My intention with respect to this course was to teach criminal law through the analysis of popular culture stories. I wanted students to have the opportunity to use popular culture stories as the main source of input for their engagement in the examination of criminal law and to produce popular culture texts on criminal law.
This presented several challenges. The first one was that students had taken several courses in criminal law throughout their program—many even with me. I had also taught them many aspects of law and popular culture in several courses, including one on law and films. So, the only possibility to run this course was to find a theme or a coherent series of criminal law topics that they had not analyzed in depth and to find a popular culture angle from which to address these topics.
With respect to the first challenge, I thought of topics and issues that I had wanted to explore in other criminal law courses but which I had to leave off from the course syllabi because of lack of time. The topics that came to my mind were property crimes, child prostitution, terrorism, domestic violence, identity theft, and cybercrirnes, among others. These topics are very interesting, and at different points in their majors, students had asked me to discuss them in various courses. All of these issues fit perfectly well within the general description of the special topics course that the university senate had approved. However, I wanted my students to go deeper than simply discuss topics in a senior-year course. So, I decided that we would use criminal law topics as an opportunity to explore and question the fundamental fabrics of criminal law. I must admit that at the time of envisioning the course I did not know exactly how we could connect the selected topics to the critical evaluation of criminal law, but I was confident that I would come up with appropriate ideas while doing research for the preparation of the course.
My broad initial vision needed to be nanowed down and become more specific. I had to start working on the design of the course in order to have a clearer idea of how to translate this broad vision into a more concrete one. Like for a research design in which doing the literature review gives you ideas on how to develop your thesis, exploring popular culture stories would help me define and implement a new vision for the course.
I decided to poll the students who would take the course about their interests in a course for the following term. I told them that I was developing the course and that I wanted to have their input as the content of the course they wanted to take. I prepared a survey where students had to rank their preferences among different issues and topics of criminal law. Students could also add other topics not suggested among the options. The survey was voluntary and anonymous. 100% of my students, who were taking another course with me, answered it, including a few students who were not registered for my next term’s course. These were students who had completed all their fourth-year requirements in the major and who needed to take electives outside the major. Most students wanted a course on criminal law and violence and abuse against women and children. I thought that this was an appropriate and interesting topic, so I decided I would teach a course on this topic.
The second step was to compile a filmography list with films and TV shows from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and other resources that I could use as input stories in class. I did not want to include only films and shows whose main theme is domestic violence and which have an explicit criminal law content. I also wanted to include films and shows that deal with other issues but which show elements of violence and abuse against women and children. This is so because in real-life problems of violence and abuse are mixed with other issues. So, I did not necessarily choose courtroom dramas and police detective stories.
Since violence against women and children is a very broad phenomenon, I broke it down into five subtopics that I wanted students to deal with in class: general issues and problems with the legal treatment of violence against women, child exploitation, infanticide, child abuse and neglect, bigamy and polygamy, and violence against women at the hands of the criminal justice system. I also included a category dealing with the comparison between the legal treatment of sexual abuse and property crimes.
I started exploring films and TV shows and classified them according to these categories. I then selected one film or TV (or a series of short clips fr om TV shows or films) per category.
Copyright is always an issue when you want to show movies and TV shows in class. My university subscribes to several organizations that license films and TV shows for screening in class. I checked the databases of these companies, and all of the films and TV shows that I had selected were covered by the licenses. My university also subscribed to organizations that provide licenses for using and copying articles and books for class use. Because the materials that I would show in class were included in the databases and covered by express copyright agreements, I did not need to consider fair dealing and fan use issues.