Excerpted From: Nadiyah J. Humber, Teaching Race and Law in the Gen Z Classroom, 29 Roger Williams University Law Review 33 (Fall, 2023) (68 Footnotes) (Full Document)


NadiyahJHumberI teach Race and the American Legal System at the University of Connecticut School of Law. My course is closely modeled after a 2020 pilot project with Professors Diana Hassel and Nicole Dyszlewski from Roger Williams University School of Law (RWU Law). The piloted course has evolved and is now required in the curriculum for fall semester second-year students at RWU Law. The course I teach remains an elective. Foundational to both the RWU Law required course and my UConn Law elective course is the three-module framework. The course is divided into three sections: Historical Origins of White Supremacy; Systems of Racism; and Going Forward. Addressing the past, the present, and the future is an effective method “to expose students to important legal history, the relevance of that history to present legal doctrine, and the possibility of reform and repair.” The following is a description that conveys the goal of the module format:

Three questions: (1) what the law did; (2) what the law is doing; and (3) what the law should do, are helpful to frame why the three modules make sense for a race and the law course. Starting a race and the law course with historical origins is a worthwhile strategy because it centers knowledge accumulation. Students are eager to understand the past, and by focusing on what the law did, you can more easily ground students in facts, which is beneficially linked to building trust in the classroom. There is little room for debate when discussing facts. What the law is doing and what it should do are questions reserved for later classes. The contextualization of history creates a natural scope for the direction of class discussion. From our perspective, the role of the instructor is not to convince students about the existence of structural racism. Rather, by reading historical records and primary sources that explicitly detail how the law controlled the social and political will of [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] people in America, discussions of systems of racism are more informed and less contentious.

Effectively facilitating conversations about race requires forethought and foundation-building. Literature examining structural racism often triggers emotional responses, especially in our hyperpolarized political landscape. Inspiring trust in the classroom is an important first step in allowing students to substantively engage with one another about contentious issues. An anti-racist legal education, at minimum, should provide students with a forum to think critically about how race has shaped legal institutions in America. My learning objectives require students to participate in a variety of small and large group activities, write reflectively, co-lead class discussions, and submit research papers analyzing a legal issue. These formative and summative assessments allow students to communicate and collaborate with one another, present formally, and analyze race and law on a deeper level. In turn, students become more well-rounded, culturally competent attorneys. To accomplish the learning goals described, classmates must first participate in a humanizing activity to get to know their fellow students. This initial phase is key for Gen Z students to converse about race and law more easily.

In the remainder of this essay, I will share my experience teaching my Race and the American Legal System course to primarily Gen Z students. To do so, I begin Section I with a summary of generational theory and the role this theory plays when teaching a race and law course to Gen Z students. Section II briefly explains Gen Z typology that is helpful for understanding student expectations and classroom engagement. Section III expands on how Gen Z typology influences how I teach in my classroom. I provide anecdotes to demonstrate the importance of building trust for the purposes of having hard, but much needed, conversations about race and the law.

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Understanding Gen Z peer personalities informs classroom instruction and aligns with my teaching philosophy to be inclusive and adaptive for diverse groups of students. While not a perfect science, generational theory has some value in classroom settings that require peer-to-peer engagement. As legal educators, we must reasonably adjust to student needs and expectations. This practice takes work but is a particularly worthy endeavor for a course that centers on race and law.

Nadiyah J. Humber is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law (UConn Law) where she teaches on topics related to race and law, housing, and civil rights.