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"Persuasive in service of a better future": Kathleen Tarr's New Advanced PWR Course

Scales of justice and line drawing of woman with afro in blue-based illustration

Last spring Dr. Kathleen Tarr added a new course to the Advanced Rhetoric quiver: “Critical Rhetoric: Racism, Misogyny and the Law.” She is poised to teach the class again this Spring and generously took the time to share her inspirations for the course, gathered from an extensive academic, legal, filmic and pedagogic career. Her responses give insight not only to the intricacies of her thinking but also provide a deliberative guide to course design, one that meets the ambitious capacities of our students and the urgent claims of justice and equity.

You developed this course in conversation with Stanford University’s Black Pre-Law Society. Their mission is to help the black pre-law community at Stanford prepare for law school and careers in law, facilitate relationship building with faculty and alumni in the legal profession and promote social awareness. Can you tell us about the inspirations for this course—perhaps the conversation you had with the Black Pre-Law Society, or any other recent experiences?

I spoke with co-chairs of Stanford’s Black Pre-Law Society in 2019 about some ideas for my advanced course. I was interested in understanding what member students were seeking to fill the gaps in their undergraduate education. They stressed that Stanford doesn’t offer a pre-law track, so I wanted to make sure that the singular PWR 194 course I proposed would touch on most first-year law topics and develop some of the research, reading, and writing skills required to succeed in law school. … all in ten weeks! (foreshadowing: one of my biggest challenges as I consider course revisions before the Spring 2023 offering is the volume of content I want to share and the very real time limitations)

I also wanted to lean on the strengths of collaboration and community-oriented engagement that Dr. Jennifer Cohen recently affirmed in her co-authored article “Ten simple rules for successfully supporting first-generation/low-income (FLI) students in STEM.” Both are woven into the scope and sequence of my advanced course.

I recently tutored a student in Hume who was writing about bias in algorithms. Her research described decisions made by algorithms and then decisions made in the US (around health care, the carceral system and hiring practices). Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) they were echoes of each other. Your course seems to suggest something like this: that our laws are no more just than we as a country are just. What prejudices and bigotries are expressed in a country are sure to be expressed in its courtrooms and what occurs in the courtrooms returns to the community. If this seems a calcifying feedback loop, you write in your syllabus how understanding the battle against equity and inclusion in the legal system empowers students. I wonder if you can say a little more about this? 

James Baldwin wrote in his book The Fire Next Time, "in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is. .... To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” Law like academe and other industries and institutions is the product of the people involved and could be more just overnight if only the people with power were “better” than they are (which frankly, all of us should strive to be). Thus, if one strives for justice, one must endeavor to understand how people create these inequitable and exclusionary systems. … and one must understand that they are people, not demons, and not so different from any of us.

I share with students as example that Chester A. Arthur represented Elizabeth Jennings in her successful 1854 lawsuit against segregated transportation in New York. When he later became President, Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. One has to be able to understand and reconcile how both are product of a singular figure in order to understand bigotry and the consequences of a multitude of decisions, both great and small. Then use that understanding to be more persuasive in service of a better future. 

If we imagine systems are separate from the people involved, if we deny or minimize horrors like Chinese Exclusion or segregation, or if we are too emotionally overwhelmed with the pain of history, opportunities to make positive change are slim. The relentless optimist – optimism being the most significant and widely shared cognitive bias – is also a hindrance in the quest for enduring justice. If, for example, fifty years ago Congress had accepted the truth about people and the lessons history teaches, it might have legislated the right to abortion rather than simply rely upon a U.S. Supreme Court decision to protect reproductive privacy.

When I encourage students to think about critical rhetoric, in addition to Baldwin’s wisdom I emphasize Raymie E. McKerrow’s insight that “Rather than approach texts or documents as discrete, isolated monads, critical rhetoric treats them as woven together with other ideas, influences, and symbols.” Empowered with that understanding, students can draft a stronger battle plan.

Thinking about our justice system as a feedback loop led directly, for me, to Nina Menkes' 2022 documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Power-Camera, in which you were recently featured.  Congratulations! The film focuses on the invisible eye behind the Hollywood camera: demonstrating with relentless care, how it trains us to see—and not see—women, and how this intersects with the twin epidemics of sexual abuse/assault and employment discrimination against women, especially in the film industry. The film builds on your work as founder and moderator of the annual Symposium: “Getting Played: A Symposium on Equity in the Entertainment Industry and Awards.” I wonder if you can describe how your academic research and advocacy efforts inform this Advanced PWR course? 

Because of my experience as a lawyer, author of a few law review articles including Bias and the Business of Show, Getting Played Symposium producer, and activist for equity in the entertainment industry – primarily known now for work around gender including being one of the many “Silence Breakers” TIME Magazine recognized in 2017 as Person[s] of the Year and appearing in two recent documentaries, “Nevertheless” and “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” – I endeavored to highlight sex/gender discrimination in my advanced PWR alongside what usually appears in the Race And The Law courses common throughout the U.S. Since “race” is not actually the problem and is intersectional with other identities, my course became focused on racism, misogyny, and the law

Including sex discrimination opens the door to discussing homophobia in jurisprudence which are inextricably linked as freshly demonstrated by the 2020 Bostock decision. Demonstrating connections is key to my course as I ultimately hope to illuminate how the people who just can’t let go of their bigotries – including judges and legislators –entrench hatred and othering in our society. Since most people opt to maintain their power and privileges, the arc of jurisprudence bends toward injustice (apologies to MLK, Jr.). Depressing, yes, but also key to understanding the ongoing struggles and how to best combat them.

Before teaching in PWR, you received your JD from Harvard Law and worked as a human and civil rights attorney. I wonder, for those of us in PWR without this education and experience, if there are any strategies you gained as an attorney that serve you well in the classroom that you might share with us?

… and I was a rhetoric major at Berkeley! I think the most important contributions my education and legal practice bring to the classroom are the Socratic Method (which I love!) and frequent experience being persuasive – and not – in very high-stakes environments. When someone’s well-being is on the line, failing an argument doesn’t mean I receive a poor grade or lose out on a fellowship or an employment opportunity, it means a human being will not be made whole, will not experience justice. That might have meant for some of my veteran clients that they remain homeless; luckily, my clients and I won all of their VA cases, but the longer those cases took, the longer they suffered. To the extent my experiences fuel the importance I project onto critical rhetoric, that “strategy” as a teaching aid serves the task well. Obviously having practiced law better serves a course about jurisprudence.

My education and experience also help contextualize contemporary legal issues. SCOTUS’s current deliberation over Affirmative Action highlights how different understandings impact law, part of what I hope to illuminate for students in support of the Cultural Rhetorics Notation. The fact that the appellants demonstrate little outrage when white women benefit from affirmative action – and they benefit the most – but mount tremendous opposition when race is a consideration in higher education is exactly the type of lesson my course would offer. Such is likely the reason my 194 was cross-listed with CSRE, FemGen, and History. They are all connected as so are we.

As an undergraduate, I took a seminar on Epic Poetry. The professor would arrive, stand behind a podium and read off his printed notes to the class. Every once in a while he would open a thin flap of paper attached to his notes, read it and then fold it back; these must have been new thoughts he’d added to the lecture over time. I can’t decide, to this day, if this was a brilliant or ridiculous strategy. Sometimes our revisions to a course can be at this level of detail, sometimes we find the need to substantially rethink or reimagine our approach. You taught this course in Spring 2022 and are poised to teach it again this year. I wonder how you’re approaching it?

In addition to probably reducing the amount of material covered in my advanced Critical Rhetoric course, I would like to create more student buy-in about collaborations as well as make group work more effective. Success against injustice in particular is dependent upon partnership. Inevitably in the classroom, though, group work means students put in disproportionate time and effort. I want to challenge myself to create a space where everyone truly values the task and invests accordingly in the collective. If I actually knew how to achieve such, we’d be a lot further along as a society! Certainly I want to avoid what I dub the Josh Hawley Effect where a student’s sense of entitlement is flamed by their educational experience, and they go out into the world and cause great harms. Regardless, my investment in the meta guides the course revisions. I want students to do what I am trying to help them learn.