Faculty Spotlight

Making Better Advocates: Teaching Law at the Intersection of Gender, Sexuality, and Race Studies

Donna Young

By Justin Devendorf ’19
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Albany Law, UAlbany Partner to Tackle Complex Societal Issues through Dual J.D./M.A. Program

For the past five years, Donna Young, Albany Law School's President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy, has been working closely with Janell Hobson, Chair of the University at Albany's Department of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), on a series of programs highlighting the intersection of law and pressing societal issues involving gender and race. Recently named a joint faculty member at UAlbany's WGSS Department, Professor Young is excited about two new initiatives born out of this collaboration: a dual J.D./M.A. in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and a cross-institutional course, "Race, Rape Culture and the Law."

The dual J.D./M.A. program—designed to be completed in four years or fewer—allows graduate students to combine their interests in feminist, critical race, and social justice issues with legal studies, leading to employment in law, advocacy, community organizing, nonprofit work, and other areas.

"The dual degree provides a professional pathway for students to expand their understanding of complex social and legal issues," Professor Young said, "which I believe will make them better lawyers and advocates."

One component of the J.D./M.A. program is Professor Young's course "Race, Rape Culture, and the Law"—taught in partnership with Professor Hobson—which familiarizes students with the fundamentals of sexual harassment and assault laws and the ways in which those laws have affected the treatment of race, gender, identity, and sexuality in the United States. The course, offered in the fall, introduces Albany Law School and UAlbany students to the subject matter through slave narratives, novels, autobiographies, film, music, law review articles, legislation, and case law.

Professor Young acknowledged that the topics may be difficult to discuss—for a variety of reasons—but are important to address in order to understand how our laws have contributed to normalizing, and in some cases trivializing, various forms of violence and harassment.

"Studying the ways in which the American legal system has reinforced race and gender hierarchy and encouraged discrimination against people based on race, gender, and sexual orientation can produce a more nuanced analysis of many of our most pressing social problems," Professor Young said. "A critical approach to studying the law is beneficial to understanding and addressing a host of seemingly intractable problems that we are facing today."

The course's co-instructed format allows for a free exchange of ideas across academic disciplines. It also provides students the opportunity to broaden their academic experiences. 

"The course's interdisciplinary approach to addressing topics such as racism and rape culture is a vital component of legal studies," Professor Young said, "especially for those interested in representing and empowering survivors of sexual violence and people of color who face racism and other forms of discrimination."

"Legal studies is so compatible with women's, gender, and sexuality studies," said UAlbany's Professor Hobson. "Both fields concern themselves with social problems and view social justice as the means by which to solve these issues. What I really liked about co-teaching with Professor Young is that we were in sync in relating across race, gender and the law, and our students from the different programs related in a similar way and learned from each other. It just shows the great potential of our dual degree program in which WGSS students can find an applicable approach to feminist theory while law students are able to learn theory alongside law."

Albany Law School's Delaney Rives Knapp '19—one of the students in the inaugural Fall 2018 course—explained that the course was vital to her understanding "the relationships of power and coercion in the development of our nation's laws."

"The seminar provides students the opportunity to confront some of the worst moments of our history," she said, "with hope for a better future."

The dual degree program requires all students to spend their first year taking required courses at Albany Law School. Master's courses taken before enrolling in the program will not count toward the dual degree. For more information on the J.D./M.A. in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, contact admissions@albanylaw.edu.

Donna Young