By Ivy Attenborough
We all navigate the intensified political landscape in our families, workplaces, and classrooms. Most people choose to sidestep direct conversation about controversial topics to maintain harmony. But how do we address the hard questions while preserving order and dignity?
Professor John Greabe shows the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law 1L class how it is done during Constitutional Law.
Although the partisan climate differs from 4, 8, and 12 years ago, Professor Greabe says that students have not. Difficult hypothetical questions about the constitutionality of statutes implementing the most controversial practices, he points out, have always been hard to answer.
“The topics are not harder to talk about. The question I want students to answer is ‘How do
I develop constitutional arguments within charged contexts?’”
Rather than focusing on personal feelings about what is constitutional, Professor Greabe encourages students to build fact-based legal arguments to support those positions. Since so many of the topics of Constitutional Law are in the news, students are experiencing precedent in the making.
“There are constantly new things I am trying to add to make sure everything essential is included. It is definitely a challenge without removing other essential topics and cases,” Professor Greabe says, adding that he approaches the course without allowing biases to corrupt his method of teaching. “There is no denying that the former President defied traditional norms, on a purely factual basis.”
To avoid impacting how students perceive the material he teaches, Professor Greabe explains that he “finds it most effective to introduce everyone to the range of views, and to have students work out their own working hypotheses.” When students ask for his personal opinions on a topic, Professor Greabe says he chooses not to give it.
“I want students to sincerely believe that all I want is for them to be familiar with the range of perspectives and to begin to work out their own theories,” he says, explaining that he does not want to corrupt students’ understandings of the concepts.
When it comes to navigating the pandemic, Professor Greabe notes that “the current 1L class seems particularly hungry for extra ways to connect.”
Because of this, he has created multiple ways to stay connected outside of class, such as virtual coffee chats and office hours, as well as an online discussion board. In most classes, students dread a discussion board because they can make it feel like you are shouting into the void with no real purpose other than to gain credit. In this class, the boards are optional. They allow students to continue discussions they deem worthy to maintain outside of class and engage with other students; in short, they have become the location where interesting debates can happen without taking away from the necessary material.
Since there are so many new topics to cover, these optional sessions let students address questions that could take up remaining instruction time. Rather than seeing the number of discussions decrease, they have shifted to different modes. Students have maintained the level of respect Professor Greabe expects with online learning and he says that the amount of interaction has stayed relatively steady.
“People who have participated will always continue to participate.”
In his years teaching Constitutional Law, Professor Greabe has noticed that students often lack a strong foundation of civics, the study of citizenship. Not only is a strong civics education important for understanding the interaction between the Constitution and the legal system, he says, but it is also crucial for being an informed and active citizen in an everchanging democracy.
“In recent decades, teaching civics has been less of a priority,” he says.
As the demand for workers in STEM fields increased, schools have geared their curriculum towards training students for science and math focused jobs, Professor Greabe says.
“There is good reason for it. These are good jobs and fill a critical national need,” he says.
But current political events may be evidence of a decreasing focus on citizenship and democracy.
“If we are to have government by ‘We the People,’ we have to educate ‘We the People’ about that form of government.”
Professor Greabe suggests supplemental reading for students to complete prior to the start of the course to allow students who find their civics education lacking.
The decreasing focus on civics education creates other problems as well. People who were younger during world-changing events are growing up and becoming involved in politics with a different perspective than older generations. The collective experience of living through 9/11 or the Clinton impeachment may not have a shared meaning for people of younger generations. For example, at 21, I have no personal memory of the aforementioned events .
The context within which I view tragic terror attacks or massive political events is fundamentally different from those who could experience them before me. A difference in perspective, however, does allow for interesting and enlightening class discussions. Younger students are creating the lens they use to see the political world, and older students are noticing differences between past and current times. Professor Greabe is there to guide us all—young, old, experienced, and novice—as we navigate the unprecedented times in Constitutional Law.
Ivy Attenborough is a first-year law student at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law and a monthly contributor to Bar News.