Dominican law professor teaches during pandemic


Professor Vaughn E. James

It is 10:32 pm CDT on June 20, 2021. The summer solstice has arrived in the United States of America. In his sparsely furnished home office in Lubbock, Texas, far from his birthplace of Colihaut, Commonwealth of Dominica, law professor, lawyer, author, minister of religion, poet, playwright, lyricist, songwriter, musician and singer, Vaughn E. James (aka King Shakey) is still at work. The office is sparsely furnished by design: a very large computer screen mounted on a wall; an ergonomic computer desk to which the former Roadmarch and Calypso King stand to work 16 hours a day, six days a week (he religiously observes the Sabbath from one hour before sunset on Friday to one hour after sunset sun on Saturday); two computers; two telephones that announce aloud each incoming call and the name and number of the caller; two helmets; various webcams strategically located around this office which looks more like a television studio than a law firm; what looks like a director’s chair set quite close to the ergonomic desk, and nearby, a white cane.

The white cane: the first – or perhaps the second – indicator that the law professor is blind. The dark glasses he wears aren’t a fashion statement, after all. They must hide his blind eyes. He sits in his director’s chair so that we can conduct this interview that he gave me. Although we are both fully vaccinated against COVID-19, he insists that we wear face masks. He has “seen” enough deaths in the past year; he takes no risk.

The 2020-2021 school year that has just ended has been a trying one for Professor James. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, his institution – Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, Texas – switched to online classes after spring break 2020. Unable to adapt to the Blackboard platform that the law school was using, James switched to Zoom, a platform he had become familiar with while teaching at the University of Tennessee Law College in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the summer months (2004-2019) . Texas Tech provided him with state-of-the-art software that allowed him to dictate his lesson plans, PowerPoint slides, and other material to the computer, which then typed and prepared the material. Meanwhile, other software would read everything on his screen to him and even describe pictures and emojis. Equipped with such software and his headsets, James did not have to learn braille. Yet despite his blind eyes, he continued to teach and practice law, attend hearings and trials, attend meetings, lead church services, preach sermons, write books, compose music and, more importantly, he insists, to be a father to his children.

As for books, Professor James has published two books in the past year. The first, TEXAS ELDER LAW, 2020 EDITION (Washington, DC: Fastcase, 2020) is a documentary reference for attorneys practicing elder law in Texas. In the foreword to the text, McKen Carrington, professor of law, lawyer and former dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Texas, writes that:

The usefulness of [the] book cannot be overstated. It’s a service to the lawyer, the student, the senior legal community in Texas and beyond. Most people with family members in need of Elder Law appreciate the advice of good counsel. Professor James has enabled the profession with this alphabet book.

The second book, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN LAW AND RELIGION (First Edition, New Orleans, LA: Esquire Books, 2021) is a casebook for law students taking the Law & Religion course (or any law school course that focuses on the religious clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution). The editors note that the “book is intended for educational and stimulating purposes only, and [does not constitute] legal advice. ”The editors of the book are Matthew Berger and Lauren Unger of Esquire Books, religious freedom lawyer Charles Eusey of Leominster, Mass., and Professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer of Notre Dame Law School in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Last week, Professor James started dictating a new book, TEXAS ELDER LAW, 2021-2023 EDITION (Washington, DC: Fastcase, 2021), due for release on October 1 of this year.

On the music side, not far from his home office that looks like a TV studio, King Shakey has his musical equipment: two electric guitars, a bass guitar, a 12-string acoustic guitar with microphones, two electronic keyboards, and a violin. The violin is actually for his 13-year-old daughter, a full-fledged musician, a member of the Varsity and String Orchestras at Evans Middle School in Lubbock. Part of her father’s musical heritage, she has already won several violin and piano awards. It is generally believed that she will be the next frontman of King Shakey & The Banned. For now, she is her father’s guide, accompanying him almost everywhere he goes and playing the violin or piano while they play music together. King Shakey is designated to be the keynote speaker at the Dominica Houston Association’s Dominica Independence Day anniversary celebration in Houston, Texas in October. He plans to start his speech with a song. His daughter will be one of the musicians playing with him.

Thinking back to the school year that just ended, Professor James is happy about a lot of things. He quickly adapted to online education. Much of this was due to his familiarity with the Zoom platform. He also says he was fortunate to have good students to teach – people who were curious enough to ask questions, which made the Zoom class discussions go smoothly. He also thanks his colleagues at Texas Tech University School of Law, especially the staff in the IT department who provide and manage his visually impaired software remotely from law school several miles from his home office.

Yet the year had its challenges. It took getting used to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not being able to drive and having to walk with a white cane also took some getting used to. He also fell on furniture in September 2020, broke two toes and sprained three fingers (hence the sparsely furnished TV studio-style desk). But more than anything else, he had to deal with frequent visits from the Angel of Death (if you can call that an “angel”). On June 18, 2020, her father, Leo B. James, a former principal of a Dominican high school, passed away. Less than a week later, its former director and founder of King Shakey Promotions, lawyer, magistrate and lyricist extraordinary, Mikey Bruney, passed away. Since then, several of Shakey’s friends and family members have gone to the Great Afterlife. The most recent were her cousin, Anthony “Tony” John of St. Joseph, and her aunt Olive LeCointe residing in Catherine’s Rest, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, who passed away on Friday June 18, 2021. Indeed, it was a circle full year of visits from this “Angel”. Maybe the tours will stop now.

Despite the onslaught of tragedy that has filled Professor James’ days for the past year and a half, he remains one of the brightest lights in the dark rooms of Tech Law. Almost all of the students who have had the joy of spending a semester in one of its classes say it was a turning point in their law school experience. Time and time again he has been the person who has shown us a warmer, kinder and more gracious side to the practice of law, making many of us finally feel at home in a profession that is often unwelcoming. Above all, King Shaky believes that we – his students – can do much more than we might expect of ourselves. He is one of our greatest champions and one of the most patient teachers. I’m so grateful to have learned from him, especially in a year when there were two screens and hundreds of miles between me and the teacher I was learning from. It was difficult being a law student in the midst of COVID-19, but it was – as always – very rewarding to be Professor James’ student.

___________________________

Avery Aiken graduated in May 2021 from Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, Texas. Since May 2020, she has been a research assistant to Professor James. Ms. Aiken previously held various positions within the Toreador of the day, the Texas Tech University student newspaper, comprising Opinions Editor and Managing Editor. Ms. Aikens is originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado.


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