Giving students a new perspective: studying law through the lenses of film, pages of literature

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, students in Professor Robert Batey’s spring seminar class at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., crack open their books to discuss the latest assigned readings. It is a typical law school seminar, except instead of pouring over case law, Professor Batey’s students are reading Kafka and watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

Students discuss justice through the pages of fiction and lens of film in Professor Robert Batey's spring seminar.

Students review aspects of justice in the latest film and novel in Professor Robert Batey's spring seminar.

“The course draws people who are natural readers, and hungry to read something more than cases and textbooks,” Batey said. Professor Batey explained that through the lenses of film and pages of classic fiction and philosophy, students get another perspective on crime and the social response to crime. “Literature and film create a textured setting for dealing with ethics and jurisprudence,” Professor Batey explained. “The focus in a standard course is on teaching doctrine. This kind of course is more about thinking about what criminal law is there for and how different actors in legal systems play their roles.”

Professor Batey’s course in Law, Literature & Film began in 1992 as part of a winter term cross-disciplinary program on the Stetson University campus in DeLand. Professor Robert Batey initially co-taught the course with the late Professor Michael Raymond for undergraduates at Stetson University.

In 1993, the first course in law and literature on Stetson Law’s Gulfport campus was offered as a two-hour seminar. Interest in the intersection of law and literature had expanded in the 1980s into course offerings across the country, Professor Batey explained. Scholars like Richard Weisberg, author of The Failure of the Word: The Protagonist as Lawyer in Modern Fiction, and James Boyd White, who wrote The Legal Imagination, had helped incubate an interest. The course at Stetson Law later developed into a popular three-hour course with the addition of film, to complement the reading assignments.

Professor Ann Piccard, an English Literature major in college who studied international human rights at the University of London, also teaches the course at Stetson. “The Law, Literature & Film seminar allows students to focus on a theme that might be fiction but that has very real applications and implications in the law. There are endless possibilities, and students are not limited in choosing their topics,” Professor Piccard said. “Writing a seminar paper for this class might be a completely different experience from writing for a more traditional seminar, because literature and film know no limits.”

Student Jared Williams said that he is focused on criminal law and trial work and took the course in part because he would rather write a paper on a good novel than on an obscure section of the law.

Student Jennifer J. Conway is focused on bankruptcy, property law and mortgage law. “I enrolled in the Law, Literature & Film seminar because it combines three of my favorite subjects,” Conway said. “Having studied television and film production, screenwriting and literature in both my undergraduate courses and following academic endeavors, there was no way that I could pass up an opportunity to explore how these concepts interact with law.” Conway, who first worked in the legal field as a paralegal in a small bankruptcy firm in Dallas, Texas, is focused on becoming a consumer protection advocate.

“Attorneys, especially those involved in litigation, must create a narrative that connects with the judge and jury, persuading them to reach a desired conclusion. Literature and film are stunningly similar,” Conway said. “Neither have the goal to win over a judge or a jury, nor to seek or prevent a punishment; but both literature and film seek to create a story that wins over the audience and influences the way they think and perceive. When studying how literature and film portray the law, there is a sense of experiencing a story being created within another story.”

“We start the course with William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and focus on the law’s ability to deter crime,” Professor Batey said. In Billy Budd, the class explores the role of judging. In reading Crime and Punishment, students discuss why people confess to crimes. Titles like Native Son, Menace II Society and Malcolm X help students focus on contemporary issues like race in American society. Professor Batey explains how the social and behavioral sciences intersect with criminal law, and how law intersects with history and philosophy.

Professor Robert Batey opens discussion in the Law, Literature & Film seminar with a discussion of assigned readings.

Professor Robert Batey opens the discussion in the Law, Literature & Film seminar with a question about the assigned readings.

In class, Professor Batey complements literary readings with films that explore similar concepts. “We read The Scarlet Letter and watch Dead Man Walking, or read Kafka and watch a documentary about the legal struggles of the film director Roman Polanski,” Professor Batey said.

Students choose books, often with film components, to focus on for seminar research papers. Recent seminar research projects have included The House of Sand and Fog, Lolita, Watchmen, Heart of Darkness, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Fahrenheit 451.

“The value of a seminar class like this is giving students a new perspective. If you learn to step back and think about something, later in life and in practice, when lawyers find themselves struggling, they may be able to better perceive how the system is failing and what to do,” said Professor Batey, who’s taught the course at Stetson for almost two decades. “By continually exposing people to ethical questions, I think they learn to think ethically.”