Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Teaching in Person at a Catholic Law School During the Pandemic (Part Three: Fostering Community)

This is the third and final in a series of posts about my experiences teaching in person last semester during the pandemic at a Catholic law school. The first post was about health and safety for teaching in person despite the contagion. The second post was about educational quality given the accommodations necessary to teach in person during a pandemic. This post is about fostering community in challenging times with social distancing.

Community as a Hallmark Value at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

Fostering community among students, faculty, and staff is a hallmark at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It is one of the visible attributes that draws prospective students and that is frequently emphasized by our current students and alumni. As more than one person has said, community is simply baked into our DNA at St. Thomas. If you ask a typical St. Thomas law student what stands out about the law school experience, he or she is quite likely to speak to a positive atmosphere that nurtures students and draws people together.

Now many law schools tell prospective students that they have a strong community and portray images of community in publicity brochures and alumni magazines. Assertions of a supportive community are easily uttered. For the University of St. Thomas, we fortunately have considerable concrete evidence that our community is genuine and distinctive.

First, in national surveys of law student engagement, law students at the University of St. Thomas consistently report they are happier and feel more supported.  UST law students are much more positive about their law school experience than is generally reported at other law schools.

Second, I take an anonymous survey of students in my Professional Responsibility class each spring when they are more than half-way through their legal education. Substantial majorities of our students report  each year that they are more committed to and even happier about their choice to become lawyers than when they began their legal education. By contrast, across the country, many law students become disenchanted by the end of their first year, and upper-level students often express regret about their decision to go to law school.

Third, in yet another survey, which is publicly available, our students vote regularly in the Princeton Review to include us among the top ten law schools for “Best Quality of Life.”

Now some law deans and professors would openly or quietly disclaim that community should be a signature characteristic of legal education. The purpose of law school, they would say, is to effectively prepare students to pass the bar and competently engage in the practice of law. Others might say that a law school as part of a university should be first and foremost about demanding critical thinking and challenging students with new ideas, rather than seeking to flatten out student experience into an anodyne good feeling. And in public law schools, there are constitutional free expression expectations that restrict efforts to vigorously press a particular theme, which in the legal academy can become ideologically rigid.

I believe that the University of St. Thomas has generated a sense of community that is neither heavy-handed in approach nor indifferent to differences in viewpoints. To be sure, as a private and faith-based law school, we would have the freedom to choose a motivating theme, even if it trespassed on freedom of thought or excluded contrary points of view. But that is not our path. We do not assume that any human institution, including the Catholic Church, has a monopoly on truth. Especially when it comes to law and public policy, the Church encourages prudential judgment and respects the expertise of others in translating values into policy. Moreover, we embrace ideals of academic freedom in our encouragement of intellectual exploration. As I say when describing our Catholic identity to students, we are always Catholic, but we are not only Catholic. We welcome the expression of values and the sharing of insights from all traditions, while not neglecting the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

Rather, at the University of St. Thomas, we seek to foster a community that is diverse in every way, that consists of people who disagree passionately about matters of values and who draw their most deeply-cherished beliefs from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. What is distinctive for us is to celebrate this diversity and see it as an entry point to draw everyone together. As our Vision Statement defines community, “[w]e foster a diverse environment in which each student feels supported in his or her unique journey from law student to lawyer and called to share his or her gifts to enrich the collective learning community.”

The crucial link that brings us together is a very intentional attempt to talk across the political, cultural, and religious divisions that plague our country. Our sense of community is a bridge, a search for common ground. In so doing, we discourage the demonization of different viewpoints or the presumption that those who disagree with us are acting in bad faith. At the same time, we encourage speaking truth to power and shedding light on uncomfortable realities and damaging attitudes that others might wish to avoid. Far more than is true at most other law schools, UST law students who espouse quite conflicting positions on legal and political issues are in conversation with each, attend programs sponsored by groups with a different perspective, and collaborate on ventures to to better understand alternative viewpoints and find a common ground if possible.

Appreciating our Catholic identity as essential and meaningful helps us establish a foundation for this type of “common good” community. Outsiders often perceive the Catholic Church’s social teaching as leaning heavily in one or another ideological direction, whether to the right on questions such as abortion or sexual morality or to the left on immigration, public welfare, and the death penalty. The reality is that Catholic social teaching cannot be reduced to an ideological political platform of left or right in American politics. And that refusal to be placed into ideological boxes frees us to search for common ground.


Our emphasis on community draws students and faculty to our law school who wish to join in that effort to debate the most important questions of our time without the rancor that divides us so frequently in public life. Not incidentally, our students and faculty are much more diverse intellectually than at most law schools, with people of both generally conservative views and of generally liberal views being visible and valued in expressing their most deeply held values.

Professor Jerry Kang and others when writing about the problem of implicit bias in the law and society encourage us to counter harmful stereotypical thinking by “expos[ing] ourselves to countertypical associations.” We learn to understand others, develop cultural competence, and overcome prejudices by expanding our relationships. In his first encyclical, Pope Francis said: “Persons always live in relationship. We come from others, we belong to others, and our lives are enlarged by our encounter with others.”

Our focus on this type of community at the University of St. Thomas, which is built through relationships, also dovetails with our professional goal of helping law students to grow ethically as they join the legal profession. Our mission statement calls for “integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.” Contrary to the cynical view that students arrive at law school with their moral state already fixed, we believe that moral reasoning and ethical judgment fall on a spectrum, which can be enhanced by attentive education. We believe that ethical progress can be made, but only when students are situated in a community striving toward ethical advancement. We also know that students who mature ethically will find a more satisfying life in a legal career.

I could talk for hours about community at the University of St. Thomas, and illustrate it with many examples, but I’m sure most readers believe I’ve already gone on too long. And the purpose of this post is not simply to describe our community but to discuss how the pandemic may have affected it.

Community means people in relationship with each other. This wicked pandemic is at war with community, because it causes us to avoid one another to reduce contagion. And when we do interact, we are forced to distance ourselves and hide our faces. I would be foolish and blind if I were to simply deny that this pandemic has damaged community. But I can more happily report that we have mitigated the harm and preserved a strong community remains that is ready to rise up again in full measure.

Fostering Community in the Classroom During the Pandemic

The essence of the law school experience for entering students centers around what happens in first-year classes. While upper level students have been integrated more broadly into the law school and profession and have multi-faceted experiences and interactions in and outside the building, 1Ls tend to be focused, almost exclusively at the beginning, on their set schedule of common classes.

For this very reason, knowing that we had limited teaching resources and that not all faculty could teach in person, we at St. Thomas focused our greatest energies for preserving in-person teaching onto the fall semester first-year classes. For fall semester, we were able to offer more than 80 percent of classroom instruction through physical presence in the law school building to first-year first-semester students. For most first-year students, they were present to each other — if seated somewhat further apart — and to their professors. In itself, this made a tremendous difference in fostering community.

To be sure, as discussed in my previous posts, things were different. Students were wearing masks, which clouded their features. And informal get-togethers were constrained.

Yet as time went on, the students who attended in person largely overcame these obstacles. We as professors strived to make these classes feel normal, to proceed in an ordinary way and with the same pedagogy as usual, and to build the classroom community. But it was really the students who accomplished it. They knew of the reputation of St. Thomas as a place of community and relationships, and they were committed to follow in that tradition.

Within a couple of weeks after fall semester began, the unusual silence that prevailed at first was happily interrupted by the same kind of convivial discussions before and between classes that has always been characteristic of law school classes. The subsections tended to be isolated from one another. Students in a subsection cohort remained in the same classroom for hygienic reasons and were physically separated from the other three subsections by floor and schedule. But, if anything, that strengthened the bonds within the subsection of 30-some students. During intermissions between classes (which lasted about 20 minutes), students in the subsection, wearing masks of course, sat in the hallways and shared their lives and experiences with increasing affection and a sense of common purpose. The mask became much and much less of a barrier.

Inside the classroom, I contributed what I could to nurturing the community that the students themselves were creating. I created a seating chart in which I pasted in full-face photos for each, so that I could learn the names and see them in my mind without an obscuring mask. I like to think that my mental affinity made itself felt to the class. And the number of student evaluations that later described me as warm and empathetic suggests success on this front.

With approval of the dean within pandemic protocols, I arranged a series of lunches with a small group of five students. We retrieved our meals from a nearby grocery-deli — wearing our masks of course. And then we gathered in a large and otherwise empty faculty lounge, where we could maintain distances of at least 12 feet between us and where ventilation was good (and, weather permitting, we could also open a door to an outside balcony). For that short time together, we could see each without a mask. And the small setting allowed me to learn about each of the students individually and exchange with them on a wide variety of topics. The only rule of conversation was that we would not talk about Civil Procedure. Many students commented in their later evaluations on how much these lunches meant to them, breaking down barriers and building relationships. One student called these lunches “particularly heartwarming.”

Sad to say, most of what I have described was not possible for those students who took the class online. That saddened me constantly. I’ve previously described the various things I did in class to bring online students into participation and to replicate as much as possible what was happening in the classroom for those who were remote. While I think that worked effectively for educational quality, it could not substitute for the absence from the community.

That being said, I think the strength of the community that the students built in the classroom had a ripple effect into the online students. The very strength of that community created an energy in the classroom that I believe was felt beyond the building.

Fostering Community Throughout the Law School During the Pandemic

While the quality of education focused almost exclusively on what happened between me and the students in the classroom, the fostering of community went well beyond the classroom. My role described earlier was dwarfed by the dedicated efforts of so many others.

Throughout the building (figuratively if not literally), deans, faculty, staff, and students devoted themselves to bolstering the community. I’ll describe below just a handful of these efforts, realizing there are many more about which I don’t even know.

Beginning early in March, Dean Rob Vischer posted a weekly inspirational message. He spoke of the challenges of the pandemic. He addressed anxieties as health risks continued and as city unrest threatened personal safety. He spoke boldly and plainly to the need to counter racism more aggressively as Minneapolis became ground-zero with the murder of George Floyd. And he continually called us to our better angels. This short description cannot begin to do justice to the power of these messages, which came from the soul of a God-fearing, good-hearted, and thoughtful man. Many of us found our spirits lifted, or our responsibilities reminded, even to the point of tears. Through recent posts on Mirror of Justice by Rob Vischer, you’ve been given a small taste of these nutritional messages. Most importantly, these deanly messages reminded us that we are not alone and that we still stand together, even when we are physically apart.

The student government maintained a lively set of virtual activities, from game nights to virtual happy hours. Student organizations continued to meet on Zoom, although some groups were more active than others, as several students shared with me that they missed gatherings with inactive groups to which they belonged.

Scott Swanson, our academic achievement director, led the way early on in the pandemic by making regular telephone calls to students who were remote. He and others made it a priority to contact several students a day for a one-on-one conversation. That personal connection was a life-line for many and, while not a substitute for community gatherings, reminded students that the community was still there.

The positivity and the personal nature of communications mattered. And those continued connections continually led us back to the purpose of our community. As our student president John Dixon put it, “It’s about the common good. We’re all in this together, and let’s all get through it together.”

*          *          *

In conclusion, I think our efforts to introduce new law students to our distinctive community and to continue community for upper level students were a guarded success. That the pandemic eroded our community at the edges cannot be denied. Nonetheless, we held onto to the center of community. The foundations of community remain strong so that we can leap forward again when there are no longer physical obstacles between us. Now we must pray for normalcy and hope that the months ahead will be very different.



Sisk, Greg | Permalink