Victor O. Ojeah, a Master of Laws student taking online classes from Nigeria, will not set foot on campus in his time at Harvard Law School.
With spotty electricity at home and living six hours ahead of Eastern Time, Ojeah said he hoped to access recordings of his Law School classes to make the most of his already “diluted” time at HLS.
He learned quickly, however, that his Law School peers had already been organizing for months to expand access to class recordings during the pandemic, but had found little success.
Law School administrators have argued that recordings could have a chilling effect on student discourse and undermine the socratic classroom experience. Though the school does allow students to request recordings under certain strict conditions — like a religious holiday, birth of a child, death of an “immediate” family member, or military service — each request must be made individually in advance of each class.
“I don’t want to be that guy who is the poster boy for asking for class recordings,” Ojeah said.
Ojeah said the recording policies have been especially difficult for and demonstrate a lack of understanding of students residing abroad, who are living in varying time zones with different levels of internet accessibility.
“In some countries, there’s a possibility of having constant and steady electricity,” he said. “In others like mine, electricity is really a luxury.”
Noelle G. Graham, co-president of the Law School’s student government, said that though recent power outages in Texas brought the issue to the forefront of student concern, discussions with administors about the issue began last summer.
“This is actually something that’s been a stressor for students, not just this year, but in previous years as well,” Graham said. “It’s something that student government last year was looking at, even before we were in a remote environment.”
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in a statement that the student services team has “worked hard” this year to decrease the advance time required to request a recording from “3 days to 3 hours in most cases.”
Neal defended the Law School’s prohibition on recordings, citing the school’s teaching method and “feedback” from students after classes were temporarily recorded at the start of the pandemic.
“Synchronous learning is essential to the active, engaged Socratic method that is at the heart of Law School pedagogy,” he wrote. “Moreover, feedback from last spring’s experience suggests that some students felt uncomfortable about articulating arguments during classroom discussions because they were being recorded. That situation is not conducive to an effective Law School learning environment.”
Graham said she is “proud” of the reduction in advance time for requests, and “happy the administration was able to make that step.”
“If that had happened last year, that would have been astounding,” she said. “A lot of students don't realize that that is such a significant improvement.”
But numerous students said it is not nearly enough, and argued the Law School has abandoned some of its most vulnerable students.
The Law School’s Handbook of Academic Policies lays out a narrow set of circumstances that qualify a student to have their class recorded.
Students are allowed to request the Information Technology Services provide recordings of class lectures in the case of a religious holiday, birth of a child, death of an immediate family member, significant personal or medical emergency, or military service, the handbook reads.
One other circumstance listed in the policy that justifies a recording is if a professor reschedules a class, which first-year student Anita T. Alem said she thought she could take advantage of when one of her courses was moved to a time when she was on a flight.
“I filled out the little form,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to have any trouble getting a recording.”
Contrary to that belief, she received a response that asked what the class conflicted with. When Alem clarified that she was asking for a recording of a make-up class outside of the regularly scheduled time, her request was denied, she said.
Vandana S. Apte, another first-year student, ran into similar difficulties when she contracted food poisoning and had to miss class.
“I am sorry to hear that you got sick with food poisoning; it can certainly make you never want to eat that food for a long time,” read a reply to her request from Student Support Services. “Did you speak to your provider or have any documentation?”
Alem argued that the administration’s request that students prove they are undergoing a crisis in order to obtain class recordings does not create an accessible learning environment, particularly during the pandemic.
“There’s just something so off about how [the Dean of Students’ Office] is navigating the situation during a pandemic, where we need to set policies that are somehow so specific because we need to be treating students in some very strict, punitive manner,” she said.
Alem said a friend of hers was asked to send a confirmation to prove that she really had a doctor’s appointment, which felt like a “huge, violation-of-privacy type thing.”
“We’re not children,” she said. “Why would I lie about having a doctor’s appointment?”
Kaylee Y. Ding, a first-year student at the Law School who missed weeks of class because of an illness last semester, said she believes the additional steps students must take to access recordings is concerning.
“The principle behind it, having this one extra step of like, ‘Oh, you need to confirm this, you need to email them, you have to fill out this request form’ or whatever, just seems like they just make it harder than it necessarily needs to be,” Ding said. “I don’t really see why they’re so stringent about class recordings.”
“Why does Harvard have to have a less liberal recording policy?” asked Graham, the HLS student government co-president.
Graham said Cornell, Berkeley, Columbia, and Yale are peer institutions that have significantly more accessible recording policies for their students. She added that she found the Law School’s response about why Harvard is an exception unsatisfactory.
“Mostly, the answer to that is, ‘because we’re Harvard,’” she said. “I can’t say it was much more of a conversation than that.”
Considering the first-year law school curriculum is similar across most U.S. institutions, Ding said the school’s rationale for not making recordings accessible remains unclear.
“It’s just strange to me, because I know other law schools in the same tier record all their classes just by default, and so I’m not really sure why there’s such a huge discrepancy between Harvard’s policies and some other law schools’ policies,” Ding said.
Katherine K. Shen, president of the Coalition of International Students and Global Affairs at the Law School, said administrators told her and other students that the Law School’s Academic Committee had a role in crafting the recording policy.
Shen said that though she and the other students are “not totally sure” who constitutes the Committee, they have a “vague” idea that it includes many of the Law School’s professors.
Graham also said she believes HLS faculty have significant influence over the recording policy.
“I think the faculty does have a very important role in what their recording policy is,” Graham said. “I don’t believe it is solely up to [the Dean of Students] or solely up to [HLS Dean John F. Manning ’82]. Professors have a lot of leeway in what they do with classes — it’s kind of their domain.”
Neal, the Harvard spokesperson, wrote that in planning policies for the year, the Law School’s “academic leadership” was in “direct consultation with the faculty.”
Ding said one of her professors this semester “freaked out” when the course teaching fellow accidentally hit the record button too soon.
Gabrielle L. Crofford, a first-year student and a member of the Law School’s Mock Trial team, said she did not understand why the Law School would work against students who she said are doing the University a service.
“Even though we’re representing the University — preparing and performing very well at these competitions, our Mock Trial competitions are not covered by the policy,” she said. “It’s a little surprising to me because you’d think if we were doing something through a University-sanctioned organization, it would be covered.”
Ash E. Tomaszewski, a first-year law student and representative for their section cohort of roughly 70 students, said their cohort had the most dropouts of any section last semester and has “really been struggling.”
The Law School has “completely and fundamentally abandoned their students,” prompting classmates to rely on one another for academic support, per Tomaszewski.
“We now organize as a section,” they said. “We don’t go through DOS if we need something, if we need something we go to each other.”
Anna J. Dorman, a third-year student, circulated a petition last fall calling on the Law School to change its recording policies. As of Wednesday, it had garnered more than 300 signatures.
Addressed to Manning, the school’s dean, the petition describes the current recording policy as an “inefficient mechanism,” that serves to “perpetuate inequalities among the student body.”
When drafting the petition, Dorman said she wanted to include a diverse array of perspectives, including those of students who are in notably challenging circumstances and have less visibility with the administration.
“The administration interacts with a lot of students who aren’t in more difficult scenarios,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that these were people that they were thinking of when making their policy, and realizing that there are a lot of students who are in situations that are more difficult.”
In an emailed response to Dorman dated Sept. 8, 2020, then-Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells wrote the transition to remote learning “inevitably presents some challenging circumstances” for Law School students, and that administrators have had to “choose among imperfect alternatives” during the pandemic.
“We have done our best — through measures such as the tech fund, the allocation of rooms in North Hall, the scheduling of some classes at hours more consistent with remote time zones, and coordinate note-taking for all 1L classes — to mitigate the impact,” Sells wrote.
The recording policies have been “particularly burdensome” for LLM and international students, said William “Billy” P. Wright, the other Law School student government co-president. Ninety-seven percent of the current LLM class is composed of international students.
“We talked to some who say they have pretty frequent power outages or internet outages that just proves to be very disruptive,” he said. “The time zone difference is also a really tough one. There are classes for them they could take, but it’s hard to have access to everything that goes on in HLS.”
Wright said those groups of students also often have the most difficulty relaying their concerns to administrators.
“It’s kind of easy to appreciate what the JD population is going through, because only one-third of the JD population turns over each year,” he said. “Once you’ve been here for a little while, I feel like JDs have a pretty good understanding of how to carry forward their concerns.”
Of the 97 international students who responded to a survey organized by the Coalition of International Students and Global Affairs about recording policies, 94.8 percent said they prefer having recordings for class, according to Shen, the coalition’s president.
Half of the respondents said it was difficult or extremely difficult to participate in classes during the times offered.
Matthew P. Farrell, vice president of the international students coalition, said while the Law School’s recording policy may address issues such as family emergencies, natural disasters, and other limited circumstances, it largely ignores international students’ situations.
“We were concerned about people who are in different time zones, who are facing other circumstances, as well as for the Disability Law Students Association, people with disabilities being able to access classes,” he said.
Neal wrote in a statement that the Law School supports students with disabilities through “a range of accessibility-related accommodations.”
“More broadly, for any student who wants guidance on how to optimize their home learning environment for online learning, the School provides individual consultations from the Learning Experience & Technology team,” he wrote. “Any student experiencing academic or other challenges should reach out to the Dean of Students office to be guided to these and other resources.”
Alem said making recordings of classes more accessible could also be a valuable practice in post-pandemic times.
“Being able to access recordings after the pandemic is definitely something that I think is still worth fighting for,” she said. “Even if we think this is something that’s only going to be valid for the next few months, it could have impacts beyond that.”
Ojeah, the LLM student taking classes from Nigeria, said a change to the recording policy would acknowledge the “very challenging year” he and many classmates have experienced.
Though he said he thinks the Law School’s concerns over making all class recordings available — including the potential chilling effect on student discourse — are valid, Ojeah said the unprecedented circumstances call for more administrative cooperation.
“Everyone knows that we are in extraordinary times,” Ojeah said.
—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.