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Legal Writing




This essay describes an approach to peer review and classroom workshopping intended to develop a community of inquiry in the first-year law school classroom, center students’ own rhetorical knowledge, and establish the authority of students—especially minoritized students—as rhetorical agents. The technique described in this essay works from the presumption that each student who comes to law school comes with rich rhetorical experience. In other words, they have extensive experience constructing discourse suited to certain audiences and certain contexts. They use a variety of tools to construct such discourse, including linguistic registers (or styles) and rhetorical genres (such as the academic paper). On one hand, it is possible that (some of) our marginalized and minoritized students are less familiar with certain formal and academic registers and genres than (some of) our nonmarginalized and nonminoritized students. On the other hand, it is likely that (many of) our minoritized students are skilled at shifting register and genre based on social context (code switching, style shifting, etc.) in ways that (many of) our nonminoritized students are not. As McMurtry-Chubb notes, “Minoritized students . . . come to law school with wisdom from their lived experiences on how to minimize the effects of their identity contingencies . . . .”

The approach I recommend here fits with the community of inquiry framework. Under that model, according to writing researcher Mary K. Stewart, “in a functioning community of inquiry, teaching presence and social presence support cognitive presence. In other words, when students experience a sense of community (social presence) and when the course design and instructor feedback guides students toward collaborative learning (teaching presence), then knowledge construction can result from interaction (cognitive presence).”

To meet these requirements, the professor must set the stage for a community where students offer each other supporting discourse by setting the climate in the classroom and selecting content for their discussions. This approach calls on legal writing professors to create a suitable climate: They decenter their own rhetorical authority in the classroom while retaining their professorial authority, but they emphasize students’ rhetorical authority so that they recognize it in each other. This builds a community of supporting discourse. The selection of materials—here, students' own writing—is critical to making participation in the community salient to students. When properly executed (and when the stars align to provide a good teaching day) this approach can “motivate students by encouraging positive emotions, such as confidence, by stimulating their interest, and by showing them how to use their skills to change their experiences and to help others.”

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The Legal Writing Institute

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