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A law professor’s letter to her students: respect yourself first

14 Dec 2016 - 10:45

I have been pondering this question, What rises after #FeesMustFall, in the wake of physical and emotional disruption at my academic home, the University of Cape Town. Mostly I have been considering ways to move forward in the spirit of trust and care, hoping that it allows us in the wider UCT community to heal and flourish.

The points I raise below in the form of a letter to law students may sound too aspirational and idealistic, even unrealistic at this particular moment, especially in light of our recent experiences. Our feelings are raw. Our memories are replete with anger and disappointment. But this seems to me to be one attempt to take us from falling to rising. It is about going back to the basics and connecting with the students.

An open letter to law students

What rises after #FeesMustFall? The 6 Rs: Responsibility, Respect, Rigour, Rule of Law, Resilience, and Rejoice.

Responsibility: Just as we (the administration) take responsibility for your learning, I urge you to take similar responsibility and do what you need to do to succeed as a law student. Create a structure and learning plan that works for you. Organise your life as a law student to ensure your success in whatever career path you intend to follow.

You will experience a range of emotions during your law school years, including joy, excitement, frustration, boredom, irritation and anger. Utilise the range of feelings as channels for growth and development, as opportunities to learn and to expand your emotional and intellectual bandwidth.

Respect: In all things in life, show respect; first, to yourself. As a law student, you are on the way to becoming a legal professional. Do not allow anyone to assail your dignity and self-worth. Respect for yourself entails never abdicating responsibility for your emotional well-being to others. Develop good judgement in how you portray and conduct yourself privately and publicly.

Second, show respect for your colleagues and peers. They are the people with whom you are likely to pursue your legal careers. Disrespect in law school will not be forgotten. Show your respect for and tolerance of diversity, whether around identity or ideas. Disagree, even vigorously, but do not demonise those with whom you disagree. You expect to learn much from your lecturers – but you will also learn lots from your classmates. Note the rituals of common courtesy and large classroom etiquette: Do not interrupt someone who is talking, but wait to respond with thought and clarity. Do not talk down to or show contempt for your classmates.

Third, be respectful to your equals, to those who are older than you, younger than you, as well as to those who lack your privileges, talents, skills, material status, and experience.

Rigour: Aim for rigour in the approach to your studies and your engagement with your classmates and lecturers. Do not allow others to shape your experience as a law school student. Always treat information with fairness and objectivity. In particular, regard rumour and innuendo as what they are – not as fact. If you are confronted with an allegation that has a negative impact on someone’s reputation, whether a lecturer or fellow student, evaluate the statement the way a good lawyer would, namely, by checking the facts and the truth of the statements. You would want the same for yourself. Do not allow others to conscript you into their judgements. Be an independent thinker.

Rule of Law: Ultimately you are the guardians of the rule of law. It is the one thing that levels the playing field in our engagement and interaction with each other. A society that does not live by the rule of law, a lawless one, can never allow its people to flourish and grow and to trust each other or their leaders. In South Africa, our system of rule of law is underpinned by our Constitution and its commitment to non-discrimination and dignity. We have a democratically elected government and we should ensure that the changes that we demand are done within the rule of law.

Resilience: Be resilient and enlarge your cognitive and emotional horizons so that you are able to grow emotionally and intellectually. First, in your life you have been and will continue to be challenged by obstacles, large and small. See obstacles for what they are: challenges to be overcome. Do not let the obstacles define you and defeat you. As Justice Dikgang Moseneke says, be your own liberator.

Second, allow yourself, as part of your learning and your professional development, to be open to emotional spaces that are uncomfortable. Do not resort only to safe emotional and intellectual spaces and to do not engage or interact only with those who will agree with you. You will preclude the experience of growing and of becoming a well-rounded and empathetic person. Seek out alternative viewpoints, or ones that test your perspectives. As the saying goes, it is not what you don’t know that might harm you, but what you know for certain that will trip you up.

Rejoice: Take a look around and observe how fortunate you are. You are a law student at a premier institution and the world of possibilities awaits you. In a country where the majority of young people can only dream of the opportunities that you now have, you really are part of the 5%. You have done amazingly well to come this far. You should pat yourself on your back and rejoice at your prospects and capacity to make a real difference in the world.

The nature of things being as they are, your attempts to build on my letter may result in two steps forward and one step back. Bear in mind that even if you fall, you will constantly be moving toward higher ground. The idealism and effort expressed now will lead to your full humanity and success in the future.

With much sincerity and even greater care,

Penelope Andrews, Dean of Law, University of Cape Town