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Identifying Dominant Narratives in 1L Class Discussions

Tara Norris, HLS ’15

I am halfway through my 1L year at Harvard Law School, and I can say without hesitation that this has been the most intellectually stimulating and academically rewarding experience that I have ever had. I am surrounded by brilliant, accomplished people every single day, and I thoroughly enjoy the class discussions in which I get to hear a variety of viewpoints. However, far too often, someone will make a comment so unthinkingly callous that I feel knocked out of the world of law school hypotheticals and into the real world. Sometimes, this is due to the speaker’s unawareness of, or refusal to acknowledge, her own privileged experience.  More often, however, these comments are born of the kind of abstract thinking that we have been encouraged to learn. I certainly did not pick up on every problematic classroom comment by a student or professor last semester, but when I did, my frustration was often shapeless: I felt that something was wrong, but could not precisely articulate what or why. Professor Montoya’s article describes how abstracting legal issues during 1L year served to reinforce the dominant (white, male) narrative. It provided me with a frame for thinking about the law school experience that I did not know I needed until I read it, and that I could not avoid seeing after I did so.

In a world where cold-calling and Socratic dialogue are the norm, it is unsurprising that we, the students, fall back on a variety of familiar arguments to fill in our thinking about the legal issues we are reading about. It is hard enough to tease out complex legal issues, much less to debate their relative merits, in front of 79 other students; to do so without the benefit of relying on arguments that we are comfortable making, in which we feel intellectually secure, would feel nearly impossible. However, because the law school classroom is one that is more often dominated by abstract hypotheticals than complex individuals, it is easy for those argument tropes to take the form of familiar narratives to fill in our expectations about the bare factual situations with which we have been presented. These narratives speak volumes about not only the speaker’s individual experience but also the persistence of cultural tropes that, when examined with a critical eye, are somewhat troubling.

One example of these troubling narratives arose during my Problem Solving Workshop. For 1Ls, the January term at Harvard Law School is a kind of reprieve from the pressure of first semester’s academic grind. The mandatory class purportedly trains students for the realities of legal practice. It is meant to be less abstract and theoretical than a normal first-year course. Over three weeks, teams of 5 students write memos, make presentations, and conduct mock interviews. The second problem in the series of six that we completed during the term was a landlord-tenant issue. The client is a landlord whose tenant has moved into an expensive hotel at the landlord’s expense and threatened to break her lease. The tenant’s complaint? Another tenant has been making sexually explicit comments to her and waiting in the hallways outside of her apartment. She also thinks he might be stalking her because she has been seeing him around town when she goes out. She moved out because does not feel safe and has demanded that the landlord evict the offender – who, in a twist, happens to be the landlord’s nephew.

In discussing the legal rights and liabilities of the involved parties, the most striking part was the dismissal of the legitimacy of the tenant’s reactions. Every student who participated in the first day of class discussion on this problem, regardless of what they argued the landlord’s reaction should be, agreed that she had acted inappropriately in moving out. Further, as the discussion progressed, the professor and students returned the conversation again and again to the possible defenses or explanations that the alleged harasser might have: perhaps it was a practical joke. Perhaps the two had previously dated. Perhaps the alleged harasser was socially awkward and did not know how to appropriately handle his crush on the tenant.

All of these explanations reinforce a social narrative that women who complain of sexual harassment are overreacting, and that the harasser’s behavior is somehow excused. Even more troubling was the “gold digger” narrative: that the woman was “making it all up” and using her vulnerability and sexuality as a tool to manipulate the legal system and score a free vacation. These narratives were irrepressible, even where we had explicitly been told that the tenant was not merely uncomfortable, but worried for her physical safety. It is a testament to the stubborn strength of the “overly sensitive woman cries sexual harassment” narrative trope that these explanations persisted in a room filled with women, many, if not all, of whom have undoubtedly experienced firsthand reasonable fear of encountering physical violence because of their gender.

These suggestions were not presented as narratives with which every student in the class was familiar by virtue of basic cultural literacy, although they were and we were. Students presented them as reasonable and genuine – even original – ideas about what the factual situation might look like (with the exception of one student who, two days into this discussion, finally pointed out that the victim was unlikely to have completely invented the story, since she actually moved out of her home). However, all of the suggestions easily turned the tenant into a character in a familiar story, one in which she has no credibility: the gold digger, the spurned girlfriend, the mean girl who would not give a nice boy a chance. Because the parties in the problem were thin characters for the purpose of illustrating a legal problem, it was easier to import stories onto them, and the stories on which we settled were ones that reinforce traditional power dynamics.

Being aware of this problem is the first step. The next is introducing narratives that challenge, rather than reinforce, existing power structures into class discussions. Professor Montoya describes introducing her unique perspective into the 1L environment, and I see how destabilizing the “traditional” narrative works to change the conversation.  Thank you, Professor Montoya, for giving me the words to describe this experience.

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