Tools for Critical Lawyering

First class was yesterday.  (If you’re just joining us, catch up by reading my last post here: I called it the “tools” class.  We explored and played with three of my favorite tools — narrative theory, critical reflection, and cross-cultural competence.  My theory is that if we critical lawyers, resisters, citizens use the tools offered by narrative theory, critical reflection and cross-cultural competence, we do a much more authentic and effective job of deconstructing and reconstructing the institutions and people we are critiquing.  Sounds pretty heavy, huh? The secret is:  it’s not.

For our purposes, let’s say narrative theory means breaking a situation or event down into its narrative elements.  As described in the assigned reading (this awesome new book by me and Margaret Johnson from the University of Baltimore School of Law., those elements are:  Character (including traits); Events (including timeline and setting); Causation (cause & effect); Normalization (gap-filling); Masterplot (stock story or stereotype); and Closure (disruption & resolution).

And for our purposes, let’s say that critical reflection means the process of asking questions.  My students found this “cheat sheet” really helpful:

And finally, cross-cultural competence comprises a whole field of theories and tools, but again, for our purposes, the theory of cross-cultural competence requires each of us to identify, consider and recognize our own cultural identity; and to do the same for others’ cultural identities.  Coupled with narrative theory and critical reflection, consideration of culture as an important identifier can result in richer and more effective communication and relationship building. In addition to that awesome book described in the previous paragraph, consider the exercises and tools developed by Sue Bryant and Jean Koh Peters, and described here:

So those are the tools.  What did we do with them in class, and how will we use them going forward?

After introductions and development of discussion ground rules (both of which deserve blog posts in and of themselves, but that will have to be for another day), we jumped right in to trying our hand at using the narrative elements to listen to and deconstruct a clip from “74 Seconds.”

Each student took one of the elements  — Character, Events, Causation, Normalization, Masterplot, Closure — and listened to “Coming Soon” with that element in mind. We then reported back — what Characters were mentioned? What events? What cause and effect? Did the running of the plates cause the traffic stop? What Normalization? What kind of gap-filling do we have to do? There must have been something to make the officer pull him over? What Masterplots or tropes — small town disrupted, black man v. cop, viral video leads to revolution. What Closure is suggested — the end of the 74 seconds? The indictment of the officer? The trial?

Try this yourself– it’s a four minute clip.  You will be amazed at how much more you learn from those four minutes — about the choices the storytellers (reporters, producers, editors) made; about your own perspective/biases; about the various currents running through the narrative.  And this is just the teaser for the actual narrative or narratives that are “coming soon!” Imagine how powerful this tool can be if we apply it to the events and narratives all around us.

Moving from the narrative elements of the “74 Seconds” clip, we turned our focus back onto ourselves by practicing Habit One of Bryant and Peters’ “Five Habits of Cross-Cultural Competency:”  making a list of similarities and differences.  I paired the students up and had each team write such a list, directing them to try to make the two lists roughly the same length — to look for more similarities if that list is shorter; and more differences if that list is shorter.  Each team struggled in different ways:  one team found it challenging to come up with similarities; another to come up with differences.  Some teams identified the similarity/difference of race, gender, sexuality, religion right up front; others did not.  We agreed that a whole class could be spent on just the question of how each team decided (unconsciously? consciously?) what traits to include and what traits to ignore or leave out.

I had a whole additional hour of material planned, but time was up.  We — seven quite similar and quite different people in St. Paul, Minnesota — have embarked on this project together.  Yesterday, we all committed to that. Next week, we take another step together by exploring the critical theory of Intersectionality, using the tools from yesterday, and maybe some new ones.  I told my students at the end of class that I don’t have anything in particular planned for class yet, so please feel free to send me suggestions.  That goes for all of you too.

I know that whatever I do prepare will teach me more than I know now; and that whatever we do in class will teach me even more.  This project is not about deconstructing one theory and then moving on to the next; it’s about identifying and learning to use tools that will allow my students and me to dig even deeper into what it means to be a socially responsible, critical thinking, authentic member of this society.  So whatever we do, it will be challenging and intense and exhilarating.

6 thoughts on “Tools for Critical Lawyering”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Carolyn! I learned a new term this week — “cultural humility,” as a replacement for “cultural competence.” I really like the new term, because it so clearly reflects that real competence is rarely achievable, so we need to strive for it but always recognize that there is more to learn.

    1. Yes! It is the journey toward “competence” that we engage in — and humility is an essential tool on that journey.

  2. What a great first class! Do you get any resistors or people who tune out? How do you handle that?

    1. Great question, Antoinette. So far, no pushback, but we’ll start getting into the nitty gritty next class. Stay tuned.

  3. Carolyn: Thank you for sharing your journey through this course! And thank you for your generosity in sharing your materials and reflections. I would like to try out the Habit One exercise in my legal practice class at Hofstra Law School, but wondered if you would share more detail on (1) whether you assigned the Bryant article prior to the exercise and (2) how you conducted the exercise (Did you break down the class into several groups and then asked them to list similarities and differences? Did you give them any parameters for what “counts” as a material similarity or difference? How long did you allow? Did you also join one of the groups? Did you listen in? Did the groups present their “findings” to the entire class?). I have ordered your book on narrative theory — am looking forward to reading it! Best, Rita Sethi

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