April 01, 2004

Drama and Teaching

Posted by Ed

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune featured an interesting article about the lawyer Geoffrey Fieger. Fieger is best known for defending Jack Kevorkian and for his eccentric forays into Michigan politics, and here's how the Trib describes him:

Fieger sues and, more often than not, Fieger wins. Theatrical, bombastic and occasionally outrageous, Fieger, 53, has a knack for persuading juries to grant multimillion-dollar awards, including a $25 million liability award against "The Jenny Jones Show" in 1999, though that was later reversed on appeal. He has set the legal bold standard for malpractice cases in the past 25 years.

The Tribune article didn't highlight Fieger's flamboyant style or his misadventures in electoral politics, however. It described his decision to give four million dollars to the Michigan State University law school to create a mandatory program in drama for its law students. "We're trying to give students an awareness . . . that the jury is the audience and that they need to treat the case like a story," says a lawyer who teaches in Michigan State's theater department.

It's easy to make fun of this program, given Fieger's rather extreme interpretation of how theatrics should be used in the courtroom. Here's what Michael Barone's Almanac of American Politics has to say about Fieger's 1998 campaign for governor of Michigan:

Suddenly the spotlight was on Fieger, and it was not an attractive sight. [Governor John] Engler, he said, was ''fat,'' a ''moron,'' a ''racist,'' the product of barnyard miscegenation. He criticized his fellow Democrats as well. At a unity breakfast, he said they were ''a party of wimps and oatmeal''; he called [Detroit Mayor] Dennis Archer ''a slow learner.'' He called Catholic Archbishop Adam Maida a ''nut'' and when Council of Orthodox Rabbis called assisted suicide murder, he said ''They are closer to Nazis than they think they are.''... Fieger did have a program--cutting the sales tax and property taxes and repealing the gas tax and single-business tax--and spent $5.7 million of his own money on his campaign, but, despite his contempt for others' intelligence, showed no mastery of state issues.

I'd that it would be a bad idea for the American legal system to set out to train more Geoffrey Fiegers, though I doubt that this would be a major effect of the program. I'm also unenthusiastic about this program for other ideas (though I don't know exactly how the drama component will be added to the curriculum); I suspect that I'd hate to be required to take drama classes if I were in law school, for instance, and I'm not convinced that they'd be effective in producing better lawyers in the long run.

Even so, I can't help but wonder if this program is on to something, and not just in legal education. In general, I think it's fair to say that American graduate schools in history don't do a fantastic job teaching their students how to be good teachers. Certain dramatic techniques might well help lecturers to give effective presentations to their classes. Many history professors might benefit from greater appreciation of the fact that history can be told as a story--though that's a point I certainly don't want to overemphasize. I'd be wary of any program that treats lecturing as nothing more than a variety of drama, of course, but I can't help but think history education--or even graduate education in general--would benefit from increased attention to the art of communication.

Posted by Ed at April 1, 2004 12:42 PM

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