Daniel Capra, a law professor at Fordham Law and an adjunct at Columbia Law School, recently discovered that microphones don’t stop working just because you’ve stopped lecturing.
During a class at Columbia, Capra’s microphone picked up an exchange with a student asking him to slow down a bit for the international students because keeping up with a law school class in a foreign language is not easy. The professor’s level of sympathy for this request clocked in around zilch, as he dubbed falling behind on notes as “assumption of risk.”
After the student walked away, Capra had more to say to himself… and everyone watching the video.
Since Above the Law is more generous than Capra seemed to be that day, let’s acknowledge that lesson plans can’t exactly turn on a dime. Professors have a finite number of classes to convey the material and it’s not like you can skip a hearsay exception or two just to make sure everyone catches up. The class is also obviously being recorded, which allows students to revisit thorny sections later. It’s not the same as being able to ask questions in real time, but it does reduce the risk that a specific concept is lost forever to the ether.
Now, with that said, “fuck you” is… not the correct answer.
“Sorry, there’s just too much material here to slow down, but I’m always available by email and office hours if anyone wants to explore the lesson more slowly,” might be a welcome response. “Are there specific concepts that people are struggling with? I can’t change the lecture but I can put together a supplemental handout or something to accommodate anyone encountering a language barrier,” could be another.
The Student Senate released a statement addressing the matter. It reads in part:
Attending law school at Columbia is a rigorous endeavor. Many students, whose first language is English, struggle to keep up with the speed of courses. For some members of our community, this is even harder. Some students face unique language challenges while attending courses taught in a language different to their mother tongue at the Law School. These challenges are compounded by the speed at which some professors speak and the complexity of topics covered.
As a community, we renounce any type of non-inclusive behavior that does not take into consideration this reality. As a student body, we firmly believe that a safe and inclusive environment is essential for the academic success and well-being of all students, and we are committed to ensuring this environment exists for students of all backgrounds. We accordingly expect the faculty and administrators to take all necessary steps to uphold this core principle.
The statement also hones in on the profanity as marginalizing and deeply unprofessional, which…. I mean, it is, but also grumpy authority figures willing to hurl profanity at you is a key part of lawyering. We can all agree that we should have a more humane and respectful profession and endeavor to change it for the better, but it’s a reality.
The unwillingness to seek an accommodation to guarantee that all students have the opportunity to fully grasp the material is a far bigger deal. Especially where the disadvantage falls purely along the lines of national origin. Civility policing shouldn’t obscure the access issue.
But, yeah, even if it’s not the most important issue here, you can’t answer a student question with “fuck you.”
Unless the answer to the question is “it’s in the syllabus.” In that case, there is no limit to the fully justified profanity.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.