In this conversation, Professor of Law Dr. Barbara Bernier discusses teaching EXPLO students in her Trial Law + The American Justice system class. She shares her history of teaching law, how her class came together, and her many stops along the way.
Can you tell us a little about your life outside of EXPLO?
Well, in my working life I'm a law professor. I live in Florida right now. I grew up in New York, lived in DC and Rhode Island and Pennsylvania...lots of different places. Right now I'm living in Orlando. I taught remotely at the University of Illinois this past semester I taught a course called Feminist Jurisprudence, which focused on constitutional law and women's issues.
What brought you all the way up here from Florida?
This job brought me here. I was actually offered the instructional design component of the course, which meant putting a course together and setting up the curriculum and that sort of thing (and I did that). Then they asked me to teach as well, so here I am.
What do you enjoy about working with this age group?
I usually work with law students who are a little bit older...but I think what's interesting about this age group is they're new to law; they’re finally being introduced to these new concepts. They're young, and I would say they're enthusiastic. I think they're open to new ideas and how we deal with things. There is a genuine kind of curiosity you see with the students.
How is it different than other teachings you've done?
Law students are, at the very least, college graduates, and a lot of them come to law firms with other degrees. So you have all kinds of people who were doctors, engineers, etc. So it's not a monolithic group of 22-year-olds. They come from different worldviews and different experiences. So it's a different angle to teaching them. It’s more “all about the law.”
Were there any ways that these students surprised you with their answers or in conversation?
What's really interesting about them is that they have a very high level of understanding. They get the concepts on the first go around. We have sophomores all the way up to seniors, so we have students with lots of different life experiences. They’re really interested. They want to be lawyers. I'd say they're inquisitive and curious.
So why were the cases taught in class chosen?
Is this about my cannibal class?
It wasn't, but I’m curious now.
Apparently, it was all the talk on whitewater rafting yesterday. But I chose that the same way I chose them all. I tried to structure the class so that the cases would appeal to the students. I talked about things like what happens to students when they're in juvenile court and can't pay the bail (they go to jail). They go to detention, as they call it. So I tried to pick information that would be germane to them. How do you buy a car? What does that mean when we say there's a contract? What happens if someone punches you in the face of school? Can you sue them? What does the Constitution cover? I tried to pick topics that they could relate to as younger students, or students who are emerging into early adulthood.
Were there any particular lessons about Trial Law and the American Justice System, that you would hope the students carry with them after these two weeks?
Learning how to listen better and how to be critical about what they read. The difference between a fact and an opinion.I would hope that they understand why something is an opinion versus why something a fact, and is one debatable one is not debatable. I think maybe they maybe they got something out of that. That is an essential, vital skill.
I also gave them an immigration test, which was pretty interesting — let's take an immigration test and discuss whether all immigrants should have to take one. You have to wonder with the attitude people have that immigrants shouldn't be here. They know our history. We all need to know this stuff — an uninformed electorate is a dangerous thing.
What can we expect from the mock trials and the final few days of classes? What are you looking forward to?
Judge Gabriel is going to teach the students how to prepare to take a criminal case to the courtroom, They're getting the nuts and bolts of things that take the rest of us a year to learn in three days, so they're gonna do a mini case. How do you introduce evidence, how do you stop someone from bringing something, how do you pick a witness...on the fourth day, Judge Jabar will come back, and he and Judge Gabriel will each take a group to run a trial. The student will get to experience what it’s like to prepare for court and take their case to trial.