Inside-Out as Law School Pedagogy

January 3rd, 2013 / By

Giovanna Shay, a professor at Western New England School of Law transported her law school seminar to a nearby correctional center. Shay’s transplanted seminar on “Gender and Criminal Law” enrolled both law students and prisoners. Both groups studied the same material, wrote papers, and interacted at a class that met weekly inside the prison. Shay based her model on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which sponsors similar classes for undergraduates and prisoners. Shay’s paper describes the profound impact of this class on her law students, as well as on her overall teaching style.

Skeptical readers may view Shay’s course as a luxury: If we need to pare down the cost of law school and prepare students more directly for practice, why we would let classes wander off into prisons? But Shay’s paper intrigues me for three reasons. First, even as we tailor legal education more closely to law practice, we should still educate professionals who are thoughtful about the role of law in society. The law exerts its greatest force when incarcerating individuals; understanding the impact of that power is useful for everyone who will serve the legal system.

Second, Shay’s technique fits with the concept of “unbottling” legal education. To make law schools more adaptive, we need to think about educating students in many ways, times, and places. Shay’s inside-out may not work for your school, but the concept may prompt other novel ideas. What about a school-sponsored CLE course that takes practicing lawyers into a prison for a seminar like this? That would be less convenient than a talking-head video broadcast, but much more interesting and provocative.

Finally, Shay’s experiment prompts me to think about other ways in which law students can learn alongside other people—raising the educational value for both groups. What about a criminal procedure course that enrolls both law students and aspiring police officers? How about a copyright course that includes both students and writers? Or a small business course for students and entrepreneurs? Those initiatives might raise educational value while also developing new revenue sources–taking some of the pressure off JD tuition.

This is a short essay about an unusual initiative, but it is one that can prompt many outside-the-box thoughts.

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