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Quarantine Diaries: Law professors, ask your law students what they need now

Law Professor
As law classes move to completely new structures, asking your law students what they need can be beneficial for you—and for them.

Global pandemics and law school coursework does not mix well. Overnight, traditional law school courses became online-only. Suddenly, students and professors were in the unique position of trying to figure out how to finish coursework and maintain a quality education. After all, students have a bar to pass.

Professor Sarah Burstein at the University of Oklahoma College of Law created a survey for her students that balanced a need for practical solutions while leaving room open for students’ individual concerns.

Here are her thoughts, and those of one of her students, Kayla Molina.

From the Quarantined Homefront, Professor Burstein writes:

On the Monday before spring break, I learned (via a tweet from the OU Daily) that the university was considering moving classes online for two weeks after spring break. On Tuesday, by the time I started teaching my last classes of the week, no decision had been made. But other law schools were announcing similar moves and it seemed inevitable that OU would follow suit.

So, I started class with a quick overview of what I knew about the situation and a rough initial plan for how we might proceed if our classes were moved online. I asked for their input, but I know sharing concerns with a professor—especially about personal matters like caregiving responsibilities or even just admitting to anxiety—can be difficult.

The next morning, I made a survey. Nothing fancy, just a few questions to gather information as I worked on a more concrete contingency plan. And nothing unique; I know I’m not the only professor who created similar surveys for their students. But it was something I could do.

I asked about things like whether they had home access to the Internet and reliable computing devices (for the past few years, OU Law has given all of our incoming J.D. students iPads but not all my students are J.D. students).

I also asked about an issue I was already seeing discussed by other professors on Twitter—did they have a preference toward synchronous or asynchronous instruction? I then added an open field at the end for any comments, questions, or concerns students might want to share.

The day after I sent out the survey, the administration made the call—we’d be going online after the break. By then, I’d already received a number of survey responses and they (along with the ones that came later) were invaluable as I finalized a plan for how we’d proceed after the break. The overwhelming preference expressed for an asynchronous model was especially helpful.

By far the most useful part, though, was the open-ended question at the end. Those responses gave me a glimpse into what my students were facing and what they were most worried about. They put the answers to the other survey questions in context, shaping my thinking as I finalized a plan for how to proceed.

So the responses were invaluably helpful to me. I was delighted when my student, Kayla Molina, and American Bar Association’s Law Student Division Editor-in-Chief, reached out to me and told me the survey was helpful to her, too. It was her idea to share our story here and I hope doing so might be helpful to other professors and students as we figure all of this out together.

From the Quarantined Homefront, Law Student Kayla Molina writes:

This is not a business-as-usual situation. Solutions are best found when faculty, administration, and as many students as possible engage openly with one another.

I asked Professor Burstein to write about the survey because I thought the questions were practical, thoughtful, and made me feel included in the decision-making process. As a law student, law school predominates everything. Like most, I take law school seriously. But when the university’s president announced online classes, a wave of anxiety washed over me about Spring 2020.

Then, silence from the university. Nothing. No announcements about grades or coursework. As the faculty and administration waded through impossible decisions, from a students’ perspective that initial wave turned into a hammer—waiting to drop.

I worried “what students are the professors making these policies for?”—and would I be a part of that baseline student these new emergency courses were designed for? I worried that as professors scrambled, presumptions about students’ financial and family conditions would mean that I and many of my first-generation classmates would suffer severe GPA, ranking, and career outcome hits. Some of use do not have access to reliable internet, are financially unstable, and many have (and will have, given the nature of the virus) caregiver responsibilities.

Then, I clicked onto Professor Burstein’s survey. The survey was the first communication from anyone at the university that asked for student input. But it also went beyond general questions. By leaving open-ended question, it felt fluid and allowed me to express my individual concerns about being able to complete an online course.

The survey, mixed with options and open-ended questions, meant at least some ability to be heard, maybe even some ability to voice what I needed, amid the chaos. I suddenly felt less worried that I, and my classmates, would be left behind. Not all of us have reliable internet. Some of us rely a lot on the school’s computers. Other have children. Others are now primary income earners. This is not a normal transition to online classes. Having Professor Burstein recognize that made her class feel like a solution rather than surprise death knell on Spring 2020. A global pandemic coupled with a recession means that this is not business-as-usual, and the survey helped give me, and my fellow students, a voice in a truly exceptional, and scary, time.

Kayla Molina is a student at The University of Oklahoma College of Law. She documents her law school experience on Twitter and has written for Above The Law.