I am one of the lucky ones. I have spent my quarantine time healthy and safe in my comfortable home, with guaranteed income, plenty of food and a job that I can manage from my kitchen. But that job, as a faculty member at the University of Baltimore School of Law, ended this month.
About a year ago, I decided, after almost 32 years, that this summer would be a good time to retire. I anticipated feeling, as the semester ended, both excitement and regret at leaving my students and colleagues. This has been a dream job. I came to the law school in the late 1980s to help start a clinical program. Over the past 30 years, that program has served thousands of clients with family law, housing, immigration and many other problems. It has become one of the top-ranked programs in the country.
I have taught thousands of Maryland’s lawyers in the classroom in a range of subjects and have served in a number of leadership positions at the law school. The law school has also given me a platform to participate in local, national and international law reform efforts over many years.
I expected this career to end in a classroom filled with students, in a last faculty meeting with my colleagues wishing me well, and in events with alumni celebrating 30 years of our clinical program. Instead, I taught students, met with faculty and assisted clinical clients from the quiet — very quiet — of my kitchen. My husband, a Baltimore physician, was only home on weekends, and my adult children are in New York, Washington and Philadelphia. So, like many others, I counted on a screen filled with Zoom faces for company.
But, despite the strangeness of this swan song, I found much to appreciate. Many of my students were the first in their families to attend law school. Some were first-generation college graduates. Many were paying for their education by working full time during the day as nurses, police officers, teachers or in other challenging jobs and going to school at night. Despite these demands, they were always deeply invested in their education and, for the most part, showed up to class or clinic prepared and ready to work.
What surprised and lifted me was that my students continued to show up in the same way. Like many law schools across the country, our faculty decided to dispense with grades for the semester, moving to a credit/no credit system. We made this decision recognizing that the usual grading practices were deeply unfair during this crisis.
Many of our students struggled with jobs (or the loss of them), health, family responsibilities, the lack of a safe study space and inconsistent access to the internet. Some of us worried that our students, relieved of the pressure of grades, would disengage. But that was not what happened. I got near perfect attendance in class and other faculty reported the same.
Students completed assignments, even the extra ones I gave them in hopes of adding the rigor lost by my less-than-perfect Zoom skills (apologies to those students I left in the virtual “waiting room” for a few minutes of class one night). My students responded to this new environment by being unfailingly respectful and compassionate with one another and with me — not qualities always associated with lawyers or law students.
And, while I’m at it, a shout out to my faculty colleagues, who uniformly adopted an “ethic of care” in all matters related to students. We wanted our students to learn, to have high standards, and reach for and achieve excellence. And we worked almost around the clock to develop the new skills needed to teach under these conditions. In a group not always known for our flexibility, my faculty came together to respond to this crisis in a way that made me very proud.
My last month of teaching may not have ended with that exclamation point I was expecting. It ended quietly, as I clicked “End Meeting” from my kitchen. But I felt nostalgia and affection as I looked at my computer screen. And I felt deep gratitude to have had the good fortune of this wonderful career for so long.
Now that this is over, there is still work to be done. I plan to keep contributing in a variety of ways. But it is students like mine, who will take that compassion and commitment into the world, who give me confidence in our unknown future. We need them now more than ever.
Jane C. Murphy (email@example.com) was the Laurence M. Katz Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law until her recent retirement. Twitter: @familylawprof