It is undeniable that the classic law class is in desperate need of a universal design make over. A traditional first year law school class takes place in a large lecture hall with fifty or more students with tiered seating so that all of the students can view the professor in the front of the room, at a podium.
Most lecture based classes last for about 1 hour and 40 minutes without a break, some are longer and a few are shorter. Lectures are structured so that all students are responsible for reading from their dry casebooks and synthesizing the information in such a way so that if and when they are “cold called” on by a professor the next day, they are able to regurgitate the facts and create a well-informed analysis. Being “cold called” is when a professor calls on a student at random to ask them about what often seems like a minute detail of the reading. Often, if the student does not get the right answer, the professor can continue to drill the student until they find the answer in the reading. This practice is part of law schools’ interpretation of the Socratic method of teaching where teachers are meant to “engage students by asking questions that require generative answers. Ideally, the answers to questions are not a stopping point for thought but are instead a beginning to further analysis and research.” However, this is not the reality of how the Socratic Method is implemented in most law school classrooms, in part because much of law school is competitive in nature and law students often feel that if their answers to questions are not correct on the first try, professors do not have time or interest in the further analysis and research that is supposed to accompany the Socratic Method.
A recent survey of teaching techniques at American law schools determined that 97% of law-school professors use the Socratic Method in first-year classes. Law professors praise the tactic for training students to respond quickly and fluently to challenging questions — even if most instructors today employ a “soft” Socratic method, far less combative than the gladiatorial exchanges made famous in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase [this link goes to a short video of one of the iconic Socratic Method scenes].
The Paper Chase is an iconic movie about law school with a quintessential caricature of the Socratic Method.  There are law professors who take issue with this caricature, one professor describes it as “a view of facilitated classroom discourse caricatured in John Osborn’s The Paper Chase and pejoratively identified by contemporary culture as the ‘Socratic method.’” However, even if a professor does not intend to set up a law class in the model of The Paper Chase, law school is organized based on a sense of intimidation, which does not lend itself to a productive learning environment for many learners. Another, more contemporary example of this can be seen in this clip from Legally Blonde. There is a common adage amongst law students: First year, they scare you to death. Second year, they work you to death. And third year, they bore you to death. This is not a very productive learning style for many people.
A universally designed law class would be located in a room without tiers so that all students could sit in the location that best facilitated their learning, regardless of their mobility. The podium would also be adaptable for the professor’s mobility and other access needs. [The Ed Roberts Campus in Berkley, CA, is the epitome of Universal Design- this video gives a brief guided tour (the video is ironically inaccessible…)]. The professor would send out the fully AT adaptable materials the he or she would be using to all students in advance to ensure that every student was able to access the materials in their preferred format.
During class, the professor would read each slide aloud to the class and encourage class participation in the event that a student had a question, but never “cold-call” and put a student on the spot in front of the entire class. The professor would include fully captioned multimedia in his or her power point presentation to illustrate his or her main ideas. In order to track students’ comprehension and take attendance, the professor would use a survey tool such as surveymonkey or zoomerang. In this way, the professor could hold students accountable for the relevant information but avoid humiliating or embarrassing a student who may feel anxiety in such situations. After class, the professor would circulate the video/audio recording of the class as well as a CART transcription of the class, for students who were unable to attend and for students who would like to look back over the class for additional comprehension. All of these forms of multimedia, in addition to a regularly updated syllabus, would be posted on the professor’s blog. The professor would make him or herself available for additional questions and discussion at designated times. Because law school exams are generally made up of one cumulative exam at the end of the semester, in order to make this exam universally designed the professor would make it a take home exam to alleviate the undue pressure of in class finals and would require that each student formulate their own assessment including the necessary criteria, as laid out by the professor. In order to ensure that each assessment includes the relevant course work, each student would be responsible for providing a project proposal in advance. More than anything, the professor would be cognizant of the impact that his or her language has on his or her students and ensure that he or she uses language that respects multicultural diversity (including disability).
Lastly, in a fully universally designed university it is said that disability services offices and disability services providers will no longer be necessary, but seeing as I am only designing a universally designed class and not a universally designed institution, I will assume that disability services providers are not yet a thing of the past. In that case, I would hope that there would be at least one liaison between the disability services office and the law school and that when the professor is unable or unaware of the appropriate way to make his or her class fully accessible, that he or she would be in contact with disability services office. And in the event that a student chooses not to speak to the professor about their learning and access needs, they would have sufficient information and encouragement to speak to the disability services office.
I think that this newly designed curriculum would allow for access that is more complete for all students. While I find this argument galling, I have heard law professors and law students support the atmosphere of fear that law schools cultivate because they feel that law school is supposed to be a self-selecting environment and the legal profession would lose its “edge” if law school became more accommodating or accessible. I working to reverse this image with my new classroom.
My UD Project 1 discussed depression and stress in higher education and I think that this newly vamped law class provides for increased access for students with depression because it dissipates the tension level, which is helpful for most learners, especially those with a lower tolerance for stress and anxiety. As it says in Stress and the Contemporary Student, an article that I found for UD Project 1, “stress can impair many of the processes on which the acquisition, manipulation and consolidation of knowledge depend.” Decreasing the level of stress in the classroom, increases the information retention level. This class format also increases access because it provides multiple ways for students to access the curriculum. If a student is not able to make it to class for a multitude of reasons (depression, chronic pain, family needs, religious observances, etc…), they can view the class from their own laptop at any time. In UD Project 1, I also looked at an article about mental health and primary education that suggested using already existing faculty and infrastructure to facilitate mental healthcare in the classrooms. I think that my proposed classroom does just that by reducing the intimidation factor and insisting that professors use respectful language.
Respectful language should be a given for all professors but this is all too often not the case. It is my belief that in order for any program or curriculum to be fully accessible and universally designed there needs to be a multicultural element and not just an eye towards disability related access. This idea is encompassed in Multicultural/diverse perspective instruction, which is comprised of three different and important dimensions. The three dimensions are related to content integration, knowledge construction, and an equity pedagogy:
- Content integration is comprised of sensitive, accurate, and non-biased content representing a variety of cultures and groups should be used to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories.
- As students construct knowledge about the content, they must be helped to view concepts, issues, and problems from diverse cultural perspectives. The mainstream-centric perspective is only one of several perspectives from which concepts, issues, or problems are viewed.
- To ensure equity for all students, teachers must modify their teaching in ways that will facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, cultural, gender, and social-class groups.
I see these ideals as directly coinciding with the ideals of UDL. “Universal Design should be perceived as a means for actively engaging all students in the learning process, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, ethnic origin, language, social class, sexual orientation, or disability.”  Just as UID has principles of implementation, there are also principles of implementation for the universal design of multiculturalism, they include:
- Build barrier-free, welcoming environments with attention paid to attributes that include usability, diverse content, access to artwork and graphic design, and geographic location relative to function.
- Create spaces and programs that foster a sense of community for all students, particularly students from underrepresented communities.
- Design accessible and appropriate physical environments that provide ease of use for people who use different modes of interacting or communicating and allow for confidential use based on the services, programs, or benefits being delivered.
- Ensure that non-electronic information environments are accessible and appropriate so that information is delivered in formats (e.g., Braille, captioning, different languages) understandable by and easily usable by diverse users without requiring unnecessary steps or “hoops” to jump through for completion.
- Design and maintain Internet and other electronic environments to ensure accessibility and appropriate confidentiality or privacy for those who use various adaptive equipment, hardware, (that may vary in age and capacity), and software and for those that require or need confidentiality or privacy.
- Create inclusive and respectful policies and programs that, from the beginning, take into consideration the diverse student and employee populations at the institution and provide natural and cognitive supports to ensure full utilization of programs by students and employees; and
- Hire and develop personnel who understand, respect, and value the institution’s diverse community of students and employees.
These principles are truly universally designed because they provide access and encourage the involvement of all students, regardless of ability, preferred language, ethnic background, race, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, etc… It is not surprising that these principles line up with the platform of Syracuse University’s Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee (BCCC), which are:
- Reshaping Syracuse University’s conception of disability to promote an understanding of disability as a form of diversity.
- University recognition and funding of the Disability Studies program.
- Creating model accommodations exemplifying the University’s commitment to equality of opportunity for students with disabilities.
- Hiring faculty and staff members with disabilities within departments across the University.
While these tenets are a more narrowly tailored to disability, the last principle on both lists discusses the need for hiring faculty and staff that embody diversity and are dedicated to creating an environment of universal respect.
I think that it is very appropriate that this is my last project for graduate school and law school. Once I turn this project in I will be done with all of my academic requirements. This project helped me to sum up my experience as a law student and a CFE student. It helped me to combine the knowledge and experience that I received from both. It also allowed me to feel as if I’m leaving legal education in a better, more accessible place. Even though I know that my doing this project does not mean that any of my ideas or suggestions will be implemented, it was cathartic to be able to address some of the aspects of law school that I think are the most off-putting and insular. At times it has been very frustrating to be a law student and a disability rights advocate because the two have often seemed at odds with each other. Even though we, as law students, are supposedly being groomed to become zealous advocates, our advocacy as law students has been met with resistance and annoyance. This project was the perfect outlet for the past three years of frustration as well as a hopeful start to my career as a disability rights advocate in higher education.
 Coffey, H. (n.d.). Socratic method. Unpublished manuscript, Learn NC, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill , Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4994.
 Steven I. Friedland, How We Teach: A Survey of Teaching Techniques in American Law Schools, 20 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 1 (1996).
 Paul, A. M. (2011, Dec. 14). Why asking questions might not be the best way to teach Time Magazine, Retrieved from http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/14/why-asking-questions-might-not-be-the-best-way-to-teach/.
 Osborne, J. J. (Director) (1971). The paper chase [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx22TyCge7w&feature=related.
 Joseph A. Dickinson, Understanding the Socratic Method in Law School Teaching After the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers, 31 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 97 (2009).
 Luketic, R. (Director) (2001). Legally blonde [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaQbC5bgh2s.
 Humphrey, R., McCarthy, P., Popham, F., Charles, Z., Garland, M., Gooch, S., Hornsby, K., & Houghton, C., Muldoon, C. (1998). Stress and the contemporary student. Higher Education Quarterly, 52(2), 221-242.
 Atkins, M. S., Hoagwood, K. E., Kutash, K., & Seidman, E. (2010). Toward the integration of education and mental health in schools. Administration and Policy in Mental Health, 37, 40-47.
 What is multicultural/diverse perspective instruction?. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.eduplace.com/rdg/res/literacy/multi5.html.
 Barajas, H. L., & Higbee, J. L. (2003). Where do we go from here? Universal Design as a model for multicultural education. In J. L. Higbee (Ed.), Curriculum transformation and disability: Implementing Universal Design in higher education (pp. 285-290). Retrieved August 28, 2006, from the University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy Web site: http://www.education.umn.edu/crdeul.
 Jeanne L. Higbee, Dana B. Lundell, Heidi L. Barajas, Roberta J. Cordano & Robert Copeland,Power Point Presentation for the 22nd Annual Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities, Honolulu, HI, March 2006, Retrieved on May 5, 2012 from www.cehd.umn.edu/passit/docs/PacRim06.ppt.
 Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee, http://bcccsyracuse.wordpress.com/about/ (last visited April 23, 2012).