Transitioning this course to the virtual delivery mode, as one would expect, has been challenging, especially amid the pandemic and deepening inequities, civil uprisings following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the campaign for Defund and Abolition, RBG’s death and the nomination to the Supreme Court, and the Presidential election and disinformation campaigns. In preparing for the virtual class, I meticulously reviewed teaching blogs and best practices in online learning to create an active student learning environment in the virtual context. I front loaded the course with readings and assignments, with the hope of providing structure and organization to our everyday uncertainties. As much as I have enjoyed the well-organized structure, what I have learned over the semester is the importance of reflexive pedagogy, which is premised on providing students with agency and active learning outside the classroom. At the same time, I have found inviting students to apply theoretical questions to address a social problem, can be particularly supportive.
The reflexive teaching strategies that I have adopted in this course have been open conversation time before class, engaging with news, and discussion posts on the readings on Perusall. The open conversation time has been beneficial as it has enabled me to create informal office hour conversations and get to know students outside of class and their interests. Students have often brought their reflection about news and their lived experiences to these open conversations, which has helped create a community. I have used the open conversations as a starting point for class, summarizing it for those who missed. Among the many online tools, I decided on Perusall to annotate the text and add reflection on the readings. This format has enabled students to engage with the text and share their analysis and reflection on the reading. The annotation assignments, in addition to reading reviews, helped build a community as students engaged with peers in unpacking complex ideas. It has generated an ongoing conversation among students on the readings and their observations, in ways that cannot be captured only in class discussions. Besides, based on student reflections and interests, I have occasionally set aside time to discuss the elections (most of my class voted for the first time) to build connections with the readings and policy debates. These conversations resulted in the class designing their assignment in the second half of the semester, in lieu of my preplanned class debates.
Intrigued by the New Jersey ballot on recreational marijuana, students suggested that they would like to do a class-project to examine the ballot’s implication on student life. The question of race and criminalization of drugs has been part of an ongoing conversation in class, especially in the context of BLM and policing, and detentions. Students had enjoyed a guest lecture by a detention attorney from the American Friends Service Committee on the precarity of immigrants’ rights and the detentions due to drug possessions. Given the approved ballot measure, it naturally caught students’ attention, and they had many questions that came up in our open conversation time before class. Even so, I was hesitant to change my preplanned debate assignment, I relented because I saw this as an opportunity to build connections with readings and their environment, teach about race, ethnicity and the law, and policy-making process the college, state, and federal level.
I have been most impressed by this demonstration of student agency in designing the assignment and the enthusiasm for research. The collaborative assignment, as it developed, has been scaffolded in stages. The first stage was a phase of exploration- we invited the Director of Student life to our virtual class to speak about college-level policy-making process. I created a discussion forum for students to share their thoughts and generate questions about federal, state, and college policy on recreational marijuana, criminalization of weed, implications of college policy on student life, ballot measure and the weed economy, etc. Students worked collaboratively to assort questions into different categories and worked in teams to focus on different jurisdictions. Based on the discussion posts, I drafted the assignment on the New Jersey ballot on recreational marijuana and its implications for student life and created teams to focus on specific areas. I used this opportunity to invite students to apply the theoretical framings we had learned in class to the ballot measure and create recommendations for college.
The second stage of the project was research. Student teams have conducted primary research on federal policies, marijuana bills in NJ, the ballot measure, interviewed student club exec. members on campus, interviewed administrators and public safety, etc. Students reviewed the literature on the criminalization of marijuana and policing of minority communities and have also read college policies in states where recreational marijuana has been legalized. Students have followed lobbying groups in New Jersey and also considered the demography of the college. Given the limited time and scope of virtual research, they have been cognizant of the research process’s limitations, which has led to interesting reflections on why access to some data is complicated.
The final phase of the research is writing the report for the Office of Student Conduct on campus. This is ongoing, but from drafts that I have had a chance to review, it is promising. What I have enjoyed in this exercise is active learning and collaborative exercise. It has encouraged critical reflection within their academic and personal lives and also given students agency. Student posts have led us to consider legal pluralism, criminalization, construction of legality and illegality, etc. Given the class’s demography, the insights from different disciplinary perspectives that students bring and their lived experience have enriched the research process, no doubt. Although they are still working on the report, the enthusiasm, research, teamwork, and ongoing reflection is impressive. Admittedly, this process has its success and limits—but it has undoubtedly allowed for us as a class to analyze patterns of exclusion and inclusion and an opportunity to create academic knowledge to be shared outside the classroom.
Sanghamitra Padhy is an Associate Professor of Law and Society at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Her teaching and research focus on law and public policy, environmental justice, human rights, international law, and sustainability.