FIAT LUX

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Chenhansa.GIF

When I first registered for Cyberone, I did not really know what to expect, especially after hearing all the rumors and stories about Professor Nesson. I was unsure what we were going to be doing in class or what I might be learning. The class was sometimes disjointed and lacking in cohesion, but it was definitely a good experience in approaching problems and arguments in an entirely new way. Though I appreciated this “public opinion” component of the class, focused on the audience and content of the argument, I have mixed opinions regarding the other component – the “Cyber” portion, focused on the medium of the message.

I had never heard of “empathic argument” before, and was quite wary when I realized that our main assignments for this class would be based entirely on this foreign concept. I am still not completely comfortable with this type of argument, but this project was a good tool for exploring the idea. When we were instructed to create an argument about “anything we feel passionate about,” my thoughts immediately went to my alma mater, UC Berkeley, and the deep, longstanding hatred between Cal and Stanford, without really knowing what I was going to be doing. There was little I felt stronger about than the mistaken belief that Stanford was inherently superior to Cal. Despite that passion, the project was not easy. As much as it pained me, I had to first think about all the reasons why Cal might be inferior to Stanford. That’s when a large hurdle became apparent – as fervent as I was about my support of Berkeley, it was difficult to imagine that my opponents would be any less passionate about their university. At that point I had to delve deeper into the idea of “empathic argument” – how could I empathically argue with an opponent who I knew could never be convinced? I thought again about the class title, and realized that I was in the court of public opinion. In court you don’t have to convince the opposing counsel that you are right, just the audience. Even more importantly, I think I realized that the audience can change depending on the kind of argument being made. Therein lies one of the big difficulties of empathic argument – figuring out who the audience is. Sometimes you have to convince your opponent, or sometimes just a third party, but many times you only need the empathic argument to further convince yourself of your own convictions. By thinking about this, I realized that a more important, and more effective, audience for my argument would be college applicants, a group who not only are more likely to be undecided in this dispute, but who also are more beneficial to my ultimate cause if I can convince them of my beliefs.

Once the audience was set, the argument started off as a numbers game, comparing data like faculty size, student population, and costs, but I realized that in order to really convince my target audience, I needed to go deeper. Numbers are usually very clear-cut, and that sort of argument would turn into a type of “battle of experts” seen in courtrooms all too often. Instead, I needed to attack Stanford proponents on their strongest qualitative arguments in order to make any real headway – finally I was thinking about the problem empathically. That too created a large problem for me, since I was too stubborn to be able to truly imagine and comprehend many of my opponents’ strong points. I approached the problem in the same way I would most law school problems – research. I searched all the internet sites I could find, focusing mostly on general websites about the schools and blogs by both Cal and Stanford students. I got some useful information, but I still did not feel like I was adequately putting myself in the shoes of my opponent.

Ultimately, I realized that successful empathic argument may sometimes require you to swallow your pride and seek other points of view, so I went to someone I knew would have strong pro-Stanford opinions, a law school colleague (and Stanford alum), Nels Hansen. In the end, his opinions helped me focus my passionate advocacy in a way that directly addressed the strong points that my opponents would make in this debate. And, though I never would have thought it possible before the class, the project truly strengthened and reinforced my already ardent beliefs. I recognize that I still do not fully grasp the concept of “empathic argument,” but I believe that I am starting to understand it better. I know that it will be an invaluable skill for my future, especially compared to many of the more mundane things learned in law school.

When it comes to the other focus of the class, the internet/cybermedia used to make our arguments, I feel like the class still left something to be desired. I understand that there are many forms of media through which messages could be relayed, and I’m glad that I was exposed to all those different varieties, but sometimes I felt the course focused too much on the vehicle of the argument. Either the class should be an introductory class or it should require some technical prowess or knowledge as a prerequisite for registering. A class like ours is obviously vulnerable to varying levels of technical competence and technical difficulties, and that led to many problems. It’s a bit unnerving to sit in class when a lot of the people come in with a much greater comfort level with the technologies we’re dealing with. Unlike other law classes, the classroom situation was one in which almost no amount of preparation could compensate for the deficiencies that some students enter class with. As a result, the project presented issues of fairness in my mind, as many students were focusing on figuring out the technology, while the more adept class participants were focusing instead on their arguments.

Using Second Life as another example, it definitely seems like a great tool for distance learning, but how much more efficient can it be to teach a class in SL than through video and chat tools? The concept was intriguing, but I failed to see how different it is from other community-building technologies out there, at least in an educational sense. I appreciated the analogies to the SL world as a newly-inhabited place (like the early internet), waiting for law and order, but sometimes the pro-SL arguments seemed like a stretch. I know that some of my uncertainty about Second Life stems from a slow network and/or slow computer that made it difficult for me to participate in SL the way that it is meant to be enjoyed, but again that is a risk in this sort of class. Virtual office hours are a nice idea, but not when technical difficulties make them hard to utilize. I realize that this is a relatively new class, and that keeping on the cutting edge of these technologies is an admirable goal, especially in a top school like Harvard, but I would just advise that all the little kinks added up in the end to negatively affect the educational process.