By the time her students are seated and settled in the lecture hall, Miranda McGowan has covered one side of the blackboard with a diagram topped with three terms: “protected conduct,” “adverse action” and “causation.” The topic of today’s employment discrimination class is retaliation.
“Any preliminary questions here?” she asks, after reviewing the issues on the board. “OK, take about five minutes to talk amongst yourselves and develop arguments.“
McGowan has given the students a hypothetical case culled from an actual one. It involves an aging taxi driver who was terminated by his company, a protest he organized in response, and the company’s subsequent firing of his wife. She gives them a bit of time to discuss the issues, then launches into a fast-moving question and answer session, calling on students by name.
“What do you think?” she asks. “If Orange Cab wanted to defend this policy, what would they have to do? What does the driver have to prove?” The resulting discussion is spirited and smart, just like the professor who stands at the front of the room.
“The material is not always super-accessible when you’re reading it. Part of my goal is to get them to have a deep understanding of a case,” she says. “But I also want them to get past what might be their reflexive reaction. Having an opinion is not the same as having a reason for your opinion.”
Although employment discrimination is one of several classes McGowan teaches, her passion for this particular subject matter is personal. Raised in a racially mixed blended family, she spent her younger years as one of only a few white kids in her Hawaiian school. In the late 1970s, McGowan’s family moved to St. Louis, where school desegregation was still a work in progress.
“It became clear to me that there was an enormous amount of either conscious or unconscious discrimination in people’s daily lives,” she says. “One of the things I try to communicate to my students is the fact that discrimination is still prevalent. A lot of people really just don’t buy the idea that it still exists, though it’s an easier story to tell now, after Ferguson, New York and Cleveland.”
As the class winds down and the students begin to disperse, McGowan collects one index card from each of them. On it, they are obliged to write two main ideas from the day’s lesson, and ask one question. This is how she works to improve her teaching. “They’re really useful to me because I can see where I’ve screwed up or where I’ve failed to explain something,” she says. “It permits me to tailor the class to what they need.” — Karen Gross