by VANISHA H. SUKDEO
While there is much discussion about anti-bullying in schools, I think the focus needs to go beyond how to combat the menace of bullying and move to the next stage. My idea is to not just alleviate bullying and make the classroom a neutral setting but to create a pro-friendly classroom, one in which the focus is not just on being civil but being friendly. Also, I am very interested in exploring how to make classrooms a ‘safe space’ for the exchange of ideas and tolerance but also ‘friendly spaces’ in that creating a warm, happy environment for students might help to foster learning. This may be a tall order at a law school but I have hope. The idea that I am working on is something akin to anti-bullying but more along the lines of ‘pro-friendly’.
There was a recent study by Professor Jane O’Reilly and her team that being ostracized in the workplace may have greater damage than being bullied. Professor O’Reilly states that bullying is negative attention and energy from others while ostracism conveys that one is not even worthy enough for others’ attention and effort. She notes that ostracism removes interactional dynamic and potential for exchange.
As I have written about in one of my articles, “while discussing legal education, it is also important to consider the underlying layers of socialisation that occur within the classroom setting. The phrase ‘hidden curriculum’ is often used to describe the maintenance of hierarchical structures such as socio-economic class within the classroom. The phrase also denotes the socialisation of attending school, in that one is taught how to behave and act.”
It seems as though bullying in law schools may not be the same as bullying in elementary schools or high schools, but I am concerned about the isolation and exclusion that may be occurring in law schools. I do not think that law schools need anti-bullying programs but rather going beyond encouraging this base level of civility that the LSUC expects and instead move on towards creating a pro-friendly space. Again, this is separate from a ‘positive space’ environment that is usually used to refer to a space that is sexual orientation friendly. I went through such training while attending law school at Queen’s University and working as Editor-in-Chief of the Graduate Student newspaper antiThesis.
I argue that the focus should be on exclusion versus inclusion. If you look at the typical classroom there may be instances where group dynamics are skewed along certain lines. My discussion does not focus on racism, sexism, or classism but rather that people can be excluded from the classroom for numerous reasons and rather than focus on the problem I would like to focus on the solution.
This can be described as a form of social alienation or social isolation. Going back to Professor O’Reilly, this may be more distressing than bullying. It essentially undermines one’s self-worth if one is made to feel less valuable than others in the classroom. I am very aware when teaching to think about who is excluded and needs to be nudged into participation versus the painfully shy who would probably rather remain on the sidelines. Also, simple tasks such as group work in my Legal Process classroom in which I always partner up the students myself rather than allow the students to choose which ensures that no one is left out and helps students speak to others besides their friend next to them.
In my own work exploring how corporations can be used to help increase the rights of workers I know that there is a limit to both hard law and soft law. One cannot be legislated to be nice to others beyond a superficial level (e.g. Good Samaritan Laws that exist). Wage increases and better benefit packages may help a worker provide for their family but does not necessarily increase one’s self-worth in the workplace. Same with students – better grades will not help a student feel more included in day-to-day classroom settings.
I would propose that those who teach students should at the very least think about ways to foster a warm learning space for students. Law schools are known to encourage healthy competition. But what is to be done when that competition becomes unhealthy? And one can be friendly without giving up on striving for excellence. The two are not mutually exclusive.
What do I do in the classroom to try to achieve a pro-friendly space? I have been a Course Director at Osgoode for 4 years. The first day of class I provide an anecdote to the students about taking an American Sign Language (ASL) class through the Canadian Hearing Society: “We watched a video in ASL class and it emphasized that when someone in the deaf community corrects your signing it should be taken well as it is a way of allowing you to know the right way – how to be better at signing. So I hope all of you can take feedback in that same manner with the understanding that your Instructor wants to see you do your best and that feedback is meant to help you on that path.” I also emphasize that the classroom is a place where we have to be respectful of other people’s opinions and views. Words are powerful and simply stating what is to be expected of students helps to shape the classroom environment.
Vanisha H. Sukdeo, B.A., LL.B., LL.M. is a Ph.D. Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is a Course Director at Osgoode Hall Law School, and a Fellow at the Critical Research Laboratory in Law & Society. Vanisha is on the CALT Executive.
 “Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work” online: <http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.2014.0900>.
 Vanisha H. Sukdeo, “Global Legal Scholarship and Interdisciplinarity” (2013) 4: 4 Transnational Legal Theory 639-644 at 641.
 See the Law Society of Upper Canada’s initiative ‘Treasurer’s Report on the Civility Forum’, online: <www.lsuc.on.ca/media/convmay10_treasuers_report.pdf>.
 See example at Queen’s University, online: <http://www.queensu.ca/positivespace/>.