Faculty | Highlights

Students Are All Ears in Professor Alexis Hoag-Fordjour’s Classes

Alexis Hoah-Fordjour
WALK PAST PROFESSOR ALEXIS HOAG-FORDJOUR’S classroom and the sounds of Jay-Z’s “Dope Man,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” or Taylor Swift and The Chicks singing “Goodbye Earl” might drift out—as may the crackle of gunfire from Lil Baby’s “Pure Cocaine” music video. Class is in session.

Hoag-Fordjour uses contemporary music as a learning tool. On the first day of Evidence, she assigned students to either the defense or the prosecution to argue whether a judge should admit rap lyrics as evidence in a criminal trial. In practice, prosecutors have used such evidence against defendants facing criminal charges, especially young Black men. “The exercise allows for a fruitful discussion about prejudice versus probative value, and about how race can factor into evidentiary determinations,” Hoag-Fordjour explained.

When courses went temporarily remote in January 2022, Hoag-Fordjour continued the tradition as a pre-class icebreaker for her Criminal Procedure students logging onto Zoom. Once in-person classes resumed, students began submitting recommendations of songs with lyrics referencing the criminal adjudication system. She happily obliged. “I’m responding to the students,” said Hoag-Fordjour, also a co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice. “They’re dialed in; they’re committed to learning good practice skills and I want to be responsive to that. My teaching style is also informed by what I would have wanted as a student.”

Engaging students creatively and including critical race concepts have made Hoag-Fordjour a hit with students. In hypotheticals, she uses such names as Kwame, Anh, and Udyogi, so that all students feel represented in the course materials. The Brooklyn Law School Student Bar Association named Hoag-Fordjour Faculty Member of the Year for 2021–22—her first as a professor, and her first year at the Law School.

Students rave about her classes in evaluations. “Professor Hoag[-Fordjour] is a fearless and passionate thought leader, and every day shows a strong dedication to her students,” one student commented. Incorporating real-life scenarios into classroom exercises and discussions “makes me feel I know how to apply the material in actual practice,” wrote another.

Watch Professor Alexis Hoag-Fordjour describe her career as an attorney and the cutting-edge classes she teaches at Brooklyn Law School.
Cognizant that Brooklyn Law students mainly pursue legal practice, Hoag-Fordjour draws on her experiences as a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and at the Office of the Federal Public Defender. For balance, she invites special guests, including federal prosecutors and judges. Hoag-Fordjour also stays plugged into cases through her regular appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. Initially, producers tapped her to discuss ongoing criminal trials, but on CNN that has evolved to providing commentary on other legal matters, including the Jan. 6 hearings and the investigation into former President Trump’s retention of classified documents.

Next semester, she’ll teach a two-credit seminar, Abolition: Imagining a Decarceral Future, exploring abolition theory and the practical application of abolition. Hoag-Fordjour explained that “abolition calls for a different social and economic order in which police and prisons do not exist.” She acknowledges that today’s carceral punishment system “is rooted in slavery and racial capitalism.” Hoag-Fordjour will encourage students to draw links between prior Black liberation movements and today’s decarceral efforts. “Abolition encourages us to think critically about the conditions that cause harm and about life-affirming alternatives to prevent harm.”

In addition to traditional course materials, Hoag-Fordjour plans to take students to Governors Island to visit Charles Gaines’ sculpture, The American Manifest, Moving Chains, built as a meditation on imprisonment and freedom. Why art? “Filing a lawsuit is not going to solve all of the issues that we see in the criminal adjudication system,” she said. “To address racial and economic inequity, I want to inspire students to consider other creative mechanisms, interventions, and solutions.”

Carceral abolition is a progressive concept, and Hoag-Fordjour concedes it’s unlikely we’ll see the end of prisons and police in our lifetime. However, it is a goal that we can organize toward. She points to the mass demonstrations against police violence following George Floyd’s 2020 murder as a catalyst that increased the public’s awareness of racial and economic injustice.

“These were not conversations happening when I was in law school 15 years ago. I’m inspired by our students,” Hoag-Fordjour said. Brooklyn Law students, she believes, are more than ready.

  • Fiona Apple, “Criminal”
  • Beyoncé, “Freedom”
  • Johnny Cash, “Cocaine Blues”
  • Common, “Testify”
  • Sam Cooke, “Chain Gang”
  • Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
  • Gucci Mane, “1st Day Out tha Feds”
  • Merle Haggard, “Life in Prison”
  • Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
  • Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”
  • Jay-Z, “Dope Man”
  • Shorty Long, “Here Comes the Judge”
  • Bob Marley & the Wailers, “I Shot
    the Sheriff”
  • Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”
  • Reba McEntire, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”
  • Taylor Swift and The Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”
  • Elvis Presley, “Jailhouse Rock”
  • Thin Lizzy, “Jailbreak”
Listen to the songs that Professor Alexis Hoag-Fordjour shares in her Criminal Procedure class at Brooklyn Law School.