Guest post: Upset people don’t process information well

Originally a comment by Brisvegan on Even when you are emotionally invested.

I am a law lecturer. Many of my students will go on to practice law. However, legal practice is enormously variable. Some will work in criminal law, dealing with the worst of offenders, some in family law, with distressing family breakdowns and some will work in areas like leasing or commercial transactions, which don’t require them to deal with the more traumatic sides of human experience. Each student must still study core curriculum that includes cases with very nasty facts. However, some very able students and lawyers will create a professional life that lets them avoid areas of practice that they personally can’t cope with.

I teach in an area where a bunch of cases on evidence law include details of sexual assaults. However, do I put sexual assault facts on exams? No. I can test the same knowledge without triggering sexual assault survivors by detailing assaults.

I don’t see why this question would be on an exam. It clearly signals to some students that their concerns over Michael Brown’s human rights and their compassion for his family are merely matter for intellectual games, not serious life altering, frightening events that signal a lack of safety for people of colour. It also depicts his supporters as violent, in a way which would reinforce the prejudices of those who argue that black lives matter less.

I would not set this question, because it could distress a bunch of my students, unnecessarily. Upset people don’t process information as well as calm people. The group most likely to be upset are people of colour. Thus, this question rigs the exam against people of colour. The same knowledge could easily be tested using a completely different question. So, I would use a less racially charged, distressing question.

As to lawyers having to confront distressing issues in court: Many do. Many don’t. Those who do often don’t have only limited exam pressured time to come up with an answer. Even if they have limited time, the situation and outcome would be very different. They would often have time, professional experience and professional support to help process and deal with difficult issues before during or after distressing events. They would be able to make a direct difference via their acts and client representation. The difference is like that between having vile taunts flung at you and working to expose or reduce vile taunts. The words and person might be the same, but the sense of power and ability to cope are different. A great student might be knocked off balance by suddenly being confronted with this question in an exam, but might still go on to be an amazing human rights lawyer.


  1. Brisvegan says

    Wow, I did not expect to become a guest post and am rather flattered that Ophelia found my point of view so helpful to the discussion.

    I’m just glad I could help people see a different aspect of the issue.

    To let you know, we can and do discuss topical issues of human rights in class, where I can keep the discussion non-bigoted and ensure non-dominant voices are heard, but I don’t put triggery or overly upsetting stuff in assessment for the reasons I mentined above. I also give trigger warnings ahead of some weeks and mention the availability of support services when we deal with difficult issues in class, like cases related to sexual assault. Students have mentioned that this approach helps them to cope better with difficult content. Most of my students are amazing, thoughtful people who I am proud to work with, so many future lawyers will be great humans as well.

  2. qwints says

    Why is this fact pattern more likely to have a disparate impact than an exact recital of Brandenburg or Skokie?

  3. says

    My mind has been changed as well. I like when that happens.

    The way I usually think of it is that I hate being wrong. I also hate it when it’s pointed out that I’m wrong. But I hate being wrong even more than having it pointed out, because having it pointed out gives me the opportunity to not continue being wrong. 🙂

  4. Numenaster says

    Anthrosciguy @ #8:

    That’s exactly my rationale too. Hate being wrong–hate hate hate it. The sooner I know I’m doing it, the sooner I can stop.

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