By Alison Graef
Government Professor Wanda-Lee Smith’s Lectures on Location class, GOVT 2306, met April 6 on the Bexar County Courthouse steps to observe a murder case. Smith and five students sat in on the proceedings of the 144th Judicial District Court as evidence and testimonies were presented to the jury.
Lectures on Location is a pilot class Smith pioneered this semester. She is excited that the class has been approved for next fall, and students will be able to register for it under GOVT 2306.120 and GOVT 2306.121.
Smith’s approach to teaching government was already known as unique. She pre-records her lectures for students to watch before coming to class and expects students to be well-prepared before walking through her door. In class, students test their knowledge of the material by competing for extra-credit points at the board by answering timed questions.
With Lectures on Location, Smith takes her interactive approach to learning a level higher. The class learns material before visiting a government location to tour and see government in action. After, the class meets in an on-location conference room to review what they have learned.
The 144th Judicial District Court was the fifth class visit.
Smith said one of the main purposes of visiting the courthouse was to help students understand the five levels of government (national, state, county, city, special district) and three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), which Smith said students often confuse.
The class previously visited the courthouse to run a mock session of the Commissioners Court, a confusing misnomer, because the court is a legislative body, not a judicial court.
“These same students were here, right next door, in the Commissioners Court,” Smith said. “The Commissioners Court’s job is to create law. Today the class came to the same building, but this time they went to the branch that is interpreting law.”
Seeing both branches helps students to internalize the difference between the judicial and legislative branches, Smith said.
Smith said it is important for students to know what jobs judges serve in and which judges are elected. She said being informed helps students to be involved in elections, which is crucial for democracy. “If you are not participating in elections, then only a few people are voting,” Smith said. “And they choose who is interpreting the law.”
Juliette Moke, coordinator for the Bexar County Heritage and Parks Department, said she has never seen a class like Smith’s and is excited to see a class in which students see the inner workings of the courthouse. She hopes that the experience kindles an interest in and understanding of the judicial system in students.
“I think she’s spearheading efforts for not only the students, but the public even, to get a better understanding of government,” Moke said. “To observe a jury trial, you go in there and see the roles that each person plays in the courtroom and each one of those are significant.”
Environmental science freshman Brian Bower said he knew very little about Texas government before taking Smith’s class. He said he now feels like a more informed voter and is glad to better understand the court system.
“I like that she requires participation in class,” Bower said. “You have to know the material beforehand because she singles you out, and being singled out makes you want to prepare.”
“I think it’s beneficial,” education sophomore Allison Marsh said. “She has high expectations for you and if you don’t meet them, then you don’t pass.”
Marsh said she would like to see elements of Smith’s model applied to science and math classes.
Bower said he is glad to learn about the local judicial system and the functions of civil and criminal courts.
“People don’t know what their rights are or what the laws are,” Bower said. “They might commit a low-level crime and not even know it was a crime, and in civil courts, it’s important to know your rights.”
To learn more about Lectures on Location, email Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.