Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

An Online College Course in Gender and the Law

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | November 17, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: law and gender, LAWS 341, online college classes, online learning, Ramapo College

I'm offering an elective course on gender and the law this Spring at Ramapo College. bored students.jpg

It's nice when your job and your interests coincide, so it's especially sweet to be teaching this course. The course will examine the law's role in regulating sex, gender and sexuality, the role of gendered social differences in the social and justice systems, and the intersection of gender with other bases of social stratification, such as race, class, disability and sexual orientation. Should have some interesting controversies in that class. I hope to share some of them with our readers here at Bilerico.

But what's equally interesting is that the course is right in the middle of another controversy. It's going to be an online course, and academia is aboil with controversy about the benefits and detriments of online classes. There was an article in the New York Times the other day on this very subject. The Grey Lady was not amused, not amused at all.

"When I look back, I think it took away from my freshman year," said Kaitlyn Hartsock, a senior psychology major at [University of] Florida who was assigned to two online classes during her first semester in Gainesville. "My mom was really upset about it. She felt like she's paying for me to go to college and not sit at home and watch through a computer."

Ouch. Is mom right? After all, college ain't cheap, and if you're paying through the nose for bricks and mortar, you don't want college lite.

This may delight undergraduates who do not have to change out of pajamas to "attend" class. But it also raises questions that go to the core of a college's mission: Is it possible to learn as much when your professor is a mass of pixels whom you never meet? How much of a student's education and growth -- academic and personal -- depends on face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students?

The Times has a point. I've taught online classes several times before, usually during the summer in a shortened format. The concern about online courses is that the teacher often does not interact in real time with the students at any point. That makes an online course similar to a correspondence course, where they give you a list of books, and you mail in your exams. If most people could really learn that way, we wouldn't really need colleges, just a list of Great Books. The truth is that learning is hard, and most people can't read and absorb information. They have to be prompted. And every class dynamic is different. The same course taught to a group of different people is totally different. Teachers must constantly assess whether the students are getting it. Student interaction with each other is also important, because studies show that the peer process motivates learning in a way that teacher-student interactions can't. So a poorly done online class is nothing more than a correspondence course.

Well, New York Times, my class sure isn't going to be just a bunch of pixels. You wouldn't believe the amount of time that goes into structuring one of these online courses, when done right.

First of all, the book we're using is incredibly good. It's "Sexuality, Gender and the Law," by Yale law professor Bill Eskridge and Georgetown law professor Nan Hunter. It's a few years old, and it's the abridged edition (but still 600 pages long -- you should see the regular casebook edition!). But there's nothing like it on the market, and it's so well written. I love this sentence from the preface:

As an area of study, sexuality, gender and the law is often thought to be marginal to "core" law. We believe that such a view is wrong today and will become only more wrong in the future. No one disputes that the field has grown to be vast...But the field is more than big; it is central.

I couldn't agree more. It's at the center of a lot of controversies, and, frankly, gender is one of the basic ways in which we define the world. If that ain't central, I don't know what is.

The book is kinda awful on trans issues, and the index (which the authors probably had nothing to do with) lists only "transvestism," leaving out transsexual and transgender entirely. But never fear, it's me teaching the course, and the book provides a great framework for discussing gender and gender identity. Trust me, I will be providing additional readings, and not only on that. This whole area of law is exploding. (By the way, that's what professors are doing when they're not in the classroom or grading papers. They're boning up on the latest in the field. That's more important, in some ways, than the teaching. I mean, anyone can read out of a textbook and ask a few good questions to spark discussion. But how many really know what they're talking about?)

The other thing the book isn't designed to do that well is to provide information about the liberal arts aspect of all these issues. The authors go much farther than most similar law textbooks in providing snippets of readings from social science and humanities authors, so they definitely deserve kudos for that. But since I teach undergraduates, and not law school students, it is incumbent on me to provide a broader social science and humanities context to all of this. For example, we really need to include the history of women's rights, and the historical development of seminal concepts of "sex," "gender," "sexuality," and "sexual orientation."

The way the course works is that you read a section from the book, as well as some readings online, and you get some questions to answer as you go along in the reading. Then you watch and listen to video and audio lectures from me, discussing the meaning of the readings, as well as providing critiques and other viewpoints. Then you take an online multiple-choice quiz to assess how well you understand. Then you find a recent newspaper article or online video that relates to the readings, and post it online in our discussion group, explaining how it's relevant and interesting. There are telephone conference calls, prior to which each student must submit questions about the issues raised by the course, and wherein we have a discussion about how all this relates to real life. I'm also available for individual discussions as well.

After 7 weeks of this, there's a midterm multiple-choice exam. A paper is also due at this time, in which the students come up with a thesis about law and gender, and justify it using the class readings and some outside sources. There's also an experiential component, in which students have to do original research on the interaction of gender and the law, using interviews, participant-observation and/or survey administration. At the end of the course, there's a final multiple-choice exam, and a final thesis paper.

It's sure going to be an interesting course. At least I think so.

But I'm still worried about that Times article. Can students really learn in an online format? I believe they can, if proper techniques for online engagement are used.

Anyway, it was either go online, or cancel the course. I really didn't have much of a choice. The course has been very popular in the past, but I made the mistake of originally scheduling it 3:45-5:15 Tuesdays and Fridays. The Administration, which is trying to utilize classroom space more efficiently, has been trying to getting us to schedule courses at these times, noting that the corridors of Ramapo are like a ghost town on Friday afternoons. I kind of felt like we "lazy" professors ought to try to help out. So I scheduled the course then, instead of the slot I used in the past, Wednesdays 3:00-6:15.

What I didn't realize was that the reason profs don't schedule classes for Tues/Fri 3:45-5:15 isn't because they want to get out early on Fridays. It's because students want to get out early on Fridays.

In a class that usually has 30 students, I've got 4 enrolled. That means the class would ordinarily be cancelled.

So I'm nixing the Tues/Fri schedule, and offering the course totally online, and hope people will enroll. I don't know whether that will help, but I sure hope so. It would be a shame to cancel this course, which won't be offered again for another two years.

If you have any suggestions for readings or videos for the course, let me know. I'll let you know how it goes! And I think I can open up some discussion forums for guests. Wouldn't it be cool to invite Bilerico readers to interact with college students on this topic? (In a monitored forum, of course. Some of us can be a bit much.)

If you're interested in taking the course for college credit, it's Women, Gender and the Law, LAWS 341. I think it costs like $1000 as an individual class. If you don't care about college credit, you can audit for $150.


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As someone who gets my paycheck from online classes, this is a subject that I think about a lot. I think of some of my undergrad classes, lower division courses which most people took to fulfill general requirements, which had two or three hundred students in them. In those classes, the professors never had face to face interactions with the students, except for a few random questions after a lecture by a small minority of the class -- or at office hours which would still be an option for students taking an online course. And they certainly didn't tailor the class the where students were. I doubt those classes would have been any worse for having an online format.

Upper level discussion based courses? That's another interesting question. We certainly have very detailed discussions here on Bilerico. I'm sure an online class would be capable of the same. And like you said, the right structure can really encourage that. I had a class where each student was required to post one comment on the discussion board per week -- it was not enough. People read just enough of the material to make one point and left the conversation, there was no interaction. If I were you, I'd require at least 3 comments per week, that some of those have to be responding to other people's comments. And that for a participation grade you also take into account additional comments (so they don't check out once they reach their required comment limit) and quality of comments (i.e. "Great point, I agree" shouldn't count).

Just kidding. But I do agree about the online discussions. My discussion forum is set up so that it requires them to apply the course concepts to the real world, by finding a newspaper article and relating it to the course concepts. They will not be able to see other's work until they input their own, so that will cut down on plagiarism. As far as requiring comments, I think what I'll do is set it up as extra credit rather than a requirement. I have found that making something a requirement often means that people do the minimum. If it's extra credit, they seem to work harder. So if they make a substantive comment, they get half a point extra credit, and a full point if they make an insightful comment, max of two points per discussion forum. What do you think of that?

OK, as a person with a military back ground I can say, YES an on-line or even self paced course can be effective. From my perspective, it’s actually better in some ways. (you know me Jillian, but the 'public' here doesn't) so a bit of back ground.

I'm Intersexed. I was born this way. Starting at 10 I (a 'boy') started to develop way more female than anyone liked. Even the teachers got in on the act. Ever try to learn something from someone who either doesn't like you or outright harasses you every day? Not a good learning experience. At the end of my 4th year of high school I had a 0.64 gpa. This didn’t mean I was dumb. My ACT, SAT and ASVAB scores were in the top 5% of the state. It’s just when you’re dealing with the level of harassment I was, it really reflects in your school work. My 5th year my gpa for that lone year was 3.5.

I did do the regular college thing for a year. One of my biggest pains was one teacher I had for two classes. The teacher would go on for the whole class time on how ‘back in the day, I used to work for da mob in Jersey’. Great stories, didn’t learn a thing. He was so busy talkin bout the old days runnin numbers, we didn’t even know what the mid-term was about. He had a 90% failure rate for his mid-terms. Of course, he had a 100% failure rate for his job after that semester.

When I started school in the Navy, it was all self passed course work. No teacher to berate me and my fellow ‘students’ were restrained by something called the UCMJ and the chain of command. With the usual harassment gone, I did ok. I passed Avionics A and B schools which are some of the harder schools.


So, here’s a timely question for your class to work on.
‘Alex’ goes to the airport to fly to Thailand. ‘Alex’ is a pre-operative Male to Female transgender person. She doesn’t want to go thru the body imager because she’s afraid to be pulled out and delayed to her surgical date.
She also doesn’t want a male TSA agent to give her a pat down due to a childhood sexual assault by a police officer.
She doesn’t want a female TSA agent to give her a pat down because she’s a pre-op transgender person and knows that she could face legal issues for having a female agent pat down her male body parts.
She would allow a Transgender TSA agent to pat her down, but the TSA doesn’t have Transgender agents.
So, how much of a pain is this? Hey, real world questions, need real world answers.

If you have any suggestions for readings or videos for the course, let me know. I'll let you know how it goes! And I think I can open up some discussion forums for guests. Wouldn't it be cool to invite Bilerico readers to interact with college students on this topic? (In a monitored forum, of course. Some of us can be a bit much.)

I'm curious about how this would work. Would one have to register to be involved with this? Would there be a fee to participate?

To answer Gina9223's question: This would be handled by a female TSA agent searching above the waist, and a male TSA agent searching below the waist as some Police departments now do with transpersons.

Jerame chose toctake some online courses when he was in college with mixed results. Some things don't translate well - or at least the professor didn't translate them well, he said.

My friend Josh also takes online classes and he loves them more than his on campus classes but says he misses the personal interactions sometimes. He keeps his classes mixed just for that reason.

Jillian and Others,

I suppose that I have a rather unique perspective on this whole, "is online better than in class." Through my own experiences I have formed a few opinions. The first experience I had was obtaining my Ph.D. in the basic sciences from a well established college of medicine. I took classes with medical students and attend graduate courses in a face to face setting. I also completed the bench work necessary to obtain the data for a doctoral thesis. With this degree under my belt I went to work at a medical school primarily as a teacher to first year medical students. Through out my educational and teaching experiences there are many who would scoff and mock anyone who had done any sort of online work/degree program.

While my colleagues were determinedly anti online, I was not. I was raised in a home where my father worked in distance education as the associate vice chancellor for distance education at a major institution in the west. So, when I determined that a second degree was necessary for myself, I looked long and hard at obtaining it through an online degree program. This was a tough decision (that darn colleague pressure... it is just about as bad as when I was in high school!). However with encouragement from family I chose to go this route. My second doctoral degree is not in the basic science but in education, specifically health education. All in all I took 84 graduate credit hours online to obtain this second degree.

So with all of that being said, I suppose I have the unique perspective of having completed two very difficult degrees in two very different ways. From my perspective I can see that both programs had their strengths and weaknesses. The basic science program had to be a face to face experience because I needed to do the bench research. Also as a newly minted doctoral student fresh out of undergrad I would have lacked the discipline that was required to complete such a degree. In the online degree there was nothing that was in the degree program that required a face to face meeting. Yes, a phone call every once in a while but nothing face to face (not even a defense of the thesis).

Both programs were rigorous and both programs met accreditation standards. I can not say that I was slighted in either of these educational settings. But, as an educator I do know that my experiences in these programs also had a great deal to do with me, who I am and how I approach my own education!!! The student factor must not be overlooked. The student must want to be there, a sense of internal motivation (little adult learning theory). So, does it matter if it is online or face to face? I would say it depends on the subject to be taught and it depends greatly on the students propensity or affinity to face to face or online.

Sorry it was so long (much more to say on this subject but I am sure I have exhausted you the reader).

I've taken a number of online and online hybrid courses. The best one was a public health course that included text readings, audio slide lectures, forum discussions, and group live lecture sessions. The exams were all a mix of multiple choice and essay with a final written project demonstrating understanding through creating a proposal for a real world solution using theories and methods discussed during the semester.

The worst was an online statistics course that was: read the book, answer the multiple choice questions.

As for videos: I'm sure you know about it - there is a documentary in 6 parts on YouTube about transsexual surgery in Iran.
http://bit.ly/c3Yy6R
I think it would stimulate some interesting discussion.

After the semester is there any chance that the course will appear on Open Courseware or iTunes University?

Jillian I all ready signed up for spring classes but if I can get additional financial aid I'd be interested in taking your class.Also since I am approved for financial aid for the college I attend how would that effect me taking a course at your college? I'll contact Ramapo tomorrow to see if something can be worked out.I'm not fond of online courses but I'd be willing to try one of yours if its financially possible.