At Harvard Law School, some say faculty reliance on the Socratic method of teaching puts female students at a significant disadvantage to their male counterparts.
Part II of a three-part series on gender disparity issues at the Law School. Part I ran on May 6, and Part III ran on May 10.
Among the top students in their graduating classes, men and women entering Harvard Law School earn similar undergraduate grades and LSAT scores. But as soon as students step into Wasserstein Hall, a dramatic gender disparity emerges.
Indicators suggest that female students participate less and perform worse than their male counterparts over the course of their three years at the Law School.
“For better or worse, when women come to law school, they feel their gender more strongly than they may have in undergrad,” said third-year law student Stephanie E. Davidson, outgoing president of the Women’s Law Association. “I still barely have words to describe why that is or what that means. But you feel like a female lawyer instead of a lawyer.”
Davidson is not alone. Hundreds of students and faculty gathered this spring for Shatter the Ceiling, a new coalition whose goal is to address gender disparities at Harvard Law. The issue of imbalance in the classroom has emerged at the forefront of their discussions, prompting reactions across the campus and the nation over how women and men stack up.
IS SOCRATES SEXIST?
Harvard Law student Jessica R. Jensen hates the Socratic method. “It’s the worst thing in the world,” she said. “It forces you to talk like a man.”
“It made me feel really uncomfortable and incompetent at first, and it really impacted my performance in classes the first year,” Jensen said. “You feel like you don’t know the material really well because you feel like an idiot in class.”
Employed in some form across most classrooms at Harvard Law School, the Socratic method, a teaching style that relies on cold-calling, lies at the heart of the debate over gender issues and serves as a focal point for the Shatter coalition.
Today, many students and faculty have raised concerns over the teaching method, saying that men are more likely to participate voluntarily in Law School classes than women.
In a 2004 study on gender issues at Harvard Law School, a then-third-year law student Adam M. C. Neufeld found that men were 50 percent more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class, and 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times. The study also showed that 10 percent of students accounted for nearly half of all volunteered comments in first-year law classrooms.
“I think the big point is that many men weren’t talking too,” Neufeld said. “There was a small number of people who account for most of the comments.”
More recently, according to a 2012 study at Yale Law School, men made 58 percent of comments in the classroom, while women made 42 percent.
Yet the root cause of this disparity remains contested, as professors, students, and administrators debate whether the Socratic method—the traditional form of legal pedagogy—needs to be adapted to account for gender disparities in the classroom.
For many in the Law School, the Socratic method is an outdated teaching style that reinforces gender imbalances in academia.