Adapting Traditional Ways of Teaching to Undergraduate Legal Studies

By Deborah Periman

Deborah Periman Poster

Context of the Inquiry

Course Background

This is a 200 level required course in the Justice major.  It serves two purposes: (1) to build a foundation for more advanced studies of contemporary constitutional questions and public policy and (2) to  familiarize students with content not available to them elsewhere in the curriculum.  In this course we cover significant eras of legal development in the United States, selected areas of constitutional history, and contemporary tensions in the legal system.  Students are introduced to and perform primary historical research, and integrate that research into a term paper.  The pace moves very quickly, and there is always material left over at the end of class that we have not had time to cover.

Learning Objectives

Students who complete the course will:

  • comprehend the historic distinction between common law and civil law systems, and the significance of our common law heritage in American legal development;
  • recognize the inherent tension between judicial and legislative lawmaking in the United States;
  • be able to identify the role of social, economic, and political conditions on lawmaking and implementation of the law, and the impact of legal change on individual and collective values and behaviors and on economic condition and social status;
  • understand the significant eras of American constitutional development and historically important U.S. Supreme Court decisions;
  • understand significant eras of legislative and judicial lawmaking and historically important legislation and judicial decisions;
  • have developed an analytic foundation on which to evaluate contemporary legal issues;
  • recognize the distinction between primary and secondary research resources, be able to evaluate secondary resources, and be able to integrate and credit primary sources and scholarly authorities in their writing.

Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

Inquiry: whether incorporating ways of teaching and knowing associated with Alaska Native traditions will improve student retention, enhance participation and engagement, assist students in thinking more deeply about the consequences of distributive justice in the United States and the relationship between group values and legal development, and reduce student stress and fatigue at the end of the semester?

Ideal outcomes:

o   all students enrolled, other than those who experience unexpected health or personal problems, will successfully complete the course

o   students will think more critically and deeply about western legal institutions and doctrines in contrast with traditional Alaska Native practices

o   students will consider and be able to articulate the relationship between their own cultural values and dominant social mores, and the relationship between dominant social values and the development of law

o   students will think more critically and deeply about the consequences of distributive justice in the United States, and the effect of social values, bias, and economic self-interest on lawmaking

o   students will exhibit fewer signs of stress and fatigue at the end of the semester

Course Design and Implementation

Substantive content and content delivery were redesigned to incorporate pedagogies specifically identified as typical of Alaska Native ways of learning and knowing.   These included:

  • Earth/Nature Based Pace: slowing the rhythm of class lectures, providing more time for reflection, and reducing the amount of new material presented in the last weeks of the course as outside temperatures dropped and daylight decrease
  • Place-based Learning: in substantive content placing greater emphasis on significant events in Alaska’s legal history and contemporary issues confronting Alaska lawmakers
  • Silence/Pausing: noting natural breaks in substantive content (“natural eddies”) and planning periods for individual or small group reflection and informal responsive writing at these natural breaks; monitoring group attentiveness and responding to signs of fatigue with time for reflection or paired or group activity to improve energy 
  • Respecting Diversity of Perspective: in substantive coverage of historical events, structuring discussion to encourage students to identify the interests and perspectives of competing parties, and the effect of legal change on discrete social groups
  • Storytelling: using written and recorded oral histories to allow students to hear the voices of participants involved in significant events in American legal history, and to reflect on the consequences of legal change through the eyes of those participants


The data from the student before and after surveys shows no significant change in reported attitudes.  However, the students’ discussion comments and writings over the course of the semester reflected a greater willingness to consider the impact on lawmaking of ethnicity, bias, and economic self-interest  than I often see.  This group of students appeared to develop a greater sensitivity than those in other semesters to the historic inequities of distributive justice and its consequences for those lacking full legal status or political power. They were typically fully engaged during periods of small group activity and structured full group discussion, and course retention rates were high.

Student reflections on the historic impact of ethnicity on legal development and civil liberties included the following: 

“I think it’s important to realize that inequality is always going to be around in some way but to fight for equality and to be aware of inequality is our job as citizens.”

“The way to enact social change through the courts is a slow movement that builds precedent.”

“I think that it is important to realize that one man was able to create a strategy to take down all the legal precedent regarding Jim Crow and the segregation of the races in America.”

“It is important to never forget this history . . . racism isn’t completely cured; and freedom of it should not be taken for granted.”

“[o]ne man’s dream can change the world.”

“Too many people take for granted that what’s now has always been.”

“Moral views of today are much different from those in the early 20th century and I think it’s important that more people are educated on what really happened during that crucial time period in our history.”

“[S]ocial change is never easy but with diligent intelligent efforts and education real change is possible.”

“Another important thing to remember is that even though the law may say one thing, what actually happens in real life may be entirely different . . . change cannot simply be  symbolic, but  . . . real as well in practice.”

“With the loss of elders, the Aleuts lost a great part of their culture and for many years the culture stood still.”

“Lawmaking has almost, until recently, always been in the interest of the whites in this country and has been very racist.”

“Racism and paternalism played a large part in the internment and segregation of the Aleuts.”

“The abuse of the Aleut people by the federal government for financial gain is a reminder of the slow advancement of true civil liberty for all members of our society.”


Certainly, the most important outcome of this project was what I perceived to be the students’ increased understanding of historic inequities in the legal system, and enhanced empathy for those lacking a voice in the development of law.  However, apart from student outcomes, another significant benefit of this structured inquiry into student learning, and deliberate strategizing on methods of content delivery and student response, was my own renewed energy in the classroom and interest in the teaching process. (In other words, the class was more fun for me this semester!) This in itself must have contributed to improved student outcomes.

My greatest concern on this project was the reduction in substantive content presented to the students due to the altered pacing and additional time afforded for discussion and reflection. However,  focusing on the contrast between traditional western models of education and traditional Native ways of learning reduced my discomfort on this issue.  Ultimately, I felt that the overall level of student success, coupled with the students' critical reflections on inequities in the law and expressed empathy for those groups lacking full legal status or a political voice, amply justified the reduction in the scope of information presented during class.

Faculty Contact

Deb Periman

Justice Center

University of Alaska Anchorage

3211 Providence Dr., LIB 213

Anchorage, AK 99508

Phone (907) 786-1125

Fax (907) 786-7777