Mock Trials and My Hope for the Future
Most of the time when I deal with undergraduate students, I fear for the future. The life of the mind may not be dead, but it appears to be moribund. Many students I have encountered are not especially interested in becoming educated citizens — or, if they are, they want a breezy, stress-free experience with no major criticism or sharp elbows. They want the USA Today, homogenized version of an education. We can call it “education-lite.” “Spare me the Plato and Shakespeare. Don’t confuse me with arcane discussions of gerunds and the Electoral College. Just give me a piece of paper that helps me land a better job.”
Okay, perhaps my 16 years of laboring in the academic trenches of adjunct teaching have left me cynical and demoralized. Still, experience has taught me that I am more likely to encounter student resistance when I offer a robust, challenging experience than when I serve up academic pabulum.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost. Not every student lives in a shallow intellectual cul-de-sac from which there is no exit save an early death.
I recently experienced one of the most enjoyable teaching/educational experiences of my career. The prelaw adviser at Kennesaw State University (KSU), where I have taught American Government 1101 to undergraduate students since 1998, asked that I serve as a judge in the Ridley Regional Mock Trial Tournament for the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), an intercollegiate moot court competition.
Lest you think she sought me out to take advantage of my superior skills as an advocate, I must disabuse you of that mistaken impression. I was not a special character. With 17 college teams descending onto the KSU campus and at least two judges required for each team in four competitions ranging across two full days, warm bodies with a modicum of training in the law and the rules of evidence were needed. The fact that I have not stepped into a courtroom acting as an attorney since 1994 in no way disqualified me from participating as a judge in the AMTA competition.
On February 24-25, 2012, KSU hosted one of many regional competitions scheduled around the country during February and March 2012. I had served as a judge in February 2011 and found the experience rewarding, so I agreed to participate again in 2012.
The competition was held indoors and no heavy lifting was required, so already my skills seemed well-suited to the task at hand.
As the name suggests, a "mock trial" is a hypothetical court case to provide participants with experience serving as advocates. Undergraduate students acted as attorneys and witnesses while I and another faculty member served as judges. We ran the courtroom and, at the conclusion of the trial, we graded the students on their performances.
Although different competitions involve different rules, in the Ridley Regional Mock Trial Tournament, three students served as attorneys on one side of the case while three students served as attorneys on the other side. Three students on each side also appeared as witnesses to be examined and cross-examined. The entire exercise lasted approximately three hours. I participated in a morning session from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. and an afternoon session from 3:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. The goal was to replicate an actual trial as closely as possible. Although a jury was not present, the parties were instructed to present the case as though they were addressing jurors.
A mock trial can involve civil or criminal matters. This year, we heard the case of State of Midlands v. Danny Dawson, a fictional criminal case. According to the facts, on September 24, 2010, Vanessa Sullivan, daughter of Midlands’ prominent, aggressive prosecutor, celebrated her 21st birthday with two friends, Taylor Hopson and Danny Dawson, at a well-known local watering hole, Chuggie’s Sports Bar. After several hours celebrating inside the bar, the three young people left in a car that Danny Dawson drove. On the way home, Dawson lost control of the car on a wet, winding road. Vanessa Sullivan died when the vehicle collided with a utility pole. Owing to a conflict of interest in having the victim’s parent’s office prosecute the case, authorities appointed a special prosecutor to handle the matter. A grand jury returned a multi-count indictment charging the defendant, Danny Dawson, with murder and driving under the influence. Three student prosecutors argued in favor of conviction and three defended young Mr. Dawson.
Having read the case and rules of evidence ahead of time, I was prepared for every contingency except the horrific commute. Consequently, I arrived at the competition a nervous wreck. Interstate traffic in Atlanta, always notoriously slow, had been reduced to a crawl thanks to road construction. Running late, I flew into the judge’s orientation meeting fearful that I had missed the introductory instructions. Fortunately, I was not alone in my tardiness, and the meeting had been delayed.
The staff reviewed the judges' ballot and scoring procedures. I had served as a judge previously, and so the information was not new. A link to a sample ballot is below.
It initially looks more complicated than it is. It is important to follow the testimony and record comments as the trial progresses rather than waiting until the end. Assigning point scores to each attorney and witness along the way ensures that a judge does not fall behind in calculating the totals.
During the morning session, I heard students from Mercer University prosecute the case while Georgia State University students defended Mr. Dawson. In the afternoon trial, students from the University of Tennessee prosecuted the case and University of Central Florida students provided a defense. The results of the various regional competitions can be found on the AMTA website:
I love to judge these competitions because they reverse my usual attitude about college students and their work. I often worry when I teach my undergraduate courses that I am too harsh in my grading. In many instances, I struggle to find something positive to say, especially when I read student essays. In all my years of teaching, I have seldom found college students who can write a well-researched, grammatically-correct term paper. On the rare occasions when I receive a well-written paper that is not plagiarized from Wikipedia or a similar website, I am both shocked and pleased. In fact, I am almost grateful.
When I judge the mock trial competitions, however, my traditional analysis of undergraduate work is completely reversed. Instead of struggling to find something positive to say, I struggle to find something to criticize. I don’t always need to criticize students, of course, but I want to offer constructive guidance. Most of the participants are so polished, self-assured, and knowledgeable that I have little advice to offer other than to say, "keep doing what you're doing!"
Mock trial participants are the crème de la crème of college students. They are motivated, conscientious, and talented. Dregs, grade-grubbers, and cheaters self-select out of the process. Only a highly-motivated “A”-type personality would surrender his or her weekends and many evenings to prepare for a rigorous competition that does not offer instant gratification.
I do not fear for the future following my experiences working with mock trial students. The AMTA teams give me hope that the next generation is comprised of bright, talented, dedicated, enthusiastic students who will govern well and wisely.
What is it that Bruce Springsteen sings? “I still got a little faith, but what I need is some proof tonight.”
AMTA students provided me with faith — and with proof. In fact, they provided me with hope for the future.
Thanks, AMTA students. I appreciate your work more than I can say.