceremony for its May 2020 graduates who were not able to walk the stage because of the shutdown last spring. Twelve graduation ceremonies were held in person last October to provide those graduates with the time-honored event celebrating their achievement.

 

Communication Despite Uncertainty
Communication by leaders is not difficult when there is clarity of thought and vision. This pandemic, however, has caused disruption in a manner and on a scale never before seen, resulting in uncertainty on appropriate courses of action. Notwithstanding, communication is not just hearing from the top; it is a dialogue with the stakeholders. As Michael Barry, dean of South Texas College of Law Houston, provided:

We communicated frequently and sought input before making decisions. I believed it important to be transparent, to acknowledge when we didn’t have an answer, to allow faculty and students and staff an opportunity to be heard before decisions were made, and to communicate on a regular and personal basis. I can’t tell you how many emails, video messages, and town halls I have sent, recorded, and held…


Dean Patricia Roberts, of St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, surveyed the students as to the instruction modality that would work for them and ascertained that two-thirds of first-year students chose to learn in person (socially distant and with masks) and one-third of upper-class students chose in person.

 

Empathy
The uncertainty caused by the nature of this pandemic has caused the law schools to have more empathy in determining appropriate courses of action. Along with giving surveys, schools became flexible, giving faculty and students opportunities to teach and learn in person or remotely, depending on their health and family circumstances. Staff was also given flexibility on how they fulfilled their duties, depending on their personal circumstances.

For all, empathy itself became part of the learning process. The personal touch became more important as instruction and operations went remote. For example, Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, stated that they increased the mentoring and other support resources offered to students. “We set up our first-year students in very small advising groups with faculty members. Students were matched with faculty and with other students according to their interests. Our goal was to make sure that every student gets to know a faculty member and some peers, even if a student is learning remotely and might not even be living near campus.”

At Baylor Law School, staff and faculty served as the front line for communication with students to offer help and support for those in need. Faculty remained on Zoom after classes to see if there was a need or just to allow students to talk and have human connection. Extra Zoom office hours, social hours, music hours, and exercise in the park session were scheduled for faculty to spend time with their students. Faculty and alumni offered students rooms in their homes or offices as quiet places to study and to take their exams online when they had no other place to go.

The deans were also asked to opine on how COVID-19 affected legal education and the learning process. Dean Roberts had the following comments:

  • Legal educators were pushed into being more creative and intentional in designing formative assessments throughout the curriculum;

  • Students benefited a good deal from the ability to replay lectures and discussions if they had difficulty with some material; likewise, access to slides and supporting materials after class was helpful;

  • Remote pro bono services can be just as impactful for the underserved as in-person services; and

  • Legal educators were reminded that while online education may be new to us, it is not new to many of the students we teach.

At Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, I recognized the challenge of online learning for law students. Online learning can become tedious when students spend long hours sitting in front of a computer screen for class, meetings with professors and their peers, and studying. The experience can be numbing and can test the most ardent student with distraction. Further, with remote learning, many students are not able to remove themselves from the responsibilities and activities of the home. Serving as a caretaker and needing a separate, quiet space to study impede students’ ability to focus.

Not to end on a low note, the deans were asked what were some takeaways that would permit the law schools to emerge from this challenging experience stronger and with increased relevance.

As Dean Roberts aptly delineated:

  • We are unlikely to ever take being together in a classroom, a hallway, outside, or in an office with others for granted again;

  • The digital divide is real, even among law students; law schools must be ready with loaner equipment or stipends/emergency funds for Wi-Fi or study spaces to ensure all students have equal access to learning;

  • The role our faculty play in supporting students personally is as important as the role they play professionally, even in a virtual environment;

  • Legal education can be done well virtually, but it takes intentionality to make up for the benefits lost by having students collaborating with each other and their professors in person;

  • Great teachers are great teachers no matter the modality; and

  • Zoom, while incredibly effective during this crisis, is not able to duplicate the energy one finds in traditional law school classrooms and causes additional fatigue among students and faculty and staff.

Associate Dean Leah Jackson Teague, of Baylor Law School, noted that the crisis itself is a learning opportunity. Through this adversity, students can develop grit, resilience, and a growth mindset. Lawyers are change agents and difference makers who hold positions of influence. The grit and resilience students are developing will help them conquer future challenges. The growth mindset would permit them to encounter difficulties and setbacks in a healthy and productive manner. As such, they will be “ready to weather the storms in their own lives while also maintaining unflappable strength for their clients and communities.”

Dean Barry may also speak for all in the following:

What we have learned (or confirmed) is that this is a caring, supportive community that will put the interests of its students first. What we have learned is that we are stronger, more flexible, more agile, and more capable than we ever dreamed. We adapted, we modified, we learned, we improved, we succeeded. I am very, very proud of our community and our school.


In sum, what we have learned is that we are all learners. While we yearn for the time when things get back to normal, we are already considering ways in which we can take what we have learned and move beyond normal. With that, we may not go back to where we were, we plan not to stay where we are, and we look forward to what we can become.TBJ

Notes
1. The 10 Texas law schools are Baylor Law School, SMU Dedman School of Law, South Texas College of Law Houston, St. Mary’s University School of Law, Texas A&M University School of Law, Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law, the University of Houston Law Center, the University of Texas School of Law, and UNT Dallas College of Law.



Joan BullockJOAN R.M. BULLOCK
is dean and professor of law at Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

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