Prof. Joseph Margulies, law and government, said he encourages students to challenge their assumptions by elevating the level of dialogue in the classroom.
“I just know that I hate the sound of my own voice lecturing,” he said. “I just get so bored, and I just look out there and I see 100 bored students.”
Instead of lecturing from behind a podium for the duration of his classes, Margulies has students respond to questions he and other students pose. He said he often plays devil’s advocate, challenging students’ responses, regardless of their position. This process forces students to not only challenge their assumptions but also to be more precise with their arguments, according to Margulies.
“The idea is to engage people with me and with each other, as a way to make the material more interesting,” he said. “I just think people are more engaged when they are entertained.”
Margulies has been questioning perceptions and attacking assumptions since long before he arrived at Cornell.
Margulies acted as lead counsel in Rasul vs. Bush, a court case when the Supreme Court established that prisoners Guantanamo Bay are entitled to judicial review. The case also determined that the U.S. court system has the authority to decide whether non-U.S. citizens held in Guantanamo Bay were wrongfully imprisoned.
Margulies called the recognition that received from this case “all just idle chatter.”
“[The recognition is] not nearly as important to me as the opportunity to have been genuinely touched by the humanity of those that have been dehumanized … who the world insists are something less than human,” he said.
Margulies said instead, he focuses on the more fundamental issues driving these high profile moments in court.
“To meet with that person and allow their humanity to be revealed to you, and then to make it your responsibility to convince others that they are entitled to the same dignity and respect as anyone else, that is an honorable challenge,” he said. “For most lawyers most of the time, simply standing up in court and talking to a judge, or a group of judges, or the Supreme Court of the United States, that is not an honorable challenge.”
Margulies insists that over the course of his career, he has gained more from some of his relationships with clients than they have from him.
“My client is sitting in Guantanamo and has been there since 2006, and was arrested in 2002, and I doubt that I will be able to do anything for him as a lawyer, to achieve any good for him,” he said.
This critical analysis of his own life’s work is something Margulies has transitioned to a classroom setting, encouraging students to be critical of both traditional perceptions of institutions as well as of their own arguments and the arguments of their peers.
“I try to elevate the discussion,” he said. “I refer to everyone by their last name, to try to elevate the discussion a little bit — we are not just pals sitting around here drinking a beer after a Friday afternoon, we are discussing issues at a level where ideas and the integrity and quality of your thought matters.”
Through this methodology, Margulies said he encourages the discussion of dissenting opinions, respecting both those who find fault with his own opinions and the opinions of other students.
“Its very important to me to create an environment in the classroom where people of different political views— or of any views— feel comfortable saying ‘I understand what you’re saying but I disagree for these reasons’.”
Margulies said he feels lucky to be teaching undergraduates at Cornell, praising his students as hardworking and engaged. By trying to teach students how to think, rather than what to think, Margulies said he hopes to shape these students into critical and analytical leaders.
“I don’t have a monopoly on truth, and certainly don’t know if I’m right,” he said. “I believe that what I’m describing and what I believe in leads to a better world. But what do I know?”