Teaching Criminal Procedure “Objectively”
posted by Erica Goldberg
The new semester is a little over a month away, and I have begun reflecting on whether I’d like to change certain teaching techniques from last year to this year. One of my main objectives as a professor is to foster a classroom environment where students feel free to disagree respectfully with each other and with me. One of the main ways to achieve this objective, I had believed, was to express my own personal opinions as little as possible.
This proved to be a difficult task, especially when teaching Criminal Procedure. Criminal Procedure is designed around assertions of constitutional rights based in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. The Court’s most impassioned (and possibly compelling) language usually focuses on fears of an oppressive government and the importance of privacy rights. From Katz to Miranda to Brown v. Mississippi, students are exposed to police abuses and the need to prevent them. Of course, the importance of effective law enforcement is also highlighted, and the goals of law enforcement and the protections of the Constitution are not always in tension, but the course is very individual-rights centric.
I attempted, nonetheless, to be objective. I critiqued both majorities and dissents. I exposed vulnerable logic regardless of the outcome of the case. Students debated issues, and many took controversial positions. Often, a student’s views on a particular case were refreshingly unpredictable. Yet, two of my former students bumped into me in town after class was over and grades were in. During our discussion of the class, they were able to pinpoint some of my views about criminal procedure.
I realized that, even if I try to keep my politics and my views about a particular case out of the classroom, my approach to the law will seep in, either deliberately or unconsciously. Moreover, isn’t this what I’m being paid for? Students ostensibly felt free to express contrary views, so perhaps the fact that my own biases were more transparent than I realized wasn’t as corrosive to the learning experience as I feared. Or perhaps I should try harder next time, and see how that goes.
I know blogs in the past have confronted the topic of how neutral professors should be, but I think these issues are particularly salient in criminal law and constitutional law, where policy is often incorporated into legal analysis and where philosophies of jurisprudence (the most abstract approach to the law), views about particular amendments, and personal politics (the crassest form of opinion about cases) are strongly held. I may decide on a balance where it’s more acceptable to reveal my views about and approach to the law the more abstract they are. I’d love to hear any thoughts.